An in-depth overview on how the greatest video game of all time could become the greatest film trilogy of this generation.
The original Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies were groundbreaking epic films that pushed the preconceived boundaries of entertainment aimed for a wide audience. With origin stories more in line with independent cinema as opposed to the current trend of audience-tested institutionally crafted CGI thrill rides of well-worn intellectual properties, these films were in essence a low level black swan event that defined the era from which they were created.
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 play-through 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. After a couple of years laying out the groundwork for what could be the method of translating this property to film, I feel a film project like this could not only be successful, but with its inherited subversive message and underlying “fight the corrupt power” storyline, could rise to be a true connective cultural event for Generation Z, especially considering how 2020 has played out so far.
(Just in case you stumbled upon this thesis and wonder about the individual who wrote it, I’m a forty-something career-person with a respectable two decades working in fine art, advertising and marketing with an established roster of clients whom I now consider friends. I have also accumulated years of extensive study in social psychology, cognitive science, international cinema, game design and Japanese culture with an emphasis on post-WWII. And yet, there is still so much more to learn.)
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. Besides, we can avoid the infamous “Netflix Bloat” dilemma that many limited television series seem to suffer from these days.
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. Translating video games into cinema seems to be a near impossible task. The simple reason being, the material is translated badly. You cannot structure a movie plot 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 cinematic mistreatments of “Ghost in the Shell” and “Death Note,” the cast must 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.
SIDE NOTE: The Witcher series for Netflix is a critical failure but a fan favorite, 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, adds several new layers to the story. For now, we won’t worry about that.
Before we even get into the plot details of a Persona 5 film series… let’s take a look at why video games are so difficult to translate into film or television.
PLOT POINTS VS. GAME MECHANICS
The narrative of most major motion pictures follows the same old plot structure pattern you learned about in high school.
It’s pretty much the same route every story you know takes. The rising action builds into a big climax between the protagonist and antagonist. Most of our favorite films leave a trail of breadcrumbs that help the viewer along. Similar to a magic trick, you tell the audience what you plan to do and then you execute the trick, doing exactly what you said you would do. The audience is delighted by the process and the ingenuity of the journey. The most critically acclaimed films take the most unusual paths towards a resolution, or have a resolution that is the polar opposite of what you were expecting. The first part of a film tells you the plot and manages your expectations. The ending completes that journey in a satisfying way by creating consistency in the narrative with a few surprises along the way. Films need to have a circular quality. The best movies have visual cues and thematic elements in the beginning that you will circle back to at the end.
GAME STRUCTURE… A COMPLICATED AND NUANCED STAIRWAY
Video games on the other hand, operate on a very different set of rules to keep your attention. As you are actively engaged within the medium, there is a steady rising action that needs to challenge the player as they continue on the journey by keeping the difficulty wavering within a goldilocks zone, not too hard, not too easy. Boss battles act as mini-climaxes throughout the game, leading to the end battle which is basically the last big fight. The best games will even have a level in which the character literally says goodbye to characters in a leisurely pace. (Uncharted 4 does one of the best versions of this.)
The point being, you have to break apart the game flow channel dynamics completely and reform them into a standard three (or five) act plot. Otherwise you’re just repeating the game’s core structure, and the pacing for a game you actively play is completely non-suited for an engaging drama you passively watch. Also, since video games are driven by game mechanics and not necessarily narrative, if you try to force too many of the game elements (gags) into the plot to please the fans, you’ll create a film that is completely incoherent. Johnny Carson once said… “If you buy the premise..you buy the bit.” Video games are made of bits. You need to establish a premise.
That is the most critical mistake anyone and everyone seems to make when translating a video game into film. The entire way we approach and cognitively engage with these two forms of entertainment is completely different. Most of what makes for great game mechanics is the steady repetition of push button processes which slowly builds over time. We gain pleasure in clicking the right set of buttons and getting a positive reaction on our screen. The gratification of mastering a particular technique on a controller is what drives video games. However, in video games, pacing is extremely hard for the creator to directly manage as you are literally handing that control over to the player. All you can do is nudge the player into choosing paths with a sense of urgency. The best games have found a way to nudge the player into going the right direction, making the right choices and rise the challenges in a timely manner. How quickly they actually do so is entirely up to the player. You can read The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell if you’re interested in everything game design involves. It’s a wonderful read. Also, since in most JRPGs the main character is a blank slate the player mentally pours their own personality into, you need to forget all of that and create a fully-fleshed out flawed but capable personality for the film adaptation.
Video game cutscenes, the way most exposition and story are dealt with, are framed and executed more like a traditional stage play than cinema. Cutscenes move the story forward with a lot of dialogue and that’s about it, giving the player a well-needed break from mashing buttons. The action is usually shot wide, lighting and camera angles really don’t factor into the segment simply because you don’t want to break too far away from the gameplay aesthetic. Movies based on video games (and comic book movies for that matter) tend to carry over that bland stage play aesthetic and rely heavily on special effects and spectacle. Far too often, creators feel the need to carry over the basic game mechanics and other elements to drive the story which are simply not necessary. That part doesn’t matter. Only the story matters. Fortunately for us, Persona 5 has a lot of narrative and graphic style to utilize. We have a lot of substance to work with. Knowing what to keep and what to skip is going to be critical.
BENTO BOXING THE PLOT
This is a very long game with a ton of story, which means you’re going to have to cut out a bunch of stuff to make this work. This is literally the exact opposite problem most video games have, especially when translating them to another medium. Fortunately, since the video game and sub-sequential animation series comes with such a massive amount of subplots and 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 in passing, which can add more richness to the backstory where needed. The nice thing about film is that you can cram a lot of information quickly, by wonderfully crafted cinematography, using camera techniques to frame intention, or by dialogue driven data dumps as a last resort. In one carefully crafted shot you can express what it took an entire ten minute cutscene to do in the game.
A fun fact, in The Fugitive (1993), the famous scene where Harrison Ford proclaims he didn’t kill his wife, followed by Tommy Lee Jones giving a snarky response, “I don’t care” was originally a few pages of dialogue. It was shortened to a couple of sentences and had far more impact. There are dozens of ways we can take the exposition from the game and condense them into brief but much more poignant scenes. When you really thunk about it, the game has an unusual amount of exposition and repeat of key information. (That’s because it’s such a long and detailed game you need to constantly remind the player of the current plot points and objectives.)
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 complicated 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 easily 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 with true momentum. And you don’t want to get too tied down to hitting non-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 (2014-2015) movies suffer a little from “got to please the fans” storytelling.
For those that will fuss and complain 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.
In terms of all of the nuances and mechanics the game utilized to augment the action of the story… the baton pass, visiting other non-phantom Confidants, rather than over-using them, we just need to show them once or twice if they help drive the story forward. We repurpose them as ways to push the narrative. For films, too much repetition can be a real momentum killer. You literally have hundreds of little quirks, gags and gimmicks in the game that you can pepper throughout the film series and create a sophisticated layer of depth most franchises would kill for.
Using narrator driven films like Rashomon (1950), Life of Pi (2012) or The Usual Suspects (1995) as an example, most of the narration tells you just enough to elegantly set-up the next scene with some suspense. We can leave Morgana to do any further necessary plot explanation in Mementos, but always 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. For concepts that need a lot of explanation, we use narration. As a director, I would shoot a lot of exposition and decide what is critical to add the movie as we edit, always knowing that the less we have to explain the better.
In order to set up 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 assembling one-by-one, then conquering the metaverse and defeating Yaldabaoth, 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 extremely valid.) In a story this complex, you want to utilize the simplest and most emotionally driven story arcs. Ann shows up in the first reel, and her story which involves physical and sexual abuse from a teacher that leads to the attempted suicide of her best friend Shiho is extremely powerful. Makoto has plenty to do. She needs to fix her relationship with her semi-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 story elements of the game, our hero needs to have a strong moral compass.
THE FIRST FILM: PERSONA 5
Tagline: You’ll Never See It Coming.
The film starts off pretty much exactly like the game with the eerily quiet opening shot of the absurdly giant Casino in the middle of Tokyo followed by the frantic cat and mouse chase sequence. In fact, all three films will open with panning wide shots of the Tokyo skyline 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. We can also pay homage in the first shot of our hero to the manic shooting style from Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1969). Fun fact, the anti-hero in that movie shares a bit of visual similarities to our Protagonist, but it IS a very explicit film. Consider yourself warned.
Post heist, Ren gets caught and immediately thrown into an interrogation room with investigator Sae Niijima. 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, 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.
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 mostly 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 business 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. It also follows the same reasoning why the characters decide to use code names in palaces. You can make changes if they are in context to the original source material and serve the story.
For the record, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) was entirely in Cantonese and performed extremely well. American audiences are smarter than we give them credit for. For this, we’re going to meet everyone in the middle.
Speaking of bridges, back to the character of Ann Takamaki. She’s got blonde hair and blue eyes. She’s probably not Japanese except in name. Granted, one can argue over genetics, recessive genes and so on… but it’s been pretty much accepted that Ann is three-quarters caucasian and a quarter asian. Hence, Ann could be the sole mostly 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. There would need to be several discussions with Atlus on any non-asian casting. Persona 5 creators Katsura Hashino and Naoya Maeda should have the final say on any matters that relate to the story in such matters, this way it keeps the translation honest.
There has been plenty of talk about whitewashing in cinema, and it is surely justified. There’s no way around it. Not too long ago, Matt Damon was criticized for playing the role of a “white savior” in The Great Wall (2017). We do not want to repeat those same mistakes and ruin what could be a fantastic film series with one simple miscalculation. If you don’t think one character can kill a franchise let me utter these two simple words, “Jar Jar.”
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 some long-lingering embedded social racism. Sad but true.)
If I were to cast this trilogy tomorrow (early March of 2020), these would be my current top picks for each role…
Ren Amiyama – Taishi Nakagawa
Ryuji Sakamoto – Mahiro Takasugi
Ann Takamaki – Angourie Rice
Yusuke Kitagawa – Ryo Yoshizawa
Makoto Niijima – Minami Hamabe
Futaba Sakura – Sayu Kubota
Haru Okumura – Ruka Matsuda
Morgana – Voiced by (English) Cassandra Lee Morris, (Japanese): Ikue Ōtani
Goro Akechi – Jun Shison
Sae Niijima – Tao Okamoto (or Kiko Mizuhara)
Sojiro Sakura – Lily Franky
Sadayo Kawakami – Ryoko Yonekura
Masayoshi Shido – Ken Watanabe
Junya Kaneshiro – Takeshi Kitano
It would be fun to cast the voice actors from the game to some capacity. Perhaps they can play their respective personas, with CGI augmentation of course. Regardless, cameos would be a must.
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 besides needing the subsidy due to a failing business, 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 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. Besides, if it works, it works. Many of the animated cutscenes within the game were executed brilliantly.
Ren then bumps into Ryuji, driven by the app, they accidentally end up in Kamoshida’s Castle. From there, when cornered by the Shadow version of Kamoshida, both of them will awaken their Personas simultaneously. (We’re combining the events of the first two palace infiltrations 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 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, Ryuji needs to draw much of his performance from the explosive acting style of the great Toshiro Mifune. If you don’t know who that is, I am truly sorry, and you need to stop reading this right now and watch Rashomon (1950). For all you Americans, Ryuji’s character needs to be embedded with a tension not unlike 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 fly off the handle at any second. Explosive is the key word here.
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 a 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 reluctant leaders of “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. Ren also has to be a bit of a charmer and a flirt. We can always drawn upon the source material for Ren’s persona, Arsène Lupin.
Since Ren’s haircut was inspired by the 1960’s British Invasion mop tops, Ren can listen to Japanese garage bands from that time period like The Mops, Outcast, The Bunnys and The Spiders while crafting infiltration tools.
In the flashback scene where he prevents a sexual assault, Ren should be very reluctant to jump to the rescue. He looks around to see if anyone else can interfere. We can show a few window lights turning off, a neighbor in the distance quietly peeks out the window but seems disinterested in the violence taking place on the street. Ren sighs, he feels saddled by his conscious. This is where his character arc begins. He’s torn between a sense of moral obligation to his community and his reluctance to get involved with others.
Like many drafted into war, Ren feels a sense of honor and duty, but hates getting thrown into terrible situations that seem beyond his control. Ren is a loner. He’s a little sarcastic and elitist, in a charming “Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones” kind of way. 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’s a little like Tetsuya “Phoenix Tetsu” Hondo in Tokyo Drifter (1966). Not as jaded, not yet, but he’s getting there.
He becomes much more trusting as the story moves forward. 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 really had a lot of friends. His unfair arrest and probation made him even more introverted. 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 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. 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 physical cost. Persona summoning needs to feel visceral. It always needs to hurt a little every time they rip 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 A 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 longs 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 body visually functions as a teardrop for Ann, reflected as she looks out the window in horror.
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. Events in the film occur much faster, with urgency.
Once the calling card is sent, and the fight with Kamoshida is finished, Ann will appear to be ready to execute him on the spot… but in the end 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, increasing the bond between the two, with Ann’s awakening coming in a little later. The way the game portrays the treasure manifesting from a calling card will stay. In regards to the set timelines that the game imposes, that’s unnecessary. When the characters first enter a palace, they won’t have the luxury of a couple of weeks. They’ll have to accomplish their mission within a few 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. In fact, Morgana will do most of his data dumps once Ren, Ryuji and Ann are fully awakened. It saves time.
Within the metaverse, since we’re going with a more spontaneous adventure movie approach, there’s going to be much more suspenseful sneaking around as opposed to the upfront JRPG turn-based assault the games lean on. 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. Or worse, we lean on big bloated lazy CGI action sequences. It would be better if the creatures and bosses 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 revered scene of the Dark Knight Trilogy was the actual footage of a semi truck flipping over on State Street. In this tradition, battles in the Persona 5 film need to be much different than the cartoony turn based strategy of the video game. Action in Persona 5 needs to be 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). Don’t try to imitate the way action plays out in the game. Create unique and clever fight sequences that stack well. One great fight sequence is better than a dozen bloated ones.
I can easily picture a sequence in which Makoto sideswipes a lumbering monster with her motorcycle, that creature manifests itself in a cloud of gooey smoke, and then that creature is instantly shotgunned by another character from off camera as Makoto drives off. 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 first film of Persona 5, we will downplay the more silly elements. Shiho’s abuse by her volleyball coach is going to come across a lot harsher than 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. In the first film, the characters are building up to becoming The Phantom Thieves we know and love, not unlike Batman Begins (2005) or Casino Royale (2006).
(Sidenote: 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 facilitated 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 throw 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 only character 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. Besides, 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 all of the shadows in the bank lobby in a pure Max Max meets John Wick rage-a-thon. More on this later.
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 should be done thoughtfully and only to augment the material that already exists.
Because the boss fight with the mafia guy turned human-sized fly is a little cumbersome, we might have to portray this differently in the film. A fight sequence in a downpour of silver coins could be visually stunning while making the robotic piggy bank henchman more like a human-sized Terminator T-800, rather than a lumbering giant monster. This sequence needs to feel sharp, metallic, more immediate and much more lethal.
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. The point being, both palaces in the first film will feel like tonal opposites.
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. 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. Let’s use visual cues from the opening party sequence in La Grande Bellezza (2013). We can introduce all of the characters sneaking and darting into the crowd while the chaos happens above. Let’s make this wild and crazy, lock the audience in the opening sequence.
2. Sae Niijima enters the police station. We will repeat the walking from left to right shot they use in the animation, although in a slight angle. (More on that later.) 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. We only get one or two dream sequences per movie. A lot of the game mechanics are removed from Igor’s agenda, as they are not necessary to the story. Let’s give these a full David Lynch treatment. Rumor has it, the Velvet Room was directly inspired by the “Red Room” in Twin Peaks.
INDEPTH: It would be fun to shoot the first celebratory dinner at the Sky Carrot, a Western-style cafe in the Sangenjaya Tokyo Area. I know it’s not a hotel, but the look and feel of the cafe is superb, and would pay a little more homage to the inspiration for Yongen-Jaya. Katsura Hashino is shown dining there in a video about his work at Atlus.
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 distorted big bad from the final film spying.)
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.)
IN DEPTH: When Makoto approaches the bank teller, let’s mimic the opening shot of Sae walking towards the interrogation room. The mood will be similar to the beginning of the heist in Heat (1995). However, Sae walks from the left side of the screen to the right as the camera pans. Makoto approaches from the right walking to the left side of the screen. This gives a subtle visual cue that Makoto is taking the exact opposite direction that her sister has taken.
When Makoto has her awaking, her persona is a motorcycle named Johanna. As stated earlier, it would be fun to see her tear through the banking establishment in pure rage, knocking down enemies by sliding into them. As the shadows poof into their more monster like forms, the Phantom Thieves will start shooting them up before they can attack. If the heist in Heat (1995) was an action sequence that spiraled out of control spilling into the streets of Los Angles, ours stays contained and focused burrowing into the depths of the bank itself.
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 lightly 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.
There’s so… much… more.”
Cut to black.)
PERSONA 5: RISE OF THE PHANTOM THIEVES
Tagline: Wake Up and Get Out There.
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. A fantastic musical choice for this sequence could be Yaeji’s “Feel it Out” from the Yaeji EP (2017). The reporter Ichiko Ohya ambushes Madarame with questions about stealing work from his students, which he casually dismisses. Sae is also there, conducting 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 we see in the game. 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 a visual 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’re missing out.
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 (a.k.a. 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.
IN DEPTH: First off, we need to have Wednesday Campanella’s “Ra” from Zipangu playing softly in Futaba’s room at some point in the film for obvious reasons. Also, the beach sequence needs to have catharsis. I like the idea of Futaba looking at the setting sun, closing her eyes, the wind picks up slightly and a little sand hits her face, she exhales. Like an emotional polar-opposite of the beginning of battle in Jarhead (2005), yet utilizing the same muted sound pitch and slow motion techniques.
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. It is during this part of the film Morgana, insulted by an off-handed remark by Ryuji, disappears for a while. The concern for Morgana builds as the team, now feeling pressure to investigate Kunikazu Okumara, enter his palace.
6. The Phantom Thieves enter the Big Bang Burger Palace, a space station… which will be oddly deserted. They meet Haru and Morgana, which plays out like the video game. Haru seems way in over her head by the whole scenario. Luckily, there are very few baddies in the space station. Even the boss battle at the end seems way too easy. This helps reinforce the whole “this is 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. That’s when the wheels spin off the wagon.
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, tweaked by Futaba.
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
Tagline: The Game is Over.
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 during a thunderstorm. A thunderstorm helps augment the feeling that we enter film three with a lot of turbulence and uncertainty. 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.
IN DEPTH: I have always pictured this opening sequence to a somber song by The National “Nobody Else Will Be There” from the album Sleep Well Beast (2017). Imagine a car chase not unlike the opening of Quantum of Solace (2008) expect the sound muted with the song the focus. At some point, I would love to do a shot-by-shot breakdown of this sequence. Check back later as I am always adding and revising this article when I have the time. The concept being, the thunderstorm and the somber music sets up movie three in a way that breaks from the first two narrator driven films. This is in real-time now, this is very serious and actions have real consequences.
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.
IN DEPTH: After the gang leaves the safe room and scatters, Makoto stops her sister in a heavy downpour before they hop into the car. Sae is holding and umbrella while Makoto gets drenched. Makoto, trying to hold back beings sobbing, begging for Sae’s forgiveness. Just before Makoto crumbles and drops to her knees, Sae stops her, drops the umbrella and hugs her tightly, holding back tears. None of this happens in the game. The heavy rain symbolizes emotion, Makoto, getting drenched and sobbing uncontrollably is at her emotional breaking point. When Sae drops the umbrella and embraces her sister, both of them are now getting rain-soaked. This is Sae finally coming to terms with the strained relationship with her sister, and her failure to be a good substitute parent. Rain now becomes a symbol of cleansing. A carefully crafted scene like this can tell a ton of story in just a few brief moments, and make for a satisfying end to the Makoto/Sae story arc.
At this point it’s a round-up. All of the adult characters and confidants are rounded up by police at their homes. Makoto barely escapes. The gang immediately heads back to the warehouse where a romantic encounter between Ren and Ann was about to take place. This is when the gang realizes they have a relationship.
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. Also… just a side note… in this palace, the night sky should have two moons, paying tribute to Haruki Murakami’s novel “1Q84.”
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. We also get to visit the previous villains that have now succumbed to being a part of the cultural machine.
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 the Holy Grail/Yaldabaoth, we’re going to make him more human-sized once the grail machine is jammed up. We need to keep the action on ground level. 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. 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. (Here’s the thing, I wrote that over a year ago and sure enough, Persona 5 Royal does this exact same thing with the newly added final boss battle. I think we can hint at it in the final film of the trilogy, and then flesh that aspect out in the fourth film Persona 5 The Royal, which will act as a stand-alone coda to the first three films.)
The truth is, the final boss battle of Persona 5 come across kind of like the ending of the first Ghostbusters (1984) film, complete with a frightened but supportive crowd of spectators on the ground. I’ve never been a fan of what I call “crowd confrontation” scenes. Even in classics like The Graduate (1967). it’s just cheesy and overdone. The crowd in essence creates an artificial rise in pressure as they observe the protagonists and their actions. It’s a contrived way to add tension. Besides, we’re going to be on a budget. If the final battle stays more intimate and contained, it will be more effective emotionally on screen.
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.
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.
And since we aren’t talking at lot about shooting style and cinematography right now…. needless to say if we don’t pay homage to Akira Kurosawa in framing the sequences, we would be making a critical mistake. Good cinematography can instantly show how a character feels without having to resort to lengthy exposition.
That being said, the game does a lot of interesting things with angles corners. A lot of the social aspects of the game are shot on an angle. There’s a natural tilt to the world the characters inhabit. Except for the actual gameplay where the camera is flat and straight on, most of the game has slanted perspectives which are augmented by the UI/UX design of the menus. Lot of zigs and zags.
As a rule, I would have my cinematographer shoot much of the first movie using Dutch angles. As the film series progresses, the camera angles lessen. By the end of the third film, everything is straight on and level. It would be a simple but highly effective way to show how the world of Persona 5 is slowly rectifying itself due to the actions of the main characters.
In terms of color and lighting, for the real world scenes I would draw heavily on two films, Lost in Translation (2003) and Shoplifters (2018). The real world needs to feel soft, painterly and pastel with the exception of the color red, which will be used to highlight locations and objects just like in the films The Sixth Sense (1999) and Three Colors: Red (1994). We can shoot in natural lighting and use post-production to augment the red hues. When characters find themselves in the metaverse, you’ll get all of that neon colorful lighting techniques they use in films like John Wick 2 (2017) or Tokyo Drifter (1966). All of the later period yakuza films directed by Seijun Suzuki would be a great inspiration for colorful action in the metaverse, but not too much. Tarantino has gotten a lot of milage from the visual style of films likes these. Regardless, colorful moody lighting is a great way to make sets look more exquisite and hide flaws, especially when you’re on a budget. An entire cinematic look was invited just for that reason. In Blade Runner (1982), director Ridley Scott was so disappointed by the set design he only shot in the dark with lots of smoke and minimal lighting to hide the poor quality of the location.
As for the music, it’s fantastic. Shoji Meguro did such an amazing job there’s no reason to rewrite any of it. We will certainly rerecord or rework the original music with an orchestra, but we have everything written (musical cues and themes) we need. It would be interesting to hear slower versions of certain tunes. “Beneath the Mask” performed by a music box is downright haunting. 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, what to enhance 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. You’ll have to send a second unit crew to scout locations and grab those opening cinematic wide shots of Futaba’s pyramids and so on.
Because the set pieces are going to contain a lot of action sequences and visual effects, 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.
Some of 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. The real trick would be to convince a streaming service to allow the first film to have a soft theatrical release in a limited amount of theaters, in order to build up word-of-mouth.
Of course, Netflix has stated they are no longer interested in expensive theatrical 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 streaming 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 with a decent-sized devoted fanbase, 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. (Besides, there are many accomplished Japanese directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda that should get first dibs to the project.) The closest I ever came to an actual 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’m not placing comments on this post because I have little patience for 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 own 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 far more feasible that one might initially think. When you start digging deep into the main story, which is simply brilliant, you can turn this into something special. There’s been an animation and 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.
Michael William Foster 2019-2020
(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.)