It's a computer game adaptation and it's fascinating, but not in a good way. However I'm one of an eccentric minority, in that I watched this series without having played or even heard of the Persona computer games. Persona fans don't have my problems with this show and a lot of them love it.
So, what is Persona? Answer: it's eight games, three anime series and three film adaptations, so far. You play people who can summon aspects of their psyche, known as Personas, and fight with them. This seems to involve Tarot cards. The Personas are basically a cross between Jungian archetypes and giant freaking anime weirdos. Persona 4 (the game) has you playing a teenage boy who comes to a small town called Inaba for a year and finds himself investigating a murder mystery. He also has the ability to enter televisions and explore the "TV World" beyond. You know, as you do. You'll spend much of the game dungeon-bashing and fighting the "Shadows" that live in the TV World, but there's also lots of day-to-day life in the real world, like joining school clubs, doing part-time jobs, reading and hanging out with your friends.
One important game feature is the personality of your hero. He doesn't have one. He's emotionless and almost silent. He doesn't even have a name until you choose it. Your hero is clay to be shaped by your actions, which the game tracks with five attributes (Understanding, Diligence, Courage, Knowledge, Expression) and with the Social Links (friendship or possibly more) with each of the other characters in the game.
I've described all that because this anime is the game, but abbreviated. It's so faithful an adaptation that you'd think they were doing War and Peace. Each anime episode is reproducing a section of the game and I get the impression that there's very little original in here at all. It's simply the game's storyline, tweaked here and there and cut down from 100-odd hours of gameplay to 26 episodes. That's about a tenth of the running time, so for instance we've lost nearly all the dungeon-crawling to focus on the cast's backstories, the plot and the big boss battles.
That's fine. I don't mind that. I admire fidelity in adaptations, especially when it's reproducing surprising or spiky qualities of the original. What's weirder is that they've kept the hero the same as in the game too. He's got a name now, Yu Narukami (Yu = You, geddit?), but otherwise he's a robot who talks in a near-monotone and barely reacts to anything. The anime director Seiji Kishi has talked of how difficult he found it to give Yu emotions without damaging the original conception of the character. The result: he's bloodless. When it doesn't work (i.e. the first half of the show), it doesn't feel like drama. The protagonist might as well be a tailor's dummy, so the story just feels like a bunch of things happening. That said, I managed to get a grip on the show's second half and found myself enjoying it, but throughout Yu remains a black box whose thought processes are hidden from us. Sometimes his actions aren't even consistent. Apparently the anime generally chose the quirkiest available responses, so for instance there's a "dressing up in drag" episode in which Yu has been talking in a girly fashion and then decides to be macho at exactly the point that makes the least sense.
Let me describe the first episode.
Yu shows up in town and meets assorted people. He does things like having dead-end conversations with gas station attendants, which represent important choices in the game but mean nothing to an audience. Weird things are presented briefly with no context, so you ignore them. Some of the characters he meets are human and likeable (e.g. his uncle's daughter Nanako) and others are pointless and faintly annoying cartoons (e.g. his teacher).
Yu then discovers that he can put his hand inside televisions. You or I would be surprised. Yu's reactions are so muted that this doesn't feel like a development in a narrative. You don't care. You hardly even notice. Yu shows his new school friends and they don't react like human beings either. There's no disbelief. They enter the TV world and explore this fantasy dimension, taking it all for granted. They're goofing. Their reaction level would be about right for going next door. Then there's a fight, someone says "persona" and superpowered things happen with no explanation. Why? Don't know. What does it mean? Don't ask me. It just happens. I filtered it out, waiting for something of significance. "This is my power." Eh? Why? The end.
Oh, and there's also Kuma kuma and his annoying kuma speech pattern kuma. I hated him kuma. I wanted to beat him to death every time he opened his mouth... but this is clearly my problem, since I presume he's acceptable to native Japanese speakers and I'm imposing my own perceptions of what I think sounds unnatural in their language.
All this made Tomoko want to play Persona again. She was explaining to me how it was exactly like the computer game. She liked it. She didn't need explanations because she knew it already. Me, though, I was feeling brain-numbed. I actually went back later and rewatched the episode, convinced I must have missed something. This clarified my negative views.
Anyway, the show's first half is dull and impenetrable, if you're a Persona newbie. It's hollow. Fights come from nowhere, mean nothing and change nothing. The supporting cast are good (i.e. everyone who's not Yu), but there's something deadening in the air that flattens what should have been light-hearted character work. Some of this material is so well-worn in anime that it's downright traditional. They're the standard SI units of anime comedy. One bad cook, one overreacting best friend, etc. They've been done a million times and they're guaranteed not to fail... and yet they do. Comedy lands with a thud and dies, because the characters fundamentally aren't truthful.
The plot involves the occasional deaths of faceless people we don't know, which is apparently why our heroes are fighting Shadows in the TV World. I don't get it. Oh, and the art style makes people look a little like alien Greys, even girls who are supposedly attractive.
On the upside, though, there's interesting stuff with people confronting their Shadows, i.e. their own character flaws personified. Even in the worst episodes, I was enthusiastic about the character work. Particularly notable is Kanji, the thug in denial with massive gay subtext. At first, I assumed the stereotyping (especially with the Shadows) was obvious and borderline offensive. In fact, though, I was underestimating the storytelling. Kanji isn't necessarily gay, but instead had noticed his own subtext and as a result had developed identity issues and was second-guessing his own sexuality. That's interesting, I think, although it's noticeable later in the series that he'll get a crush on a gender-bender and always be quick to defend people's right to come out of the closet and be themselves.
The show improves halfway through, though. The second half I liked.
Our heroes catch a bad guy. The plot gets off its hamster wheel and at last gets a chance to breathe. Kuma gets a surprising facelift and becomes nifty, although unfortunately he doesn't stop saying "kuma". The comedy starts working. The whodunnit elements come to life. There are interesting episodes, like the time-warping episode 12 and the interleaved 13-14 that tell the same events from different viewpoints. Episode 14 in particular is superb and intricate and really turned me around on the show. That would be a pig of a sub-event in gameplay, by the way. Cultural note: the magical fox is the oinari-san statue you'll see outside Shinto shrines.
From this point on, the show works. I was along for the ride, even though the likes of episode 18 demonstrate that Yu's still a problem. Nanako's the show's most lovable character, but Nanako episodes often have less impact than they should. Episode 18 should have had moving drama between Nanako and her father, but the plot's being bent around Yu and so those two important characters don't take dramatically meaningful decisions. Result: a potentially emotional episode becomes merely a watchable one.
Episode 21 = Yu, are you stupid? Get a TV and show him!
The final run of episodes actually resemble plotting as we know it. It's quite good. Episode 25 (the end of the TV series) corresponds to the game's Normal Ending and felt a bit cheap to Tomoko, but then episode 26 (the OVA episode) does the game's Good Ending and is complicated enough that I rewatched it because I hadn't understood it the first time. Is it a "what if" replacement for episode 25, interleaved with its events or what? Don't watch while tired.
It's not a sexist show. The otaku it's aimed at are gamers, not perverts. It avoids panty shots, for instance, and has as much female gaze as male. It also has occasional homoerotic subtext between Yu and Yosuke, plus of course the complicated situation with Kanji. (There's heterosexual subtext too, though, which in one case becomes platonic text.)
In the end, it gets worthwhile. If you can enjoy the show's first half, you'll like it more than me. The fan response has been positive, if that helps, and it sounds as if this is the best Persona anime series so far. I might check out Persona 4: Golden, but about Trinity Soul I've heard nothing good. If nothing else, this show is so faithful to the game that it uses the game's character designers, its soundtrack composer and most of its voice cast, even including the one who'd died. That's Igor in the Velvet Room, whose dialogue all comes from the game and so his anime role has been reduced.
Personally, though, I think it's a very strange dramatic experiment. You're fundamentally involved in games in a way that has to be earned with drama. In a game, just having to turn left or right can make you stop and worry. In drama, not so much. I've seen superb game adaptations (e.g. Steins;Gate), but this one has issues. The anime assumes you've played the game and so some reveals are taken for granted, while I think the introduction of the world and its concepts is unspeakably bad. Fight scenes that remind me of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol are all very well, but they need context so that I can process them as a narrative. If you've played the game, you have that context. Congratulations. If you haven't, approach with caution.