Persona -trinity soul-

Having lived in Metro Detroit for a couple of years now has helped me appreciate the automotive industry a lot more than I once did. It's amazing to see how the whole business of making cars comes together. What I never realized was how many small, even tiny shops are involved in building parts that make it into the vehicles driven around the nation -- and the world, for that matter. There's a lot of craftsmanship that goes into it; it's not just an assembly line 24/7. When it comes down to it, a modern car is an engineering and scientific marvel, filled with circuitboards and rotors and thousands of unique parts. But just go down to the junkyard and you'll see just how a few missing, broken, or damaged parts can radically affect a vehicle's value. The difference between a clunker and a precision machine ain't a whole lot. They might even have many of the same parts...but a couple of careless bolts or a defect in the metal can make the safest car a death trap.

This is a very long analogy to try and explain my feelings about Persona -trinity soul-. Because when it comes to craftsmanship and quality parts, this show's first half has them. It's a show that makes me want to hop onto Amazon and buy the soundtrack. It often looks gorgeous. So why is it that I have an active dislike of this show, bordering on -- dare I say it -- hate? It's because this show's engine is fatally flawed. You can hop in the car, enjoy the upholstery, even turn it over and hear the roar that makes it sound like you're ready to hop on the interstate. But make no mistake -- even when it feels like there's pavement under the tires, this junker isn't going anywhere.

Three brothers: Shin, Jun, and Ryo. Orphaned over ten years ago, the oldest (Ryo) has lived on his own for a while working for the police. The other two, who are considerably younger, move back in with him when their aunt -- their caregiver up to this point -- gets into a serious relationship. Ryo isn't thrilled with having them back for mostly reasons unknown. But what is certain is that he is seriously stressed out about a rash of disappearances and violent events surrounding "personas."

Long story short, it seems that everybody in the universe has a persona, a secondary self that often resembles an odd mecha. They sometimes come out under duress, and a few people appear to have a latent ability to bring them up with ease. In the midst of all of this is the latest craze among teenagers called "shadow extraction." You basically get together with a bunch of friends, and somebody else gets you in a state where your persona is drawn out. For some, this is just a lark, but for others, it's strangely pleasurable and addictive not unlike food or drugs or sex. The kids most involved with shadow extraction are the ones disappearing. (There are other related issues, such as a condition where you space out forever called Apathy Syndrome, but I won't try to explain it because it makes no sense whatsoever in the context of the show.)

So, anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, the brothers. (Seriously, this show can numb you into a stupor -- maybe the creators were trying to invoke Apathy Syndrome? Ah, there I go digressing again.) Shin initially finds out about the personas and begins to get involved with his brother's investigation. But before that gets too far, we shift gears and start looking into all of his friendships at his new school. Before you know it, we've morphed into a high school drama...except that, on occasion, people's personas pop out and create confusion and delay. Oh, and that new chick at school? She's mixed up with some bad guys, primarily bad because they look bad and cause fights and stuff. But is there more to them? I dunno...'cause simply put, the story didn't go there. Oh, and did you know that the youngest, Jun, is clairvoyant? Well, maybe he is, but again...we just don't know.

Now when I go back and read the last paragraph, to me it's a bit of terrible writing, a random, digressive pile of steaming poo. But in fact, it may be brilliant, because this is exactly what Persona -trinity soul- is... it's like a puppy out for its morning stroll, wandering back and forth and around and never really getting to a destination except back home, perhaps, but leaving piles all along the way.

Sounds awful, doesn't it? But it's true. The first three episodes are interesting enough, a little slow at times, but I was intrigued by the concept of the personas and the whole shadow extraction phenomenon. In fact, it was my continued hope that the show would eventually return to that level that made me slog through the rest of the set. But those next ten episodes flit with various story ideas only to abandon them. I'm not talking about just dangling plotlines, though those are a problem too; I'm talking about at least three episodes that end right on what appears to be a key revelation, on a moment where you think, "aha, now we're getting somewhere," only to start over from scratch next episode without any further explanation. It goes from annoying the first time around to maddening by the time the set is through. It's as if the show is deliberately toying with the audience to see how much we will endure before we give up. I am rarely angry with a show, but I was getting my Hulk-rage on by the end.

It appears to me that the creators of the show simply had no clue where to go themselves. When the police storyline is all but abandoned, we get (in a row) three episodes where Shin, our personality-free lead, and his friends become police chiefs for a day, go to an inn together out in the boonies, and check out what they think is the haunting of their school. It's filler of the worst sort because it teases you with ideas only to drop them off a cliff. Even the couple interesting episodes past the first three reveal so little as to be worthless to understanding the entire plot.

Now bad shows are bad shows, but what makes Persona all the more frustrating is how much genuine skill is front and center. Taku Iwasaki, composer of soundtracks for other anime like The Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Rurouni Kenshin, and Witch Hunter Robin, turns in a top-notch score worth purchasing on its own. While the character designs are ho-hum, the landscapes and scenery are beautiful, with the visuals often capturing subtleties of light and shadow. The direction captures a rich atmosphere of brooding melancholy. The tools and the talent were all available, that much is for sure. I think that's why my dander got up -- it takes a lot of expertise to fail this spectacularly.

All that said, if somehow God created you with more patience, understanding, and forgiveness than me and you enjoyed Persona -trinity soul-, then you will find NIS's box set a treat. When I received it, I was incredibly impressed. The solid case is unique; it's not made to fit on regular DVD shelves so much as it is to be a display item, and it looks great. The art book inside is flippable. One half contains story and character information along with some creator interviews, and considering that there's important data here that's never spelled out in the show proper, it's quite useful. The other half is a recreation of a storybook, "A Whale's Feather," that plays an integral part in the plot of the show (such as it is). It is simply beautiful. For a first effort, NIS deserves props for going all out and adding value for those who may have already watched the program via fansub.

Perhaps the biggest question is this: why did NIS choose Persona as its first release (along with Toradora)? I'm guessing it's because NIS has long been associated with gaming in America, and Persona -trinity soul- is loosely connected to the highly regarded Persona games created for the Playstation. Maybe they thought there would be some cross-pollination between their loyal gaming customers and this anime. Perhaps it's possible, but I don't think word of mouth will do them much favors. I hope that NIS continues to license anime and picks up something worthwhile of the package they put together for this show.

Bottom line: Persona -trinity soul- is one of the most daunting experiences I've had in some time. Under the impressive-looking hood is one of the most jumbled, illogical, and narratively incoherent anime I've seen. For the sake of those who are more intrigued than I, I can only hope the second box set is better -- but I won't be watching it.

Persona -trinity soul- -- violence, very brief nudity, disturbing storyline not for children -- D+