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AKA the review of a play I watched four months ago and forgot to coherently write about also this post has spoilers
It’s no surprise that Japan loves live stage plays and musicals. But seriously who doesn’t? Seeing characters in amazing costumes break into serious songs about friendship at the most crucial of times. It seems like every week (it may be an exaggeration but it certainly feels like it according to a friend and I who angrily track these things) there’s a new announcement calling for a new stage adaptation. Popular anime titles such as Haikyuu!!, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Prince of Tennis to video games like Danganronpa, Persona, and Hakuoki have all become stage plays or musicals of some kind. If it’s not on a stage, then it will be a movie or television series. Merchandising!
Now I’m sure not everyone was on board with Persona 4 getting a sequel as fighting game. I don’t dislike Persona 4 Arena, I just really suck at the game. For the most part it was a fine game but I’m not a competitive player so after the story, I put the game away. It’s obvious how much Persona 4 was milked over the years (did somebody say PACHINKO GAME). I know that a lot of fans didn’t even care that there would be a stage play. But me? I was way too excited for my own good.
I’m a huge sucker for Japanese plays and musicals. I subject my friends to loads of tweets and posts with screenshots, laughing hysterically while not really understanding with what’s going on, or being in distress at how damn pretty my favorite character looks. My introduction into the medium was through a series called Prince of Tennis that was made into a musical series, nicknamed TeniMyu. Though I have fallen out of the current status of series, there are many actors who make their way into other franchises, movies, television or voice work. Several veterans actually work on a lot of video game stage productions, and behold, Persona 4 Arena is one of them.
Did I like this stage play? Absolutely. Am I going to tell you all why? Hell yes. And so with that insanely long explanation of why this thing is a thing, here are five reasons why the Persona 4 Arena Stage Play was a gift and in general an amazing idea.
1) Easy to follow story, despite the circle the game made you go in
I really don’t know how many people actually went into getting Persona 4 Arena wanting to play for the story and not for well, the fighting but I was one of those folks. I was genuinely curious as to how the story would progress after the events of Persona 4. However I was not prepared for the circle I would have to go in just to finish the story in Arena. When you jump into any P4 character’s story for the first time the story ends in a cliffhanger. From there you are go through a story from the perspective of a Persona 3 character which also ends with to be continued. You then unlock the new character Labrys which then unlocks the full end to the other character routes. I may not have not really understood what I said but I stand by saying that the story mode is not so straight forward.
In the stage play right off the bat we are introduced to Mitsuru, Aigis, and Akihiko. Afterwards we see that Yu is planning to return to Inaba to visit all his friends and you see each character (expect Rise and Teddie for plot reasons) and what they are doing for the next day. From there it continues with everyone meeting up and going into the TV World. While scenes switch from group to group, from battle to battle, the story moves along and it’s very easy to follow.
2) Fun to see “animated”
To me, Persona 4 Arena is rather static. With the story mode it plays as a visual novel, you read the text on the screen and press a button to continue. Like with BlazBlue there’s only CG events, beside the opening sequence, it’s not animated like what Persona 4 has. You go from fight to fight, change backgrounds when you move into another room, and now everyone has full high quality talking animation sprites. Even Yu! Don’t get me wrong, the 2D side scrolling battle animations are awesome as P3 and P4 both were from a 3D world. With P4 you have full dungeons to explore multiple times. You have free time to walk around town or hang out with a fox (ALL YO YENS YIP YIP YIP). Have a pair of fish? Great, make Yosuke equip it as a weapon. Make your party wear ridiculous costumes in battle because you are the boss and you can. Arena just makes you go from point A to point B, and maybe point C but you don’t have the same freedom as Persona 4 itself. I mean costumes are fun, Arena only got color palettes.
With the stage play, it gives us an opportunity to see everyone interact with others face to face, and not just two sprites standing side by side each other on a background. It becomes more than just a visual novel in a 2D field. With human actors, it’s no longer just a 2D fighting ground and that’s what fascinates me. The fighting was choreographed amazingly and it’s really fun to see everyone battle it out with different weapons. Like other Persona stage productions before this, there is a giant screen in the back of the stage used to display images of Persona or set the place. There are a couple of raised platforms around the stage mainly when Rise or Teddie has to appear. Visual effects played a big part in trying to set the tone and environment throughout the play.
3) The whole cast
Now I will be perfectly honest, I did have my doubts at first. Not because I had no faith in the stage play, but because of the cast change. Before Arena happened, the original game itself got two stage plays, Persona 4 Visualive and Persona 4 Visualive the EVOLUTION. My favorite Japanese actor who played a mostly emotionless Prince of Tennis character, Toru Baba was cast to play Yu and boy did I jump off the walls. I was also somewhat familiar with the other cast members as they were also from other stage projects and in general Persona 4 performed well.
Fast forward to 2014 when it was announced that Persona 4 Arena would have a stage play adaption. I was pretty excited but then I realized that none of the original Persona 4 cast would be in the Arena play. The only two reprising their any original roles were Mitsuru and Akihiko from the Persona 3 Musicals. While disappointed, it was revealed that Keisuke Minami who I knew from my TeniMyu days would be playing Yu so I couldn’t be too mad.
Minami’s performance as Yu stands out to me the most because of my bias for Yu in the original Persona 4 plays. Yu is the silent protagonist, you as the player give him the voice that you want with the choices that are available. Even in the plays and the first anime, Yu is serious, quiet, polite, and very calm. This is the Yu that Baba portrayed. In Arena, Yu is no longer silent. He has to talk, needs to have a personality. Though serious and very focused, Yu can be sarcastic and that is how Minami performed. He makes jokes with the others and takes his title as the “Sister Complex Kingpin of Steel” with little insult.
Most highlights are whenever Yu is suffering but one of my favorite scenes is when Akihiko and Mitsuru encounter Chie and Yukiko for the first time. Depending on which performance day it is, either Akihiko or Mitsuru tries Yukiko’s cooking which magically appears from the bottom on the floor. Their reactions are hilarious and the joy Yukiko has as she claims “someone likes my cooking Chie!” is just delightful. Both Elizabeth and Labrys were great. Labrys herself is a new face to the game and she was a determined young girl who wanted to protect her school. The play handled her backstory really well. I point out Elizabeth because even in the Persona 3 Musicals she had not shown up at the time. Though her part was short, Elizabeth was funny, still mysterious, and knocked out Yosuke with a Megidolaon. Neat!
After watching the performance, I threw any doubts I had about the cast changes. Everyone worked well together and had great chemistry. Despite the serious story, because let’s be honest, the Midnight Channel booting up again needs to be addressed, there’s a fair amount of humor and fun. I realized that Persona 4 and Arena were two different stories. To recast characters doesn’t need to be a huge deal.
Finally, it should also be noted that Teddie is played by someone in a suit all the time. Teddie himself doesn’t appear much compared to the original stage play and his image is mostly on display as that Shadow Teddie. His Japanese voice actor from the original game voices him over the speaker but praise the guy who has to run around in a Teddie suit with the little screen time he had.
4) Kanji Tatsumi
Eiji Takigawa is a Japanese actor most known for his role as Kunimitsu Tezuka, in the first season, first Seigaku generation of the Prince of Tennis musicals. And he’s KANJI TATSUMI.
This fact alone blew my mind because Takigawa was TEZUKA. Tezuka is the serious captain of the main team Seigaku who wants to guide the main character to unlock his full potential (…isn’t this about tennis? I promise you it is). I actually don’t know any other gigs that Takigawa has been in after he graduated as Tezuka so as an actor I recall him being serious and could sing well. Yet his performance as Kanji is absolutely perfect and outstanding.
See, in the first original Persona 4 play, the game up to finishing the Void Quest had to be compressed into a nearly two hour production. While the play cut out Nanako, there were a lot of characters including the sports social links, Dojima, and Adachi to account for. Compared to Arena which only had the main P4 cast, a new character, and some P3 folks, the original P4 play had more people to focus on outside the TV World. The play did not cover each dungeon but instead had a scene where everyone had to face themselves after falling to the final boss. Because of this, Yosuke, Chie, Yukiko, and Kanji were faced by pre-recorded video of their shadow selves. So the Shadow Kanji we witnessed in the game and anime was not present in the play.
And that’s where Takigawa steps it up a notch for Kanji. In the game depending on which character you choose, you see your opponent act really strange, if said character knows them or not. You then have to fight to escape the barrier that is set up in order to move on which will allow one of you to continue. With Yu, he encounters Kanji who first of all is way to ecstatic to see him. Kanji basically flirts with Yu (as Labrys just watches in the background) and once the lights him and music changes, he goes for an all out attack. Making terrible puns, lying seductively (I… guess?) on the floor, and dramatically holding Yu asking for “A Midnight Tokyo Olympics”. Now I don’t know what that even means but I don’t care! Takigawa himself joked that anyone underage would have to be accompanied by an adult if this was suppose to be “for all ages” and if there was another Persona installment it would be rated R.
So fun facts, I mentioned Minami was in Prince of Tennis. He played as Tezuka as well, but he was in the third Seigaku generation of the first season. This made the whole Kanji advancing on Yu ten times more hilarious. Also Kanji made a reference to a catchphrase from a character in Prince of Tennis while he was trying to get senpai to notice him.
Takigawa is also really silly as Kanji, another trait I find shocking because Tezuka is always deadpan. Kanji is trying to make a gift for Yu and his monologue is just amazing as he deduces that pink is perfect for senpai. His affection for Naoto is also present when Teddie bursts out that everyone, including Naoto, needs to wear swimsuits, and Kanji faints on site. In all, Kanji is the best character, thank you Takigawa Eiji. Your Tezuka is still cool.
Okay fine, the real reason? Fanservice. Plain and simple. Maybe I just wanted to see Kanji flirt with Yu and Yu breaking down when Yosuke got hit. I got my pairing hints throughout the play. Takigawa and Minami singing again since their TeniMyu days. And last but not least Kanji using a chair as an air guitar like a boss. I liked the play for fanservice. That’s all.
4b) Minami with a sword
He’s so swift and awesome as Yu using a sword. It looks like all that tennis has finally come in handy!
…I just felt this needed to be addressed. Prince of Tennis musicals were… about tennis.
5) English subtitles
Japanese DVDs usually never have subtitles, if they do, there’s a chance it is a bootleg or the subtitles will be in Chinese. It’s even more rare for Japanese stage productions to be subbed into English. Now I realize that if these stage plays are based on anime or games, just watch the other medium to understand it right? Well it’s just not the same. Also with musicals I do find it important to know what the lyrics are. For science. If there’s a duet in Prince of Tennis I really need to know what the hell they are singing. So when the official P4U Twitter account said that there were English subtitles on the disc, I jumped on every site imaginable to buy this DVD. I had no idea there were subtitles since a lot of the sites don’t actually mention it in the description.
The translation is also quite good. They read just fine for any English speaker and it makes it easy to understand if say you come into this without knowing the game at all. And thanks to the subtitles I had then figured out that the opening and ending songs are actually entirely sung in English. A cold wind that gets in your bones, REALLY, no seriously I didn’t pick any of that up when I watched the opening sequence.
So what does this mean? While hoping that more Japanese DVD releases would include English subtitles is way too far-fetched, I really hope that Persona 4 Arena will see another stage play to close this off. And who knows, maybe Dancing All Night will see an actual musical, it’s practically begging for one. You never know, Japanese stage plays can do anything. From samurai fighting to whatever Naruto is to dudes playing tennis passionately, if it was an anime once, it may just be on stage the next.