Over the last couple of years I’ve been playing Persona 5, which I wholeheartedly recommend. It’s the type of video game that transcends the medium. Somewhere around my second playthrough I began to wonder just how this story could be translated into a more traditional medium like television or film. Specifically, could Persona 5 work as a motion picture trilogy? On my commutes back and forth from work I’ve been making piles and piles of mental notes on the subject. After a while it seemed like it might actually be worth writing about, simply as a fun little mental exercise. Can there finally be a movie based on a video game that would be worth watching? Why is it so difficult to do? I’ve spent so much time dwelling on it, would be a shame for all of that contemplation to just disappear. What follows is a jumbled set of ideas that will only make sense to those that have played Persona 5 and love it as much as I do. (And please forgive any typos and errors, I’m still refining this a bit.)
In the age of prestige television and endless streaming services, it would seem like Persona 5, clocking in with nearly 100 hours of gameplay would be better suited for a couple of extended seasons on Netflix. But when it comes to making the most cultural impact, nothing fits the bill more than a solid motion picture trilogy. A film trilogy allows for anywhere from six to nine hours of story, which means you have to focus on only what is truly necessary and cut any superfluous material. Trilogies like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars tend to have the most cultural impact on society. Hence, for this little mind experiment we’re going to turn Persona 5 into three films, similar to Lord of the Rings, with extended editions and a slew of bonus materials (which we will call “Mementos”) available for streaming at a later date. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to outline three seasons of Persona 5, but I got a career to attend to.
It’s going to be a tough sell, as the current “Citizen Kane” of film based on a video game is 1995’s Mortal Kombat. Yeah, I know. Translating video games into cinema seems to be a near impossible task. The simple reason being, the material is handled badly. You cannot structure a movie around a video game. You need to strip the narrative of the game down to its basics and rebuilt the story from there, using the different sequences and mechanics from the game as a guide.
Besides all of those issues, this particular JRPG takes place in Japan. Learning the lessons from the recent cinematic treatments of “Ghost in the Shell” and “Death Note,” the cast will have to be nearly all Japanese, along with much of the dialogue. We have to be culturally respectful, although there may be a clever way to sneak a fair amount of English into the film. More on that later.
SIDE NOTE: They are currently producing a Witcher series for Netflix, but it is going to be based more on the books. And we’re still waiting to see just how the Uncharted movies are going to be. I also know the extended version of the game… Persona 5: The Royal, is going to add several new layers to the story. For now, we won’t worry about that.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
This is a very long game with a ton of story, which means you’re going to have to become a cutthroat editor to make this work. Fortunately, since the video game and sub-sequential animation series has a lot of side diversions, you can easily start trimming the narrative to its essential plot points and build from there. All of those side quests, confidants and questionable story choices can all be left aside or just briefly mentioned which can add depth to the story where needed. The nice thing about film is that you can cram a lot of information quickly, either by wonderfully crafted visuals using the camera to tell the story, or by dialogue driven data dumps if need be. We can also take advantage of the fact that the first two films will be told from the perspective of the interrogation room, where our hero, Ren Amiyama can easily sum up certain plot points with investigator Sae Niijima. It’s a tricky balance as when a movie (and in our case, the first two movies) will be told in backstory, you can lean too much on a narrator to drive the action forward. The movie will feel more like a string of stifled unrelated events driven by obtrusive voice-over than a solid cohesive narrative. And you don’t want to get too tied down to hitting all of the essential plot points from the source material. A lot of films like Harry Potter Series, Atila: Battle Angel (2019) or the final two Hunger Games: Mockingjay movies suffer a little from this kind of forced “got to please the fans” storytelling.
And for those that fuss about all of the hours of material that won’t make the film, that’s why you have the game and the animation. The movie adaptation needs to exist on its own merits. It has to be its own thing.
Now let’s think about narrator driven films like Life of Pi (2012) or The Usual Suspects (1995). Most of the narration elegantly sets up the next scene with suspense. We can leave Morgana to do any further necessary plot explanation in Mementos, but do so sparingly. The movie Inception (2010) didn’t explain how the technology works, and the film is better for it. Let the action of the story drive the plot, not overly drawn-out dialogue.
In order to sell the first film and create the emotional drive to sustain the following two movies, the main plot points for the trilogy will be as follows…
- Ren Amiyama overcoming his distrust of people and reluctance to become a leader.
- Makoto Niijima’s broken relationship with her sister.
- The Phantom Thieves conquering the metaverse and defeating the God of Control.
- Ren’s romance with Ann Takamaki.
I can literally hear a thousand eyes rolling as I type those words, and I am truly sorry for all of those that feel Makoto is in fact the best girl. (Your points are valid.) But if you break down the story by its basic elements, Ann shows up in the first reel, and her journey involving sexual abuse by a teacher which leads to the attempted suicide of her best friend Shiho is extremely powerful. You want to go with the simplest and most emotionally driven story arcs. Makoto has plenty to do. She needs to fix her relationship with her estranged sister and overcome her timid nature in the process. Of course, we can play around a bit with a love triangle between Ren, Ann and Makoto… but unlike the game where the Protagonist can participate in multiple romantic relationships, for our movie, Ren is going to be monogamous. He’s the good guy, and for a film series that’s going to ramp up the more upsetting elements of the game, our hero needs to be just that. I’ll also explain this reasoning a bit further as we progress.
THE FIRST FILM: PERSONA 5
The film starts off pretty much exactly like the game. The opening shot of the absurdly giant Casino in the middle of Tokyo is brilliant. In fact, all three films will open with panning wide shots of the Tokyo skyline in some form or another for visual consistency.
During this escape, it would be fun if we got a nice tracking shot of Ren running from right to left, similar to how he does after a battle victory in the game. To open the movie with a strong but not obvious visual reference like that would really hook the super fans in the first three minutes.
Post heist, Ren gets caught and immediately thrown into an interrogation room with investigator Sae Nijima. Insert title card. As stated before, from here the first two films will be told as a backstory.
In fact, much of the first 45 minutes to an hour will proceed very similar to the game and animation. At this point, I’m assuming you’ve played the game or at least know of Persona 5. Much of this isn’t going to make much sense otherwise. If you have absolutely no idea on what Persona 5 is about, and I’m not sure why you’re reading this, I highly suggest you check this out. And this. And this. I also need to warn you this whole entire thesis is one giant spoiler alert. Consider yourself warned.
If you’re familiar to Persona 5 and want a refresher summary of the story, watch this 3 minute rundown from ArcadeCloud. It’s the best one I found so far.
CULTURE SHOCK – LANGUAGE AND CASTING
The real tricky part is going to be how once can make three blockbuster-level films that are completely in Japanese and make enough money to justify the expense. In order to woo an American audience, we’ll have to make a few creative choices. The cast and characters will speak Japanese, expect under certain stressful circumstances such as conducting a heist or during Ren’s interrogation. Why? Because speaking English makes it just a little harder for people outside of the group to know what’s going on. Ren speaks to Sae in English just in case the interrogation room is wired for sound. The Phantom Thieves lean on English while raiding palaces, or when out in public discussing plans for the same reason, just to make it a little harder for eavesdropping enemies. It’s a simple but elegant way to incorporate English into a film with so much commercial potential in both Japan and the United States.
And remember, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) was entirely in Cantonese and it did extremely well. American audiences are smarter than we give them credit for. We’re going to meet everyone in the middle.
Speaking of bridges, back to the character of Ann Takamaki as promised. She’s got blonde hair and blue eyes. She’s probably not Japanese except in name. Granted, one can argue genetics, recessive genes and so on… but it’s been pretty much accepted that Ann is probably far more caucasian and asian. Hence, Ann could be the sole non-asian character of the movie. This is very tricky in today’s political climate. All decisions must be made to honor the source material in order to avoid controversy. There would need to be several discussions with Atlus on any non-asian casting. That being said, I do love the idea of a caucasian female / asian male romance, as that kind of dynamic is very rarely portrayed in film and television. (The opposite kind of pairing… caucasian male / asian female is much more common because of socially accepted embedded racism. It’s true.)
But once again, this will have to be discussed in depth with everyone involved with the film. There has been plenty of talk about whitewashing in cinema, and most of it is surely justified. There’s no way around it. Matt Damon was criticized for playing the role of a “white savior” in The Great Wall (2017). We do not want to repeat those mistakes.
PERSONA 5 – STORY ELEMENTS AND SCREENPLAY IN DEPTH
Ren Amiyama meets with Sojiro Sakura, owner of LeBlanc coffee, who has agreed to take him in for a year since his parents abandoned him due to his shameful criminal record. For the film, we’ll say that Sojiro is a very close friend of his father and owes him a favor. He is introduced to his new school, teacher and the principal. It is during this time he discovers the Mementos app on his cellphone.
On the first day of school, he briefly is introduced to Ann Takamaki in the rain. (This scene also plays out exactly like the animation in the video game, as the ending of the entire trilogy will come full circle to this moment.) You need to have many subtle visual cues throughout the movies that directly reference the game, otherwise you’ll lose all of your original fan base.
Ren then bumps into Ryuji, driven by the app, they accidentally end up in Kamoshida’s Castle. From there, both of them will awaken their Personas simultaneously. (We’re combining the events of the first two break-ins into one scene.) They break out another prisoner, Morgana, during the escape, in which the bizarre cat-like creature helps them find a way out.
From here the big moments happen in rapid succession. Ren overhears Ann resisting Kamoshida’s advances on the phone, chases her through the Tokyo Underground, and they talk at the local cafe where she confesses everything.
A quick take on Ryuji. As a director I would picture Ryuji’s performance embedded with a tension like James Caan’s take of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972) or less extreme, Bradley Whitford’s portrayal of Josh Lyman in The West Wing (1999-2006). Ryuji needs to feel unsettling, like he can snap at any second.
REN THE PROTAGONIST – A REAL CHARACTER
In the video game as well as the animation, the main protagonist, Ren Amiyama, is a blank slate as they want you to subconsciously embed your own personality traits into that character. This is what makes the game so compelling, but for film, it’s a death blow. In order to make the film work, Ren has to be fully-realized. I think a successful character arc would include Ren overcoming his reluctance to the role of a leader. As a director, I would have the actor study Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (1998) as well as many other “recruit the gang to solve a problem” movies. Seven Samurai (1954) seems like an obvious choice for reference points here, as it invented the “let’s assemble the gang” genre. Like many drafted into war, he feels a sense of honor and duty, but hates getting thrown into terrible situations beyond his control. Ren is a loner. He’s a little sarcastic and elitist. It’s his defense mechanism. He doesn’t trust people due to his unjust arrest and probation. I think his character needs to be a bit skeptical of everyone’s intentions.
He becomes much more trusting as the movies progress. There isn’t anything truly remarkable or revolutionary about this kind of character arc. Since the main narrative involves him becoming the leader of an ever-expanding band of thieves, it only makes sense to have a character arc that works within the main function of the story. Ren needs to start the story as a person that never had a lot of friends. By the end of the third film, he rides off into the sunset with a group of people he’s become close to. That’s his journey.
PERSONA SUMMONING DYNAMICS
The game mechanics of Persona executions, mixing and matching Personas, unfortunately all of that will have to be cut or severely condensed. Ren gets the initial Arsenic Persona at the beginning and that’s what he’ll work with. Personas will be summoned by the characters when there’s a specific need. Trying to cram all of the technical fighting turn-based mechanics as they are built in the game will not work for a feature film. (Imagine how silly it would be for Ann Takamaki to attack a giant steel robotic piggy bank only with her bullwhip.)
One the other hand, characters experience a great deal of pain when first summoning a Persona. That should be carried over into the films. And when the characters summon their Persona, that Persona manifests to perform a specific task and then quickly disappears. They could summon a Persona to bust through a wall, or deal with an enraged enemy they don’t want to mess around with, but it always comes at a bit of a cost. Persona summoning needs to feel physical. It always needs to hurt a little every time they pull off a mask.
From a visual special effects perspective, think of how creatures are summoned in the movie Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (2010) during the Amp vs. Amp battle, while mixing in a little bit of the avatar design in Ready Player One (2018) and the live-action version of Bleach (2018). These are nice visual reference points to draw from.
HOW TO ACCURATELY PORTRAY AT TALKING CAT
This is tricky. In the game, Morgana is an animated character unless he finds himself in the real world in which case he’s a talking cat. For obvious reasons, a talking cat is a real stretch. Even Netflix’s Sabrina reboot skipped the talking cat gag all together. I think the best treatment would be for Morgana to be a non-speaking cat in the real world, but can communicate in other ways, mostly by his body language, the occasional meow or gesturing toward items of interest. This will make Morgana’s sacrifice at the end of the third film all the more poignant. When the alternate metaverse closes, Morgana will be giving up his ability to be the more communicative humanoid version of himself. Even though he wants to be human, he’s going to be stuck as a cat for the rest of his life, and does so for the better of the Phantom Thieves and the rest of the world.
SHIHO’S SUICIDE AND KAMOSHIDA’S CASTLE
Abused both physically and possibly sexually, Shiho attempts suicide by jumping off the roof of the school. This is the core emotional drive of the first film. I can picture the shot similar to Jude Law in Steven Spielberg’s AI, where the reflection of Shiho falling visually functions as a teardrop to Ann, as she’s looking out the window.
From here, instead of trying to prevent Ann from joining them in the metaverse to take on Kamoshida’s consciousness, they’ll proactively invite her to join in the cause. We could have a brief moment of levity, when Ren and Ryuji explain to Ann that they have gained all of this information from a cat. (Cut to scene of a yellow-scarfed cat, memorized by Ann’s beauty.) Of course, the castle break-in goes sideways and Ann is immediately captured.
Once Ann has her Persona Awakening, they will push through the palace and proceed to the undefined glowing orb where the treasure should be. From there, Morgana explains that the treasure needs to be manifested by antagonizing the antagonist, and they come up with the idea of the calling card.
Once the calling card is sent, and the fight with Kamoshida is finished, Ann needs to be ready to execute him, on the verge of breaking, but decides not do. We can draw inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), when Tom Cruise finally thinks he’s apprehended the man who kidnapped and murdered his son. The audience is expecting him to pull the trigger, but at the last moment starts reading him the Miranda rights, barely holding back his emotions.
There’s going to be a lot less back and forth between traveling to the Palaces in the metaverse with Kamoshida’s Castle being the exception, as we are establishing the rules on how the metaverse works for our audience. Ren and Ryuji’s Persona awakenings will happen simultaneously, with Ann coming in a little later. The way the game organizes the treasure manifesting from a calling card will stay. That part is pretty critical. As for the timelines the game imposes, that’s unnecessary. When the characters first enter a palace, they won’t have a couple of weeks. They’ll have to accomplish their mission within a couple days at most, that increases the tension and makes the stakes a little higher. The palaces will feel like an Indiana Jones movie, where we experience all of the dangers and booby-traps in real time with little preparation. This means Morgana will have to quickly explain the rules of the metaverse while in the metaverse, specifically in Kamoshida’s Palace.
Within the metaverse, there’s going to be much more suspense, sneaking around the palace as opposed to the upfront turn-based assault the games lean toward for obvious reasons. Granted, the same metaphysical rules apply. Guards will lurk around the halls, and when they spot our heroes, they will manifest into some sort of weird creature in a puff of smoke. It’s a cool gimmick and can work well from a cinematographer’s perspective. As for the boss fights, if they were executed exactly as they are in the video game, the physics and pacing of the turn-based JRPG would be disastrous to translate into film. Or worse, we lean on big bloated lazy CGI action sequences. It would be better if the creatures are dealt with more in the style of modern action movies like John Wick (2014) and Atomic Blonde (2017). The villains don’t need to manifest into a giant looming monster either. A smaller, more agile creature makes for a more exciting and intimate fight sequence.
During a conversation with Richard Donner, director of the original Superman and Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight Trilogy, there was an in-depth discussion about how the most remembered parts of the films weren’t the CGI driven special effects, but the more practical stunts and effects that were performed in real life. The most remembered effect of the Dark Knight Trilogy was the semi truck flipping over on State Street. In this tradition, battles in the Persona 5 film need to be much different than the turn based strategy of the video game. Action in Persona 5 needs to be initially suspenseful, then unravel into something fast and furious like a Russian doll bursting apart at the seams. Sam Mendes describes this kind of technique for the opening sequence in the film Skyfall (2012).
I can easily picture a sequence in which one of the characters shoots a guard, a creature manifests itself in a cloud of gooey smoke, and then that creature is instantly shot up by another character from off camera. Ramping up the speed in which fights occur will make the action feel more visceral. Since we’re dealing with a lot of fantastical creatures and realistically, a more limited budget than most feature films, the more we can make action sequences feel real and intimate the better the impact will be.
For the film version of Persona 5, we will downplay the more comic/anime elements. Shiho’s abuse by her volleyball coach is going to play out a lot harsher than in the animated versions simply because we’re dealing with child abuse and real-life performers. The instinct will be to downplay this and keep things jazzy and lighthearted. Don’t. The story is powerful and the best parts deserve laser focus. The movie will have its share of quirky comedy moments, but the stakes have to feel real.
(Also, as we look at the current stage production aptly named Persona 5: The Stage, you’ll notice they are sticking with the characters from Ann and Shiho’s storyline. I don’t think I’m the only one that gets how strong this is.)
As for Ann’s and Ryuji storyline, we’re just going to stick to the basics. We know that Ann models part-time, and that Ryuji had a falling out with the track team. But we’re not going to spend too much time on that. Ryuji will mention the events that led to the falling out, and at the end of the movie we will see him make peace with the track team, but that’s about it.
The only confidant we’re going to do a little bit of exploring with is the classroom teacher Sadayo Kawakami. It’ll all play out a bit more serendipitous though, Ren sort of stumbles on the fact that she’s part-timing as an adult cleaning maid at night. When he confronts her, she provides her sob story straight up. This event leads the team into Mementos where we can do a 15-minute side diversion between palaces where Morgana does a Mementos data-dump, turns into a car for the first time, and they can solve the teacher’s blackmail problem. She still needs money though. It would be fun if Ren manipulated a way for her to have an evening job at the LeBlanc coffee shop at night. I think her character would make such a great foil to the owner, Sojiro Sakura.
Keep in mind, a lot of this change in direction is to pull back some of the more contradictory and controversial elements to the story. With an abusive character like Suguru Kamoshida, it would be awkward to even hint at a sexual relationship with another instructor.
Now this is going to be the most controversial part for superfans. Similar to how the giant spider sequence was moved from the second Lord of the Rings movie to the third, we’re going to switch around the order of the Palaces. In the game, Yusuke’s storyline comes in next. For the film version, we’re going to go with Makoto’s. There are a few reasons for this, one because Makoto is a fan favorite and it sort of sets up a fun little love triangle subplot. Also, Makoto is Sae’s semi-estranged sister, which means it’s important to get her into the mix quickly. And since Makoto story also directly involves fellow students getting suckered into mafia scams at Shujin Academy, it keeps the first film more contained and localized. The first film will deal with characters and events surrounding the academy. The second film brings the Phantom Thieves into a nation-wide stage.
Makoto’s story arc is very similar to the video game. After the events of Kamoshida, the principal immediately puts Makoto into play. She follows Ren and the Phantom Thieves while hiding behind a magazine for an afternoon like a bad film noir. Thanks to Ryuji’s big mouth, she figures out who they are within a few hours.
And since we no longer have to make Ren the soul focal point the entire story revolves around, we can have Makoto first meet the news reporter Onyo, who is snooping around the Academy doing a story about the mafia recruiting students to deliver drugs. We have a team of bright and able thieves, let’s make sure they all get more screen time. And characters like Haru and Yusuke, that will have more abbreviated character development, will need pivotal game-changing sequences to make them feel like equals.
MAKOTO AND HER SISTER
Once Makoto challenges the Phantom thieves, she becomes a more de facto member of the group. She leads the group to the reporter, she gives them the name of the mob boss. With a little bit of investigating, she ends up finding the mobster, slapping him with a calling card and setting the bank vault heist into a full court press that has to be solved immediately.
Ask for the bank heist, The surreal imagery of people as walking and talking ATMs needs to stay. I also like the idea of Makoto summoning her Persona, which is a motorcycle, and then annihilating pretty much everybody in the bank lobby in pure rage.
Once they get into the depths of the Vault, here should be a series of puzzles to augment the banking ATM pin system the characters use to access deeper level of the vault. Once again, the game pretty much gives you the perfect story to work with, anything that is added to the story should be done thoughtfully and only to augment the material that already exists.
Because the boss fight with the mafia guy is a little cumbersome, we might have to portray this differently in the film. A fight sequence in a downpour of gold coins could be visually stunning while making the robotic piggy bank more human-sized than a lumbering giant monster. If Kamashido’s lush visual design for the dungeon was rooted in the European Middle Ages, a shiny monotonous clean, weirdly sterile Kafkaesque inspired bank vault would be a wonderful counterpoint. We can also visually draw upon Matrix Reloaded (2003), where Neo enters the area where The Source resides, which is a seemingly endless hallway of doors. Of course the game does such a wonderful job with the art direction for the Vault, we won’t really need to add much to that visual interpretation other than reinforce it.
OUTLINE OF THE FILMS
Here is a breakdown of sequences for the three films. If this turns out to be successful, a fourth film based on the events in Personal 5: The Royal might make for a fun addition to the trilogy, but somewhat separate from the initial trilogy’s three-act structure. The following is a summary on how the events of the movies will play out, with some differences. Obviously if you don’t know the story or the game, little of this will make sense. Hell, it may not make much sense regardless… but here we go.
1. Ren Amiyama is caught while escaping some sort of casino burglary.
2. Interrogated by Sae Niijima at the police station, Ren begins telling his story.
3. Ren Amiyama meets with Sojiro Sakura, owner of LeBlanc coffee, is introduced to his new school, teacher and the principal. It is during this time he discovers the Mementos app on his cellphone.
4. The sequence where Ren meets Ann, then Ryuji, then the initial accidental entry into Kamoshida’s Castle. They meet Morgana there and escape.
5. The Ann Takamaki Storyline, Shiho’s suicide attempt, Morgana’s real-world introduction, and then the burglary of Kamoshida’s Castle.
6. A dream sequence where we are introduced to the Velvet Room, Igor, Justine and Christine.
7. Makoto’s introduction, she begins following the Phantom Thieves. Also, Ren notices that on occasion, it looks like something or someone is following him… as if they where in some sort of invisible cloak. Sometimes the background will flicker and distort in the most subtle ways. (This is due to our big bad from the final film spying on him.)
8. A condensed version of the homeroom teacher’s storyline which leads to the discovery of Mementos. Since Sadayo Kawakami will spill her guts the moment she’s discovered by Ren, which will be done more by accident, the team finds her blackmailers and solves the case with ease, which earns her trust.
9. It would be fun if Sadayo ended up taking a part-time job at LeBlanc just to keep her in the mix, and act as a foil for Sojiro. Also we get a brief introduction to Yuuki Mishima telling Ren about the Phantom Thieves Phan-Site website. This is also where the gang has that run in with Masayoshi Shido at the buffet. Shido’s story is told during the film through television sets playing the news about the election along with a kid named Goro.
10. Makoto’s storyline, the gangster Junya Kaneshiro. And that kid, a sudo-celebrity detective named Goro, becomes a regular at LeBlanc. Needless to say, Sae is stunned to discover her sister’s possible involvement in the Phantom Thieves. In the moment of realization, a jump cut to a brief moment where a younger Sae and Makoto attend their father’s funeral, reinforcing what has caused the divide between them, would be a quick and poignant way to emotionally connect the two together. (The animation actually did a nice job of handling this as well.)
11. The ending will be a montage of events, Ann’s closure with Shiho leaving school while Sae skips dinner with Makoto, calling her a useless child.
IN DEPTH: When Shiho leaves, it would be wonderful to make an homage to the Turkish film Mustang (2015). There’s a moment when one character, on a bus, escaping a life of abuse, looks out the window to a man that rescued her. His reaction, the way he holds back tears, then puts on a brave face and follows the bus waving as they pull away, it kills me. Ann and Shiho’s goodbye needs to feel this heavy.
Once Shiho and her parents are gone, we get the Wes Anderson center shot of the now iconic back of Ann’s head in a crowd of people rushing past with umbrellas. It’s raining. Ren asks if she is ok… she turns, and this is where all of her pent up angst comes gushing out. Making an homage to the ending of Lost in Translation (2003), she sobs uncontrollably as a slow piano solo version of the Persona 5 theme plays. We cut to Makoto making dinner for an ungrateful Sae that berates her for being such a burden, leaving Makoto to eat dinner alone. Ryuji makes peace with the track team. Cut back to Ann and Ren, Ann kisses him passionately. Embarrassed, she bolts into the crowd, pops open an umbrella, and unlike the subway station, this time Ren loses her in the crowd. It’s important events echo other events and films have to be circular in structure.
Cut back to a severely stunned Sae in the interrogation room, obviously guilt-ridden by the way she has treated Makoto. She asks Ren, “This is all?” Ren shakes his head. “No.
Cut to black. Who WOULDN’T want to see this movie.
PERSONA 5: RISE OF THE PHANTOM THIEVES
1. Panning shot of Tokyo’s nighttime skyline, the camera centers on spotlights for Ichiryusai Madarame’s art show. This would be fun to shoot as a long-take like Spectre (2015) or Goodfellas (1990) where characters (many of them the confidants from the game) are introduced one-by-one as the camera pans from person to person. The reporter Ichiko Ohya ambushes Madarame with questions about stealing work from his students, which he casually dismisses. Sae is also there, doing a little investigating herself. Shogi champion Hifumi Togo is also being interviewed by reporters. Sure, it’s a bit of fan service, but it’s really good fan service, especially if the whole thing has a cinematic War-Kong Wai’s In the Mood For Love (2000) feel, complete with vibrant colors and mood lighting. Ichiryusai Madarame breaks from the crowd, ducks into a dingy darkly-lit backroom, and lights a cigarette. We glimpse that darker side of him. In three seconds we can tell more about this character than a data dump ever could. He suddenly feels a little light-headed. We fade into…
… the Cold action opening, Yusuke Kitagawa’s boss battle with his evil artist mentor Ichiryusai Madarame in the metaverse. I love the idea of giant eyes in paintings following the team as they walk past them. Eventually and slowly those paintings form into a large face. It’s just amazing imagery. We can borrow a little bit from the Salvador Dali dream sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) just for fun, and to keep the film geeks happy. The main point, since Yusuke’s story is getting cut quite a bit, we need the most visual impact possible to embellish his story. That also reinforces the idea that Yusuke is an artist.
IN DEPTH: Now I know, cutting the build up to Yusuke’s Palace raid kills me. The scene where Ann, dressed in a thousand layers of clothes just to delay the nude drawing scheme is one of the few genuine LOL moments I’ve ever had in a video game. But the storyline is a little redundant/repetative. And remember, I’m not actually making the damn movies, this is just a “what if” scenario. We are highlighting some of the possible decisions that would have to be made in order to translate this material into a film series. As Krzysztof Kieślowski, director of the Three Colors Trilogy (1993-1994) once said, every sequence and every shot needs to move the story forward. Besides, Yusuke is such a flamboyant character, his portrayal will hopefully make up for some of the shortened screen time. And maybe some of his cut story can make the Extended Version.
And if you haven’t seen The Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White & Red… you seriously need to.
2. Now in full Phantom Thieves mode, Ren tells Sae (still in the interrogation room) about their sudden rise in subversive popularity. We do a montage of thrilling sequences in Mementos and the results of those explorations, followed by the Phan-Site reactions to all of these accumulated successes. Fully inspired by the metaverse, Yusuke is sketching out the landscape, trying to make sense of the routes they take. Also, it would be fun if we caught Yusuke drawing sketches of the different characters in the same style as Shigenori Soejima. The point being, if the first film was the build up to the full-realization of the Phantom Thieves as a unit (Phantom Thieves Begins), then the first half of the second film should have a fully-functioning team with all of the classic jazzy trademarks of the game.
3. The Futaba Sakura storyline, which is the second most powerful sub-story in the video game. Hacker Group Medjed threatens the Phantom Thieves with exposure, Sojiro confesses his backstory about the death of Futaba’s mother, and the team breaks into Futaba’s Palace. This plays out exactly like the game except…
IN DEPTH: I’m torn about how the ending of Futuba’s meeting with her mom should be portrayed. In the game, she seems unshaken by her mom’s disappearance and it’s played like a gag. I wonder if the movie should have her break emotionally, screaming for her mom as she fades into sand. Swell the J.J. Abrams piano music as the pyramid collapses practically in silence. Cut to the inside of the escape van where Ann is embracing Futaba, still in shock. Makoto, driving the van, puts her hand on Futaba for comfort. For reference, Andy Garcia does something similar when Sean Connery’s character dies in The Untouchables (1987). I think we need to play this up. Characters in Persona are always having to put on a brave face. When they crack, that gives the audience an emotional payoff. The audience finds emotional solace through the characters. As this will take place during the halfway point of film two, this can drive the rest of the film just like Ann’s confrontation with Kamoshida’s Shadow halfway through part one. Each of the three films will mirror each other in structure.
4. After expert-hacker Futaba quickly exposes Medjed for the frauds they are, we have a montage of the gang trying to break Futaba from her social anxieties, wrapping with a celebration victory at the beach. Gazing at the sunset, Futaba is determined to find her mother’s killer. Another dream sequence in the Velvet Room, further explaining and yet not explaining the plot. We know now Igor is behind a lot of this magical mystery, but we’re not really sure how.
5. In the real-world, the Phan-Site shows overwhelming support for the next target Kunikazu Okumara, CEO of Big Bang Burger. This accelerates the Haru Okumura storyline.
6. The Phantom Thieves enter the Big Bang Burger Palace, a space station… which will be oddly deserted. Very few baddies. Even the boss battle at the end seems way too easy. This helps reinforce the whole “this is a a set up” aspect of the story.
7. After Haru’s dad commits suicide on camera (he’s driven insane from Goro’s metaverse sabotage), society turns on the Phantom Thieves.
8. Enter Goro Akechi, the kid who’s been snooping around the coffee shop. Once again, thanks to the outspoken Ryuji, he was able to easily piece together who the Phantom Thieves were. (Of course this time, it was intentional.) He offers a deal. Break into Sae’s Palace, change her heart and thus cripple the Tokyo Police investigation into the Phantom Thieves. The Thieves know he’s corrupt, but they don’t let on. It’ll be pretty obvious, but we’ll keep the audience in the dark for now. Haru, still mourning, offers financial support and equips the Phantom Thieves with sophisticated new gear including communication devices that will work in the metaverse.
9. The second film finally catches up with the opening of the first film. We’re at Sae’s Palace, a Casino where City Hall and the police station should be. The events play out pretty much exactly as the game, except keeping within the smaller scale, the Roulette table is not gigantic. This will give the whole sequence a more Casino Royale (2006) vibe meets the Masquerade Ball from the ending of Lady Snowblood (1973).
10. Now in real-time, She leaves the interrogation room, saying she needs to speak with Makoto. She meets Goro outside, shows him Ren’s phone, the lights flicker, then leaves. Goro enters the room, kills the security guard now accompanying Ren, then kills Ren point blank. News spreads throughout Tokyo that Ren was killed by a security guard that committed suicide immediately afterwards. We end the movie here in one hell of a cliffhanger.
PERSONA 5: PERSONA NON GRATA
1. It would be fun to open the third movie with an homage to Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006). We start with what will be the standard opening for a Persona movie, a panning night shot of the Tokyo skyline. From there we get into a rainy car chase sequence, where Sae has broken out Ren (obviously not dead) and is evading Masayoshi Shido’s men. After she sends them off road in spectacular crashes not unlike the film Drive (2011), they regroup at LeBlanc. The gang is relieved to see Ren alive. Ann rushes up to Ren, hugs him. The moment they embrace, cut to opening title.
2. At a safe room set up by Haru and her seemingly infinite amount of resources, the gang recites how they tricked Goro by sending him into Mementos when he attempted to murder Ren, thus killing a non-existent version of Ren in his mind’s-eye. It still makes little sense to me, but we’ll gloss over it. After the gang leaves the safehouse, this is where Sae and Makoto embraces and finally have their moment of reconciliation.
3. The gang raids now President-Elect Masayoshi Shido’s Palace, the cruise ship that sails through an underwater Tokyo. They confront Masayoshi, then Goro who has gone insane. When the conflicted Goro sees the metaverse version of himself and they both die in a Mexican standoff, the ship collapses and Ryuji appears to be killed during the escape.
IN DEPTH: Besides funding all of the Phantom Thieves later exploits, Haru needs her big moment. During the confrontation with Goro, there can be a scene where Goro, now losing his mind, babbles on about injustice and whatnot. He’s suddenly blown back at least fifty feet by a Persona sneak attack from Haru screaming “ENOUGH!” The gang slowly turns, stunned, to see the usually quiet and composed Haru extinguishing her flaming persona mask, breathing heavily. She’s the one that defeats Goro, vengeance for her father’s death. That’s her time to shine.
4. The gang regroups in the real world, and here’s where we can pay an homage to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) where a puzzled Ryuji stumbles into the gang weeping over his apparent demise.
5. As the Phantom Thieves await Masayoshi Shido’s press conference, we get to pause for a moment of levity. At a successful Yusuke Kitagawa solo art show, featuring a painting of a detailed Mementos map, the gang celebrates with Ren hanging around the back alley. Ann runs off with a hooded Ren back to his room.
6. As we know, the press conference doesn’t go well with the newly-elected Masayoshi Shido. Japan goes on lockdown, Sojiro and She are arrested, and the thieves, using Yusuke’s map, goes into the depths of Memento’s looking for answers.
7. Within the depths of Mementos is the Velvet Room. In true David Lynch fashion (in which “Twin Peaks” was the basis of the Velvet Room) we realize the true villain is the ancient God of Control, Yaldabaoth. Yaldabaoth split Justine and Christine while disguising itself as Igor, really messing up the metaverse. The general population has a collective conscious along with a deep fear of chaos which allowed this to happen.
8. Morgana realizes that Igor created him, and that the collapse of Mementos means he’ll lose the more humanoid version of himself. Morgana will remain trapped as a cat forever if they succeed.
9. In the final battle with Yaldabaoth, the God reveals himself as the past villains from all of the previous palaces just to intimidate the Phantom Thieves. There’s even a sequence where the Thieves suddenly think they win the battle, followed by a delusion in which they are living out their ideal lives free of abuse and sorrow, of course until they realize it’s all made up. The easy way to portray this final boss battle would be with CGI, which it’s definitely going to require a lot. The villain costume consists of jagged mirror and reflective surfaces. Breaking up the sequence with a few odd narrative tangents could help flesh out what’s really at stake, especially since the main antagonist is a Sauron-like faceless figure.
And considering the reflective nature of the villain’s costume, although overdone… a quick sequence in a hall of mirrors, shattered and cracked, could be fun. The villain could literally appear out of nowhere.
10. Once Yaldabaoth is defeated through a sudden act of compassion by the female characters, Ren comforts a sullen Morgana. This will be the last time they ride off into safety from a collapsing palace, and Morgana will have to make a huge sacrifice. He will need to be convinced to change into a van and make the ride as his soul is broken. As they race away, we cut to a montage of each character, reliving and reflecting the traumas they experienced. A four year old Yusuke looks into the eyes of his dead mother. Haru is physically assaulted by her ex-finance. Ann watched Shiho from afar, bruised. Futaba sees her mom jump in front of a car. Ryuji knee is busted by Kamoshida. Persona 5 is really a story about surviving abuse, the final sequence should spell this out for the audience. Screaming, Morgana races into the light.
11. The gang regroups in Tokyo, embracing… it’s Christmas Eve, snowing. They all hold Morgana as police lights suddenly ignite around them. For a visual reference, see the resolution of the beach sequence in Roma (2018).
12. Cut to Ren back in the interrogation room. Sae enters, now with several other officers and officials. And this time, all of the Phantom Thieves are handcuffed and incarcerated, including all of the confidants for comic relief. Realizing this case is far too complex and that the Thieves have acted somewhat honorably, they drop all of the charges.
13. The ending sequence is pretty much the same. The gang drives off into the sunset. Only this time when Ren, inspired by Ryuji to always change your perspective, pops out from the roof of the van, he is joined by Ann. Mimicking the first time they met, Ann pushes back her hair and her hoodie, turns and smiles at him. Rattling wind noise swells fills the theater, they turn and face forward symbolically to the future. Ann leans her head on Ren’s shoulder. Cut to black, the theater goes silent. The End.
PRODUCTION & LOGISTICS – IN BRIEF
Let’s do a quick review of a tentative shooting schedule. It only makes sense to shoot all three films simultaneously. You have to plan for at least four to six weeks of shooting on location in Tokyo itself. Tokyo is notorious for not allowing film permits, which means you have to catch a lot of stuff on the fly. You’ll want to get a few shots in Shinjuku square, plus several sequences that take place in the subway system.much
In some ways, you’ll want to shoot much of the real world locations that occur in the game in the real-world equivalent. Even Shujin Academy, which I imagine we can find a school where we can film exteriors. Cafe LeBlanc would be a set, just because we would want complete control of that setting. But for all of the alleyway shots, confidant locations and so on, it would be fun to find real-world counterparts to shoot in, it would also add a layer of authenticity. Especially if we’re going to shoot most of the palaces on a set, we’re creating a visual template in which the sets can be a much more exaggerated version of the real world, just as they are portrayed in the game. Since the neighborhood of Sangenjaya was the basis for Cafe LaBlanc’s location, we can utilize this to great effect. The characters spend so much time in that neighborhood, and it’s much quieter than Shinjuku. You can easily get shots there. Also, it’s not too far from Atlus HQ, and I’m sure they’d like to check in on the production.
As for the music, it’s great. Shoji Meguro did such an amazing job there’s no reason to rework any of it. We can rerecord the music with a small orchestra to enhance certain scenes, but otherwise we have everything we need to have a complete score. It would be interesting to hear slower versions of the tunes. “Beneath the Mask” performed by a music box is downright haunting. Obviously once the movie is edited there may be reasons for writing new material but why reinvent the wheel? As stated in the beginning, Persona 5 comes complete with music and art direction. The real key to translating this into film will be the screenwriting process, knowing what to cut and what to keep.
From there, you’re going to head to a warehouse district where all of the sets are built, either in Japan or somewhere in the States depending on budget and logistics. From a pre-production standpoint, all of the major set design work has already been finished for the video game and animation. The team at Atlus did such a fantastic job, I imagine from an artistic perspective, you will want to make very few changes with the exception of translating the spaces to best suit the cinematography, which will be determined by the way the action sequences evolve in the script. The only real caveat would be to ensure that much of the set design is more of a labyrinth, too narrow to allow Morgana to change into a car and ram their way through the entire facility. Also, a lot more twists and turns make for a much better and thrilling suspense sequence. Each Palace is going to need its own set, although a clever set design team can repurpose textures and certain elements from one set to the next. There’s also a case for utilizing green screen where applicable, especially for the inevitable reshoots, but the more you can get on camera, the better. Special effects are expensive and there’s going to be several creatures developed in CGI as it is.
In the most idealistic circumstances, scouts would find several locations around the world and shoot there. Unfortunately, for a movie series with a far more limited budget, which I imagine this project would have, that will probably be out of the question. The budget would significantly increase as you travel around the world. You’ll have to send a second unit crew to fly to locations and grab those opening cinematic wide shots of Futaba’s pyramids, the Tokyo skyline, a castle in England and so on.
Because the set pieces are going to contain a lot of action sequences, visual effects and so on, you’re probably going to want to allow for at least four to six months of shooting. Once all of the scenes are shot on the sets, you fly back to Tokyo to get any remaining location shots you didn’t grab the first time around. The crew can start taking apart the majority of the sets, but leave sections behind so you can get the reshoots you’re going to need when you start editing the films together.
The most expensive Japanese films as of 2019 had an average budget of (estimated with conversion from Yen to Dollars) $40 to 50 million. From a financial standpoint, if you want to make a profit you’ll want to see if you can complete all three films for under $200 million US. This means you want a theatrical release to accompany an exclusive streaming contract roughly three to four months after each film opens worldwide. Granted, a movie like this might be a hard sell for audiences. But let’s say you get a streaming service like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime to foot a good portion of the bill. As they are currently working hard to gain credibility in the film industry, something like this could be a niche project that can act as a badly needed blockbuster with a fair dose of indie credibility to boot. In fact, judging from the type of programming Netflix has been releasing over the last few months, I can imagine they must be getting something in their algorithms that would suggest an anime type project with a little bit of superhero-kitsch thrown in with the pseudo-cerebral Christopher Nolan storyline would have to be on their radar. Yet Netflix has recently stated they are no longer interested in expensive productions after a series of financial and critical failures. I think this is more of a failure from marketing than the quality of work, as well as the volatile relationship streaming services have with the film industry. Also, the simple fact that Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu are throwing so much material at us, they might need to narrow their focus just a bit. Everything is getting lost in the overload of content. If you’re like me you’ve spent countless number of hours surfing through interfaces looking for the right thing to watch.
If Persona 5 is treated like a hip/niche prestige project, this could be a good chance for a streaming service to play around with the UI/UX treatments of special features, which are very common when you purchase a Blu-ray, but practically non-existent on streaming platforms. If the Lord of the Rings trilogy called their special features Appendices, for Persona 5 the special features could be called Mementos.
Besides, it’s a real interesting time in Japan right now for cinema, and Japanese studios are looking for big box office success stories. Although there are still major differences between Japanese and American sensibilities, a perfect combination of those two cultures can lead to something new and exciting. We’ve been borrowing and stealing from each other for years, it’s about time we worked in unison on more creative endeavors.
I could literally write a thirty page treatment about each film, sequences and their influences, and so on. But the real world gets in the way, and unless by some miracle Atlus decides to actually do the films and even more unlikely calls me up, this is where my journey ends. The closest I ever came to a production like this was the Charlie Brown screenplay I wrote back in 2000, a live-action take on if the Peanuts gang grew up, left college, and got stuck in their old ways. It never even got close to going anywhere… but the Charles M. Schulz Museum has the screenplay in their archives if you ever happen to be in Santa Rosa, California. I still can’t believe they actually asked for a copy.
I’m not placing comments on this post because of you know… trolls. But feel free to write to me directly. I’d love to know what you think… just email me.
If anything, what I hope this synopsis expresses is not that my ideas are necessarily the best, or this is exactly how to translate Persona 5 into a film or a television series… but that a Persona 5 film series a really good idea and much more feasible that one might think. Especially when you start digging deep into the story, which is brilliant, you can turn this into something special. There’s been an animation, a stage play, a film series seems like a logical next step. Maybe video games will finally have their moment in cinema, it’s been long overdue. By breaking up the story, stripping it down to what drives it the most effectively, then rebuilding it using all of the hard work Atlus has already completed, you can create something that works as a film while truly honoring the original source material. And if this all of this helps gain some momentum for a film adaptation, it would be a job well done.
Now I can finally feel a sense of relief that all of my ideas didn’t completely go to waste and can go back to my regularly scheduled programming of art shows and graphic design.
Michael William Foster- September 2019
(Just One More: I wrote this article for fun as an editorial about film and the tricky nature of adaptations. I’d like to thank Atlus and the gaming community for much of the material which acted as an inspiration for this article. And a quick shout out to Marie the Penguin on Instagram, whose photo was the basis for the Ann Takamaki poster mock-up.)