This is going to include my thoughts on the fourth and final movie in the series, and the series as a whole. There will be spoilers.
I’m going to lead off by summarizing something that I’ve touched upon in my posts on the first three movies – the differences in the respective types of media. Quite obviously, a game and a film have very different levels of interaction from the player/viewer. When creating for these different media, different things are going to be taken into consideration, and when transferring a story from one to the other, changes are necessary for any variety of reasons. I can understand why so many things in the Persona 3 movies ended up as they did, but that doesn’t mean that I always agree with the results. First and foremost, I am someone who played the game, and that is the only reason that I have watched this movie series. So I guess just try to keep my biased perspective in mind as you read this.
In a video game, particularly a role-playing game such as Persona 3, the idea is to prepare your party for challenges such as boss battles. In-game, this would be accomplished by traversing and battling weaker enemies for experience. It also takes a different form with the Social Links developed with other characters in the city. Obviously, a movie isn’t going to devote time to something like grinding to show the characters growing stronger. But within a game, outside of infrequent scripted events, the result of this type of system is that you enter the battle with all potential tools for the conflict at your disposal. If you’re unable to complete your task, it’s time to go back and prepare more, or take a different approach.
That doesn’t work in a movie. Mid-battle situations are often used at climactic moments to turn the tide, such as another character joining the fight or some type of power-up coming into play. In a film or other similar media, this holds the viewer’s attention as they won’t know what’s going to come next. A game requires the player to prepare and do their best in any situation they’re confronted with, while in a movie the directors and other creators put things together and let the viewers sit back and watch. This is one way in which the Persona 3 movies fail. These types of alterations don’t only change what worked for the game, but in many situations actually hinder the story.
One baffling manifestation of this idea actually makes so little sense that I don’t even remotely understand why they thought it was a good idea – the main casts’ Persona “evolutions.” In the game, certain scripted points of the story result in characters finding their reasons to fight, and their new resolutions take form through their Personas changing and growing stronger. In the game, this is an excellent way to show the results of their character development through both the story and the actual gameplay. The movies nix this for everyone but Junpei – but then again, his situation is a bit different.
Most notably, I’ve talked about Akihiko’s situation. At the end of the second movie, he should have found his reason to fight after Shinji’s death and attained Caesar, his evolved Persona. Instead, they leave the movie on an extreme low point and stretch his character development into some weird mess that never resolves itself concretely until midway through the last movie. But it isn’t just him. They do the same thing for everyone else too (except poor Koromaru, who never gets an upgrade, and Junpei, who already has his), and all for the stupidest reason – so they can attain their evolved Personas mid-battle as a power-up to turn the tide. The actual significance of these new Personas is completely ignored, and it comes across more like an ass pull. If I wasn’t already familiar with the games, I would have completely brushed this off as stupid battle shounen-tier nonsense, and I’m sure that’s how a lot of other people feel about it. And then there’s the fact that they’re done fighting about a minute after it happens.
The first hour of the last movie drags because hardly anything important happens, and most of it is original to the movie anyways. There are some good scenes showing the condition of the city (except for what happens to the bridge, which is beyond stupid – “Oh let me show you how powerful I am but then I’m going to leave okay bye” BS), but otherwise it’s the characters being moody because they still don’t know what they want to do. Elizabeth’s role is nice after she got the shaft in the other movies, but cramming that all in at once feels like they were just trying to make up for lost time or stretch out the movie. And the time limits Ryoji gives the cast also feel completely arbitrary, which is silly. And they skip all of January, which could have been used for Aigis’s Social Link, among plenty of other things.
One interesting scene that I did not expect shows the potential bad end – the “what if” situation where the characters decide against fighting Nyx and choose to live their final days in peace. The thing is, I’m not really sure why they bothered to include it in this form. In the movie, this scene is just a dreamlike representation, showing everyone happy and enjoying graduation and what-not, blissfully unaware that the world is going to end. The game takes a very different approach with the bad end. It shows how hollow their final days are, with only the 2nd years – the protagonist, Yukari, Junpei, and Fuuka – actually friends, while everyone else is split apart. Aigis is the only one to remember the truth of the situation and is unable to do anything as the world approaches its end. There is always the sense that something is wrong, without any particular catalyst for the feeling. Most importantly, it hammers in the futility of accepting “fate,” which is why the proper ending holds so much impact. Instead of just going with the typical “fight to save the world” deal, you can look at the bad ending to see just what is bad about the expected course. It’s not just the end of the world, but it’s the end of friendships, the end of all the time they spent fighting, the end of any chance they had to make things right. By showing a universally positive “bad end” in the movie, it feels completely pointless in the context of everything else.
And then, there’s Ryoji. Ryoji. Ryoji. Ryoji. The third movie tried to shove him down everyone’s throats, and the fourth movie is following suit. I can sort of understand why they did it, it’s just that the end result feels completely forced and excessive. Even in the very end, it feels less like the characters are fighting the manifestation of death and fate, and more like they’re fighting… Ryoji. Nyx is supposed to be death incarnate, but the Nyx Avatar/Ryoji suggests that he is only defeated because of his own mistake, which is absurd. Thankfully, this silly characterization is not in the game – the “human” Ryoji became irrelevant after December 31st. It should have stayed that way.
While I’ve complained about the music for a few reasons with the first three movies, it isn’t too bad besides one particular swap (I’ll discuss that with the ending bit). A lot of the music used is somber stuff from the game’s original soundtrack, which is very appropriate given the mood of the entire film. Even with remixes or extensions, the new stuff didn’t really detract. I might be mistaken, but I do not believe that the Iwatodai Dorm remix of Living With Determination is used in the movie, which is kind of a disappointment. It isn’t too prominent if it is there at least. In the game, the theme for the dorm changes after the events at the end of December, and it sets the tone for the last month of the game perfectly. But beyond that, the movie is actually pretty good musically.
As for visuals, the background art is always very good, and the animation is generally good. When there’s no ugly distracting CGI, the action actually looks great too! But then the Nyx Avatar is ugly distracting CGI… And then Thanatos is too… eww.
Now, to discuss a bit of everything regarding the ending. In a sense, they ruin it. For some reason, they swapped Battle Hymn of the Soul (the Nyx Avatar battle theme) and Burn My Dread -Last Battle- (the final boss theme), which sucked. The absolute final fight is supposed to overflow with badassitude, but it is extremely lacking here. The entire setup in the game is perfect – the battle opens up with Burn My Dread -Last Battle-, a song that immediately sets the tone and is also what the protagonist was listening to at the very beginning of the game. The player is alone, fighting, and surviving only through the strength of his and his allies’ determination. And then, Shinji’s voice comes through, literally filling the protagonist with the final strength necessary to finish the job.
“Alright, let’s do this.”
Explaining what that moment is like is impossible. Between the music, the characters, and it being the end of the road (and the situation holding tons of weight), it’s just perfect. The movie didn’t accomplish half of that. The music is swapped to something good, but several degrees less badass, the lead-in isn’t nearly as effective, and even Shinji’s comment is tossed in the middle of things like it was an afterthought. Seriously. It also isn’t in the official subtitles (English or Japanese), so I have a feeling they actually forgot about it in the script and just stuck in a recording where there was space… * (more on this at the end of the post)
Along with that, having Yuuki fight the Nyx Avatar by himself completely undermined the entire purpose of the group aiming for the peak. Instead of the group moving in unison to the peak of Tartarus, one group is stuck fighting Shadows, one group fights Strega, and Yuuki goes to fight the Nyx Avatar. Well, Ryoji. In the game, they literally refer to the group as the “Nyx Annihilation Squad” instead of SEES during January. Reducing the conflict to a 1v1 battle that feels more like Yuuki vs. Ryoji instead of the team vs. Death incarnate is ridiculous. In fact, splitting the focus of what essentially works as the climax of the film into three separate battles – two which don’t even really matter – is stupid. Breaking up the focus worked excellently for the end of the second movie, but here it doesn’t at all.
But one thing about the ending of the game is not even remotely reproducible in a movie. Not only is the ending the result of your own time and effort towards reaching the end, increasing player stakes in what happens, but the final skill you need to use in the game, Great Seal, consumes 100% of the player’s health. Hopefully the significance of that isn’t lost on you with how things end. That’s not something that could really be conveyed in the film without showing the toll on the protagonist immediately after using it. Which they didn’t do.
In the movie, it all lacked impact. It’s weak. While the game pushes you to work towards this moment, heightening the effect of the situation to extremes and then taking things further by doing an excellent job in portraying everything, the movie does a piss-poor job of just showing events that don’t pull the viewer in nearly as well. It’s sad. These movies could have been so much more. I know with bias and all that I would probably never like these more than the game, but even the Persona 4 adaptation is far more enjoyable as a whole, and I hate that game’s story.
Instead of one of my normal pro/con lists, I’m going to approach this one with a simple question – what did the movies do better than the game?
Improved visuals. That’s it.
At least it’s not as preachy about bonds as Persona 4 or its sequels. And at least Memories of You is the ending theme. Now I don’t have to indiscriminately light things on fire. Even though, like a lot of other things, it doesn’t hold nearly as much impact with the lackluster portrayal of the ending…
Recommendation – Just play Persona 3 FES instead.
Do it for Aigis.
* To expand on the thing with Shinji’s line – the way things go in the game, each of the members of SEES offer their support to the protagonist, and right before being infused with enough power to finish the job, Shinji’s line comes through. He’s obviously already long dead at this point, but with the timing and everything it just worked amazingly for the situation. You’ve just reached the very end of the road and after all of the members of SEES are offering themselves to the cause, the last bit of support comes from Shinji of all people.
In the movie, the members of SEES offer their support pretty much identically, but before Koromaru and Aigis, Shinji’s line is jammed into open space. It really doesn’t work, it’s not even subtitled on the official blu-ray release in either language, and it feels awkward and pointless once it’s followed by two more characters. After Aigis’s line, there’s not really space for his line to be put in, so I seriously think they forgot about it in the script and jammed it in afterwards. I cannot understand how the end result could have been intentional from early planning. It just doesn’t work and accomplishes nothing.