I've been more than a little impressed by the first two movies in the Persona 3 film series. And with its focus on character development and thematic exploration, the third film, Persona 3: Falling Down, sets the bar even higher.
On the surface, Falling Down doesn't seem like the third film in a tetralogy — rather it gives the impression of an overly long epilogue. The film's opening scene feels like it should be the climax to the entire film series: The SEES team battles against the twelfth and final shadow boss as well as the Strega persona users. When the battle is over, by all accounts the heroes have won, with all adversaries defeated.
While there is clearly something still amiss — as the dark hour remains — there is not even a single battle between the opening scene and the film's climax. Rather than action, the film focuses on the everyday life of the characters and the lingering effects of what they have been through so far — especially in the case of Makoto, the main character.
In the games, Makoto is a blank slate — his personality is only that which you, as the player, give him. The strongest point of the film series thus far is developing Makoto into a strong character with a distinct personality all his own. In the first film, Makoto is defined by his ambivalence towards the world in general — and even his own death. However, by the end of that film he learns to enjoy life through friendship. The second movie then has Makoto struggle with the fear that once the shadows are defeated, his friends will grow apart, leaving him once again alone.
In Falling Down, Makoto is decimated emotionally. After the death of Shinjiro and the disappearance of Pharos — as well as the apparent end of the shadow threat — he chooses to abruptly cut all ties with his friends rather than wait for them to grow apart. Over the course of the film series, he has come to believe that the deeper the bond between people, the worse the pain when they are inevitably separated. Thus, the only way to avoid such pain is to have no relationships beyond the most casual. His choice seems all the more correct after Itsuki's betrayal early in the film.
But Makoto is not the only person dealing with the pain of loss in Falling Down. Akihiko and Ken have taken the pain of Shinjiro's death and turned it into motivation to fight even harder. Later, with the death of her father, Mitsuru throws herself into the role of responsible heir — denying herself the fun things in life that come from being a high school student.
However, apart from Makoto, the character with the most camera time is Junpei. Junpei's story is also one of loss — this time in the form of a tragic romance. Chidori, the girl he loves, literally gives her own life to save his. However, both Junpei and Chidori believe that, despite this unfortunate ending, the love they experienced more than off sets any pain. From their example, Makoto is able to adopt the same philosophy and once again fully open up to his friends.
While loss and emotional pain are the key themes of Falling Down, that doesn't mean that there aren't more lighthearted scenes. Ryoji is a new transfer student into the protagonists' high school. He seems bound and determined to become Makoto's friend — though Makoto rejects him at every turn. Ryoji begins working the same part-time job as Makoto and even starts up a school "helping club" where the two can be hired for odd jobs. These scenes tend to have more than a bit of humour — especially when Aigis and her intense, irrational hatred for Ryoji is involved. There is also a hot springs scene that, while cliché, elicits a few laughs at the melodrama of it all.
Persona 3: Falling Down is an excellent addition to the film series. Exploring loss and how the various characters deal with it focuses the film thematically in a way that keeps it interesting even without constant Persona battles to provide action. Moreover, continuing to develop Makoto as a character makes the movie stand on its own with an identity unique from that of the game. It is a great game-to-film adaption that knows exactly what should be changed or cut and what should stay the same.
Persona 3 The Movie: #3 Falling Down was released in Japanese theatres on April 4, 2015. The fourth film Persona 3 The Movie: #4 Last Episode is "coming soon".