By Callum May.
Adapting video games into anime is a challenge. In fact, when the producer and director of Persona5 the Animation stepped into Los Angeles’ Anime Expo in 2018, they were asked how they overcame that challenge during at least five separate interviews.
This is something that was on the anime team’s minds from the very beginning. Even when playing Persona5 for the first time, producer Kazuki Adachi admitted to asking himself how many episodes it would take to conclude the whole story. While play-times vary, most people, myself included, end up spending over 100 hours battling the crooks of society, fusing demons, and eating burgers with your cat. To say that the anime staff were concerned would be an understatement.
Unlike other Persona adaptations, Persona5 the Animation was greenlit early in the development of the original game. The idea was that the team at ATLUS could spoon-feed information to the anime team, and so when it finally released, they could hit the ground running. Adachi and screenwriter Shinichi Inotsume set up two different production teams at Cloverworks; one would create the Day Breakers special based on a side mission to coincide with the game’s release, while the other would prepare to work on the full 26 (+4) episode series.
The original idea was to have the team start work on the series right after launch, but they delayed the start of production by a month to give them all the chance to play through this game they’d spent years hearing about. Although they’d been told about the plot by ATLUS, they struggled to get an idea of how it felt to actually play the story, so by frequently meeting to share their experiences, they were able to identify what parts were worth including. It’s worth thinking of the resulting anime as a kind of joint let’s-play session.
This month of playing time is frequently referenced as being the essential part of adapting the game’s lengthy saga; this is where they made the decision to squeeze the entire 14-hour Kamoshida arc into four 20-minute episodes, it’s where they chose the confidante scenarios that made the biggest impression on them, and it’s where they worked together to determine what the voiceless protagonist would sound like with a few more lines from the celebrated Jun Fukuyama.
In some ways, it’s difficult to recommend the compressed version of a story. To anyone who’s played the hundred-hour epic, it’s easy to see pacing issues where tens of hours of gameplay get rushed through. However, while the series has obvious benefits to newcomers, there’s real excitement in watching purely for the sake of seeing the results of adaptation. Persona5 is my favourite game and I’ve found myself wanting to re-experience it over and over. Sometimes that’s in the form of my own replays or playthrough of the expanded Persona5 Royal, but other times it’s by watching or talking to other people first joining the Phantom Thieves’ adventure. So for me, watching Persona5 the Animation had two purposes. First, I wanted to see the anime staff’s love of the game reflected in a new medium, and secondly, I wanted to see how the creative team at Cloverworks would express that.
If their only challenge was developing a new script, Persona5 the Animation wouldn’t be a particularly abnormal task. Plenty of lengthy video games have gotten anime versions, after all, including past Persona games. But this unique challenge was in how to replicate the game’s overwhelming sense of style. In 2017, Persona 5 was frequently nominated and won awards for “Best Art Direction” or “Best Style”, owing to the combination of both the 3D animation of the characters and the 2D effects. According to the director, the effects animators were studying the game with bloodshot eyes attempting to replicate these details.
With the game only just having been released, excitement at the studio was at a fever pitch. Some of the designers started working way ahead, drawing materials from their favourite scenes that wouldn’t appear until way later in the show. They weren’t alone in their excitement. When director Masashi Ishihama was offered the job, he immediately accepted, being a fan of the game’s art style. In fact, this was one of the reasons he was hired to begin with. Due to his history as the director of From the New World, Garakowa, and a whole bunch of stylish opening sequences, they believed he was capable of replicating ATLUS’ work in animation.
As an animator himself, his storyboards are hardly detailed, but instead focus on the movement of the characters. Aside from making Joker’s opening escape attempt seem stylish and cool, he was also having to compete with the animated cut-scenes from the game, produced at Production I.G. He only had time to storyboard the first and last episodes of the series, but his image of Persona5’s style is present across the whole show. Most notably, in his opening sequences, filled with veiled references to the events of the show and perfectly synchronized animation. In fact, Ishihama won’t start working on an opening until he can sing the song perfectly. He had a hard time with Lyn’s Break in to Break Out due to the lyrics being in English, but this meant that he was familiar enough with the song to create animation that matched it.
The animation staff at Cloverworks were tasked with recreating the work of ATLUS’ design team. They noted that while there were very few animators in the industry who could draw in character designer Shigenori Soejima’s style, they’d managed to assemble a team that was up to the challenge. Character designer Tomomi Ishikawa was a particular star, who managed to match Soejima’s style while keeping it moving. This wasn’t the first time; she also served as an animation director on the Persona 3 films. Meanwhile, the 3D team at Graphinica were importing the game’s boss characters into the anime but at an even higher level of detail and with brand new animations.
For many anime adaptations, being a fan of the source material is a plus. But for Persona5, it was essential. To say the crew went above and beyond would be an understatement, with Ishihama remarking that the team’s love of the game helped them through these particularly arduous tasks. He’s mentioned more than once that he felt sorry for his excited staff. It’s often easy to forget that creators can be just as much fans of their work as we are, and in Persona5 the Animation lives the work of a bunch of creatives excited to recreate the fun they had playing the game.
Callum May runs the YouTube channel The Canipa Effect on the anime industry and the talents that make it work.
Persona5 the Animation is released in the UK by Anime Limited.