If David Letterman was still compiling his nightly Top 10 lists, he’d have a field day with Persona 5, a veritable catalog of Things You Find In a Video Game Comic. There are lead characters who are thinly disguised reader surrogates, bumbling from one scenario to the next; characters whose primary function is to explain the rules of play; bad guys who telegraph their villainy so flamboyantly they make Dr. Evil look staid; and, of course, power-ups and flash-booms aplenty. Persona 5 is at its best when its teen hero squares off with volume one’s most fully realized villain, a vainglorious gym teacher who swans around in a cape and Speedo, and at its worst when it tries to address serious social issues like bullying and suicide.
In bridging the gap between console and page, artist Hisato Murasaki hews closely to the main storyline of the original game. The player/reader surrogate is Akira Kurusu, a Good Samaritan whose efforts to rescue a woman from a violent partner backfire spectacularly, forcing him to move out of his parents’ house and start over at a new high school. Within minutes of arriving at Shujin Academy, Akira meets Ryuji Sakamoto, a former track star with bleach blonde hair and a chip on his shoulder. (Yes, he’s the school “delinquent.”) An app on Akira’s phone whisks the two from the school campus to a dungeon where their classmates are imprisoned and tortured by Kamoshida, a former Olympic volleyball player who now coaches Shujin’s teams.
You don’t have to be a gamer to imagine what happens next: Akira and Sakamoto meet a character who helpfully explains what’s going on, providing them with just enough information to bust out of their cell and make a run for safety. The fact this character is a small, talking cat with a sardonic streak helps camouflage his expository function, but Morgana’s dialogue seldom rises above the level of info-dump or pointed observation; when he’s not explaining what a “persona” is or how the real world relates to the “castle” where Kamoshida reigns, Morgana is expressing amazement at Akira’s extraordinary powers. (In one particularly on-the-nose moment, Morgana even reminds Akira and Sakamoto that he “gave you a bunch of information earlier.”)
The combat is handled competently, though Murasaki leans heavily on sound effects and great clouds of smoke to suggest what’s happening; in almost every scene in which Akira channels his new-found power, we’re treated to several panels of “zwoooosh” and “fooooom” superimposed on dark patches of screen tone. Akira’s transformations from ordinary teen to Arsene, the “Pillager of Twilight,” are treated in a similar fashion, cutting between close-ups of Akira’s face and portentous statements superimposed over fiery backgrounds. The character designs, by contrast, are more crisply rendered; each character has an expressive face that clearly reveals his motivation and personality without shading into ugly caricature. Kamoshida, in particular, is a terrific creation, with a Brillo pad of hair, a broad, flat nose, and a hairless chest framed by a cape. Murasaki does a fine job of making his villain both ridiculous and menacing, framing his character’s malicious, gleaming eyes with a formidable browline, and capturing Kamoshida’s arrogance through his swaggering movements.
When Persona 5 addresses the harm that Kamoshida causes through his abuse of power, however, the storyline veers into Afterschool Special territory. A subplot involving Shio, a star volleyball player, is a sincere, if clumsy, attempt to show how Kamoshida wields his authority to silence critics and compel students to do his bidding. When Shio commits suicide, Akira and Sakamoto confront Kamoshida, proclaiming their outrage in bald statements, only to be out-maneuvered by the coach, who tries to pin her death on them. And just in case we’re not convinced that Kamoshida is bad news, he helpfully tells himself out loud that “Ugh, this is gonna be such a pain to smooth over,” a comment that’s conveniently overheard by our protagonists. About the only thing missing from this episode is another adult stepping in with statistics about teacher-student bullying, or advice on what to do if your coach is harassing you.
The workmanlike quality of this passage is indicative of Persona 5‘s biggest problem: the story is an unimaginative addition to the teen vigilante genre. Gamers might find the manga moderately entertaining, but firing up the ole PlayStation for another round would be more enjoyable than slogging through this flat, colorless version. File under Not My Thing.
VIZ Media provided a review copy. To read a preview of volume one, click here.
PERSONA 5, VOL. 1 • ORIGINAL CONCEPT BY ATLUS • ART AND STORY BY HISATO MURASAKI • TRANSLATED BY ADRIENNE BECK • VIZ MEDIA • RATED T+ (OLDER TEEN) • 216 pp.