A few months back, I got to see the second Persona 3 musical -- and I rather enjoyed it. So needless to say I was excited heading in to the new Persona 4 Arena musical. Sadly, I got my hopes up for nothing because, even being charitable, Arena is an uneven mess of a play.
Good: The Stage
The set itself is perhaps the most creative aspect of Arena. In the middle of the stage is a rotating, raised platform. However, this platform is not flat but rather a large incline. On one end it is about a foot off the ground while nearly five feet high on the other. With the short end facing the audience, the platform is used largely as a fighting arena -- the angle letting you see the fight as if you are on an elevation looking down. And with the tall end in the foreground, it is often revealed as hollow with anything from car seats to medical tables appearing from within to change the setting.
Off to either side are tall set pieces with catwalks on top, providing a place for Rise to comment on the fights in the battle scenes. Alternatively, the same walkways act as observation platforms for Labrys' origin scenes, allowing the scientists to watch the killing below.
Lastly, as with the BlazBlue and Persona 3 musicals, most of the scenery and special effects are done through projection mapping. And as with both of those, Arena tends to look good, if nothing else.
Good: The Choreography
There is more than a little excellent stage fighting choreography to be found in Arena -- which is a good thing as the original game is a fighter. From Chie's awesome-looking Kung Fu to the extras flying back from our heroes' attacks, it all looks top notch. There is also a fair amount of attention to detail in the fighting. For example, whenever Yu encounters one of his friends in a fight, you can always see him flip the blade of his katana before the fight -- making sure to strike them only with the blunt edge of his sword for the rest of the fight.
Mixed: Cast and Costumes
To say the cast of Arena is uneven would be a massive understatement. Akihiko and Mitsuru (whose actors reprise their roles from the Persona 3 musicals) are perfect in their roles and have great chemistry. Chie and Yukiko also make for an excellent pair and seem ripped straight out of the game. The actors playing Yu, Yosuke, Rise, and Labrys are decent in their roles -- even if Labrys' hair is changed to blue in this show through the use of a tacky and horribly fake-looking wig.
Aigis, however, is one of the low points of the show. While Akihiko and Mitsuru's actors from the Persona 3 musical returned, Aigis' actress (popstar ZAQ) did not. The new actress, Kaon Miyahara, is incredibly ill-suited for the role. She does not move or speak anything at all like a robot (something ZAQ was amazing at) and moreover has a distinct lisp. When it comes down to it, nothing about her performance did the character justice and every scene with her only served to draw me out of the play.
Bad: The Script
In the game, the story of Persona 4 Arena is written somewhat oddly. Depending on the character you choose, the game unfolds differently. Thus, there really is no set way for the plot to unfold -- though I suspect Yu's version is the closest to canon as he is the protagonist of 4. However, this is somewhat of a bonus for adapting the story to another medium as it gives the writer the freedom to make changes as needed for the sake of a more cohesive overall plot. Sadly, if Arena's script is any indication, this much freedom is quite the double-edged sword.
Arena is more than a bit of a mess. Not nearly enough time is spent on Labrys before her backstory is revealed -- she gets a total of two scenes, both with Yu. This, of course, robs the play of much of the mystery and makes Labrys a less interesting hero/villain.
But far worse than that are the comedy scenes in the play. (Admittedly, some work well, like Akihiko and Chie's battle over a beef bowl. But for the most part they are utter crap.) The worst of these is a five-minute period of the play where Kanji simply acts stereotypically, flamboyantly gay in the most over-the-top fashion you can imagine, with Yu and Labrys just watching in dumbfounded silence. He rubs up against Yu, splays himself across the stage, and talks in what Japanese consider to be a "gay" voice. But that's it, that's the joke: Kanji is gay and is trying to seduce Yu. And again, let me state it goes on for some of the longest, most awkward five minutes of my life.
A similarly overly long gag follows Yu and Yosuke as they try to escape Aigis by having Yu act like a cat. Thus, under constant supposed attack, they spend five minutes debating the name and disposition of the fictional cat. Funny for the first minute, sure. But after two or three you wonder just how inept Aigis is if she can't seem to find and attack them. The play just grinds to a halt.
Bad: A Musical
Technically, Arena is a musical. I say technically because there are a grand total of two songs in the whole show. The first song is the game's opening theme song. There's just one small problem -- the song is written in English and is being sung by a group of people who do not speak the language at all. It's all but unrecognizable.
The second (and wholly original) song comes at the end and, while in Japanese, is painfully forgettable. It sounds exactly like what it is: a poorly written Japanese musical number.
Honestly, there is no point to having this show be a musical as neither song adds anything to the show whatsoever.
The Persona 4 Arena musical was a disappointment, plain and simple. The script was poorly written and focused on overly long and unfunny jokes. The casting ranged from perfect to unbelievably inept and the musical numbers were a complete waste. Honestly, it was neither worth my time nor money. While I still believe that it is possible to do an excellent stage rendition of Persona 4 Arena, this was most certainly not it.
Persona 4 Arena ran in Tokyo from December 19, 2014 to December 23, 2014. A DVD of the event will be available for purchase sometime next year.