Persona 5: The Animation takes creative liberty in all the right ways

As an adaptation of a 100+ hour game, Persona 5: The Animation has started down a long, arduous path. From the pilot alone, though, it seems to be one that director Masashi Ishihama (of the excellent From the New World) and A-1 Studios are prepared for. For one, the character art and expressions are well-drawn: surprisingly detailed, and highly consistent from shot-to-shot. The scene compositions and color palette perfectly match the game’s vivid aesthetic, and the animation is powerful, fast, and fluid. The most impressive part of this pilot, though, and the reason it’s worth watching for fans and newcomers alike, are its dashes of fresh thematic flavor.

Just like the game, episode one hits the ground running as the Phantom Thieves shake down a lavish casino. While the runtime of this scene is (inevitably) condensed, it somehow manages to skate by with a notable addition. At the very start of the escape, our protagonist, “Joker,” shares a dramatic moment with “Crow” that plants the seeds of a future narrative payoff.

The silhouette of "Crow," one of the Phantom Thieves, as he stands confidently poised with pistol in hand

Joker needs a distraction to get away with the goods - so the team has Crow shoot down the support cable of a massive chandelier. His bullet zings directly past Joker’s face, emphasizing the wild, youthful recklessness that defines the Phantom Thieves. With the casino in chaos, Joker begins his acrobatic escape while the rest of the Thieves chatter gleefully over voice communication. Crow boasts, “You guys can praise my marksmanship, if you like.” He is not obliged.

Later, we’re shown an all-original scene where Ren (the canonical name of the protagonist, apparently) first arrives in Tokyo. He’s on a train, awareness fading in and out as he attempts to recall the night that led to his recent expulsion. While it doesn’t really…explain anything, it’s an economical piece of framing for the story to come. It’s an extensive effort, honestly: next, Ren overhears some girls gushing about “Akechi,” a prodigy detective that plays a major role in the story. Another original scene follows, this time foreshadowing Ren’s persona, Arsene, and the “strange app” that leads Ren to the shadow world. I’d be curious what a first-timer makes of this rapid-fire sequence, but given my experience with the game, I was more than impressed with what Shinichi Inotsume has pieced together. All of this is foreshadowing that the original game lacked, or at the very least, was less than explicit in its mandatory cutscenes.

Time seems to freeze as Ren enters the famous Shibuya scramble. His surroundings turn red, and sees a powerful, blue, being in the distance. It gazes back, then disappears.

My favorite scene in this episode is the introduction of Ann, a future member of the Phantom Thieves. Ren’s walk to his new school is brought to a halt by pouring rain. He seeks shelter under a storefront awning, where he makes brief eye contact with another Shujin Academy student, Ann. As the soul-stirring “Meeting” by Shoji Meguro swells, Ann plucks a wayward cherry petal out of Ren’s hair. At first, I questioned this detail as needless fan service, but the lines that followed caught me off guard.

“I hate the rain,” Ann laments, gazing first at the clouds, then back down to the petal. “It scatters the pretty blossoms everywhere.”

Ann pauses in contemplation after plucking a cherry petal from Ren's hair

Yet again, we’ve been blessed with Inotsume’s writing efficiency. This line has a dual-purpose: first, it utilizes Ann’s introduction to establish her characteristic assertiveness. Even more importantly, it adds further to the now-heaping pile of thematic groundwork. It’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful times of year, yet the rain pounds down relentlessly. If it’s not apparent already: this episode is telling us that “injustice” is going to be a key element of Persona 5’s plot line. Ann’s petal-pluck is a thoughtful, natural extension of her character that gives this one-off scene long-term narrative relevance.

Production issues not withstanding, if anything will do Persona 5: The Animation in, it’ll be trying to tell too much story in not enough time. We can arguably find some examples of that in this pilot, although maybe that’s the price to be paid for animating such a massive game. Nonetheless, A-1 Studios have done an excellent job of teeing up what’s to come, and at times, it may even be more coherent than the original source material. This team clearly understands the nuances of Persona 5’s characters and narrative, and I can’t wait to see what other clever additions they’ll make in the coming weeks.