The time has come to talk about the animation within the latest entry of the Persona franchise: the role it plays within the game’s very distinct aesthetic, its shortcomings, and the artists who were in charge of it. For those worried about spoilers, the few pieces of footage beyond the initial stages are marked as such, and it contains no concrete references to the narrative events. Let’s go!
Having recently completed the game and enjoyed it an immense amount, I can say without a doubt that the animation of Persona 5 isn’t very good. I’m not talking about Persona 5 The Animation: The Day Breakers, though that is admittedly a poor effort as well – so much so that the plan executed in this promotional anime, based off the Mementos sidequest “Phantom Thieves VS Burglary Ring”, is dismissed in-game as a bad idea. And I don’t mean the game’s set of animations either, since those are actually rather strong; there is more character in the high-five baton pass skits than the explicit narrative can sometimes muster, and while it’s limited I appreciate the effort put onto details like Futaba Sakura’s body language. But the focus of this piece is a less inspired element that plays a nevertheless interesting role: the 2D animated cutscenes of the game.
Even if you don’t pay much attention to visual matters, particularly within videogames where the interactivity keeps you preoccupied, Persona 5’s bold voice is almost impossible to miss. Red and blacks dominate this game, and its ransom letter aesthetic constantly reminds you of your position as a phantom thief shrouded in mystery. Ever since the promotional footage started surfacing, it became apparent that the slickness was woven into the very core of the game, integrating the menus in striking fashion and making the transitions unusually satisfying. Those are aspects players tend to tolerate at best, so it was quite rare to see major excitement for the usually tedious parts of operating a videogame. After completing it I can confirm that the excitement built up for even such usually minor details was warranted: not only was Persona 5 as mechanically smooth as it seemed, it truly committed to the aesthetic from the teasers. Obviously the entire game isn’t monochromatic, but reds and blacks remain the theme that dyes your adventures, particularly as you delve deeper into Mementos’ secrets. Otherwise vibrant colors are still all over the place during the mundane scenes, and the game’s love of strong contrasts never fades. The phantom thief imagery is similarly ever-present, leading to a game that always feels like itself and is damn proud of that. Persona 5 sticks to its theme even to a fault; despite being rather fond of its unmistakable appearance, early on I found its UI a bit claustrophobic at some points, and I imagine that if you feel the palette is abrasive then the entire game might be an endless nightmare. As far as I’m concerned though, the attempt to be a cohesive unique experience is laudable in and of itself, and worked well way more often than not. And in the instances when in didn’t, it still won me over with earnestness alone. Persona 5 definitely tries very hard, which is somehow becoming an attitude looked down upon on the internet, but I find it endearing.
To make the issues about the animated cutscenes I want to address later even more noticeable, the game’s overarching aesthetic is flawlessly introduced…through 2D animation. Its opening sequence directed by Sayo Yamamoto is the perfect equivalent of the game in anime form; the theme colors put to striking use, transitions that bring to mind the effect of navigating through the game, and even stylized 2DFX animation that resembles the special cut-in attacks within combat. And beyond being such an effective depiction of the game’s visual themes, it’s quite the craft accomplishment by itself. Its depiction of disinhibited acting stands out in particular. Much like the rest of the footage, this was animated at Production I.G, and supervised by Koichi Arai who fully key animated it alongside Tetsuya Nishio and Satoru Utsunomiya. Nothing but theatrical anime level artists! As a short aside, the production process of Persona’s animation has been bouncing around different companies a lot lately. It has generally ended up in capable hands too, particularly so when it comes to its openings; before going with Production I.G and Sayo Yamamoto, ATLUS trusted BONES and allowed Norimitsu Suzuki to direct, storyboard and entirely key animate the intro to Persona 4 Dancing All Night. He’s quite the unknown legend and has no shortage of such solo efforts, so I would love to return to him on this site someday. Meanwhile, it was Madhouse that produced the footage for other rereleases and spinoffs; Sayo Yamamoto wasn’t the first talented woman to handle an intro for the series, since the vividly colorful Atsuko Ishizuka had already handled a couple of those. The Persona 4 Arena one is more representative of her approach to postprocessing, but it’s rather limited and pales in comparison to her Persona 4 The Golden OP which adequately encapsulated the spirit of the game.
Let’s return to this particular game’s opening though, since it also serves as a reminder that personal idiosyncrasies are perfectly compatible with pre-existing guidelines. To put it plainly, the fact that it’s full of skating cuts is a pure, entirely transparent act of self-indulgence: Sayo Yamamoto loves skating, to the point that she pushed for an original series depicting the sport – and the rest is history. Her depiction of the Persona 5 main cast freely skating through the city turned out to be an extremely appropriate intro to a game about a group of youngsters performing acts of rebellion, but that’s a feeling she managed to evoke out of something she just personally happens to fancy. And her egotistic drive didn’t simply lead to a very effective result, she achieved that while perfectly complying with the game’s predominant aesthetic. Working under a framework with a strong identity doesn’t mean limiting idiosyncratic creators, ideally it should be a way to channel their quirks so they can give their own spin to the theme. And that’s exactly what this intro embodies.
Unfortunately, Persona 5’s animated charm dies right after that spectacular beginning. The tutorial stage already makes it obvious that whenever the game switches to 2D animation, all personality is unceremoniously thrown out the window. The same surroundings appear drab, lifeless and hazy, an all-around failure in the design work; art direction (a Silver Link & Studio Tulip effort lead by Minoru Maeda), color design (handled by Sayo Motegi, as opposed to the opening’s Izumi Hirose), I.G’s composite work, and of course the direction by the veteran Toshiyuki Kono all fail to capture the spirit of the game. Calling the animated cutscenes polished is as far as I can bring myself, and even that isn’t entirely true; around the end of the game there’s a noticeable dip in quality, with such poor lighting that it makes those scenes look bizarrely flat. The animation itself is acceptable if entirely unremarkable, despite the key animation lineup featuring stars like Takuma Ebisu, Yuya Geshi, Mai Yoneyama, Tokuyuki Matsutake and Nobuhiko Genma. The only instance of genuinely noteworthy movement is the sequence after the game’s fourth Palace – proceed at your own risk if you haven’t reached that point, though it’s not particularly spoilery – which simply sticks to cartoon escape fundamentals.
There are broadly two usages of this kind of 2D footage. The first one isn’t particularly interesting, and honestly has no place in this game; when it wants to leer at the girls in your crew for a lame gag, you get a worthless animated cutscene, since it’s easier and probably more effective to creep on drawings. Those are in the minority of course, as most pieces of animation are dedicated to climactic moments that need to showcase non-static settings. However, since Kono’s storyboards are just functional and the design work drags everything down, those end up having much less of an impact that the pre-rendered cutscenes. As someone who runs sites dedicated to 2D craft, it’s a complicated feeling to wish that there was less of it in a game that I quite enjoyed. But it’s precisely because I like Persona 5 that I’m not at all fond of these animated cutscenes, since they’re the point where it loses its otherwise clear identity. And this about sums up their most insidious issue: in contrast with an immediately recognizable game, these scenes could be part of right about anything. The footage is attached to Persona 5, but at no point feels like it belongs in there. Moderate technical competence can’t make up for entirely misguided groundwork, so even at their best they don’t quite work. Perhaps in a less idiosyncratic game these cutscenes with have blended in, hiding under a veil of mediocrity. But as part of something with this strong of a personality, they stand out like a sore thumb. They’re not a treat for the player, rewarding them for hitting a particularly climactic moment or simply for having played for quite a while. They’re hand drawn disappointment that pales in comparison to the rendered footage.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that artistic criticism needs to provide solutions to be valid, and I wouldn’t call myself a critic to begin with, but let’s play that game for a change. How do you fix Persona 5’s animated cutscenes? Directly addressing the issues I’ve brought up would be a start, of course. Embrace the game’s palette with no shame, and don’t drown the footage with uninspired photography effects. And beyond that, translate its appeal so that it can be conveyed with another toolset. The game’s dynamic UI and usage of stylized effects is reminiscent of the work of webgen animators, so not relying on them feels like a wasted chance. The finishers and cut-in attack sequences (final crew member footage) were particularly reminiscent of Rapparu’s work, so I would have loved to see him involved with it. And before you claim that hoping for youngsters like that to work on videogames is a crazy sakuga nerd dream, let me remind you that Bahi JD’s professional debut was actually animation for Skullgirls. Granted that the game’s cutscenes aren’t a constant stream of FX animation, but this is just more proof that it was possible to find 2D creators attuned to the game’s sensibilities. Just like how Sayo Yamamoto’s directional skills proved to be compatible during the opening, there are plenty of creators who could have made the movement itself feel like an integral part of Persona 5 during the cutscenes.
All of this is ultimately a minor issue of course, one that didn’t hugely impact my fondness of the game. If the more glaring problems didn’t sour me on it, then a handful of disappointing hand drawn sequences couldn’t really upset me. I have to say though, I feel like they embody the contradictions present in the game’s recurring issues. As your crew fights against sexual violence, every now and then the game also decides to uncomfortably make the boys in the group ogle the girls seemingly for a quick laugh. Its spirit champions rebelling against the system and being yourself, which only makes the lack of certain relationship options even more puzzling. You often find yourself fighting to protect the marginalized, but then it also thoughtlessly makes them the butt of the “joke” a couple times. In the context of all these incongruences, I suppose that the game occasionally betraying its otherwise well cultivated aesthetic is almost fitting. I love Persona 5, and that feeling only increased in intensity when I started its rather ridiculous final stretch. But I would love it even more if the game didn’t forget to be itself every now and then.
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