This past week in Tokyo saw the end of the second Persona 3 musical's run. And while I had not seen the first, I decided with my vast knowledge of the series I owed it to myself to give Persona 3: The Weird Masquerade: The Ultramarine Labyrinth a watch.
But while I can now say that Persona 3 makes for a darn enjoyable stage play, it's unfortunately not quite up to being a musical.
Good — On Stage
Much like the BlazBlue stage play I saw earlier this year, the special effects and backgrounds were all provided by projection mapping onto the all-white stage set. This allowed for a wide variety of awesome looking locations. But where the projection mapping technology really paid off was in the fight scenes. While some actors played lesser shadows for the characters to fight against, the bosses were all animated projections. Personas were likewise projected on the set when summoned. And hats off to the SFX crew. Its timing of the special effects was perfect — it always looked like the characters really were attacking the projected monsters.
But as good as the combat effects were, my favourite effect was Fuuka's persona which was projected on a semi-transparent screen with Fuuka standing on the far side. It gave the optical illusion that Fuuka was standing inside her Persona — just like in the games.
Good — Persona 3 Portable
Originally when Persona 3 was released, the player character was male. But when the game was re-released on the PlayStation Portable, they added a female version of the protagonist with her own Velvet Room companion and gender specific events and romances. Like Persona 3 Portable, The Ultramarine Labyrinth also has two versions of the protagonist — some performances had the male lead while others sported the female one. Thus, the play had minor changes depending on who the lead was. For the female route (which I saw) Kotone, the female protagonist, fell in love with Shinjiro. More than that, she also managed to find his missing watch and return it to him, thus changing his story in a major way. Also only in the Kotone version of the story was a comedic scene where all the girls were lost in an island jungle. The male version of the musical instead follows the boys as they hit on various girls at the beach.
All in all, staging the production with both protagonists adds rewatch value to the show as well as more than a little fanservice to anyone who played the PSP version of the game.
Good — Junpei and Aigis
While most of the cast members were decent in their roles, Genki Okawa's Junpei and ZAQ's Aigis stole the show. Junpei is a tough character to portray because he must be just this side of annoying as he serves as the story's comic relief. In The Ultramarine Labyrinth he is certainly that, but only in the most endearing way. He is the "id" of the group, reacting emotionally to conflicts and problems or just giving in to his desires of the moment — like when he ropes Akihiko into re-enacting Titanic's "King of the World" scene. And even when he's not at the center of the audience's attention, he is still hilarious. Okawa's Junpei is always doing something in the background — like having misadventures at a festival or teaching Aigis the finer points of fist-bumping.
ZAQ is similarly excellent in her portrayal of Aigis. She didn't slip up on her mannerisms even once in the entire musical — despite spending over an hour performing decidedly robotic motions or standing in Aigis's awkward resting stance. She truly looked and acted more like a humanoid machine than a human — even when she was simply watching the actions of the other characters from the background.
Mixed — The Songs
There is rarely any true silence in The Ultramarine Labyrinth. Most of the time, selections from the game's epic soundtrack fill the background and that adds a lot of personality to the play. However, it is the points where the play becomes a musical that problems arise. Don't get me wrong. The cast was talented and they sang their songs well. The problem was the songs themselves. While none were particularly memorable, their biggest problem was how they clashed with the game's soundtrack that permeated the rest of the show. Stereotypical musical ballads don't exactly fit well when set against the often dark pop and rap of the Persona 3 soundtrack.
Bad — The Protagonist
Persona 3 and 4 face a major problem to be overcome: Their protagonists have zero personality. Of course, this is by design. You, the player, act as their personality as you choose their actions. However, adaptations — be that anime, film, or musical — have no player. The second Persona 3 film — which covered about the same portion of the story as this musical — added to the male protagonist's personality by making it a story of his inner struggle between the need to end the shadow threat and the fear that doing so would cause his friends and him to drift apart. No such additions were made to Kotone in this musical, however.
While all the other characters are richly and well defined personality-wise, Kotone comes off as little more than "that normal girl." She is just generally amiable and optimistic. Frankly, she is the least interesting character in the show — which is not something you should be saying about the musical's lead character.
In the end, this musical blew away my meager expectations. The casting was great, the sections were enjoyable, and the projection mapping special effects really brought the world of Persona 3 to life. The only thing that truly served to drag it down was the musical numbers, which seemed out of place when interlaced with the Persona 3 soundtrack. However, if you are a fan of Persona 3, this will likely prove to be little more than a small inconvenience.
Persona 3: The Weird Masquerade: The Ultramarine Labyrinth ran in the Tokyo 1010 theatre from September 14, 2014 to September 23, 2014. A DVD of the musical will be released on January 28, 2015, in Japan.