When a student by the name of Danda adopts a porcelain mask as a direct result of school bullying, he spurs on a large majority of fellow students to do the same thing. With this mask in place Danda has been able to hide his insecurities and act without remorse, challenging those who once dared to torment him and finding that great power lies elsewhere. Eventually this “fad” takes over the entire school, placing them in news headlines, while several teachers begin to worry about the damage it might be causing. This infatuation with masks is only further escalated by a recent string of fashion shows, led by the mysterious and popular model Hiroko, who champions the mask craze and in fact promotes them in line with her lead designer Daimon’s (Akaji Maro) clothing fashions.
Meanwhile high school student Yuki (Maya Kurosu) and her best friend Ashihara (Yuma Ishigaki) receive an e-mail from an old school chum by the name of Tonomura, inviting them to attend a special party, which soon enough draws them into the word of masks, but when Tonomura mysteriously dies they begin to investigate this new social phenomenon. Soon enough a tabloid reporter called Yaba (Ikkei Watanabe) asks for the help of Yuki and Ashihara, who have managed to source some solid leads, least of which is the whereabouts of a mask maker named Akira Dojima (Tatsuya Fujiwara). Yuki eventually meets Dojima and discovers that he creates these masks for a particular reason, but the closer she gets to him the nearer she draws closer to becoming a major target for whoever is murdering helpless victims.
Takashi Komatsu’s Persona [Kamen Gakuen] is clearly a picture with an intent to establish cause for concern. Undeniably it deals with the repercussions brought on by acts of bullying and suppression; certainly not uncommon ground, then, but a relevant basis for debate in a society where conformity takes precedence amongst all else. The idea that many of us wear - I should say proverbial - masks in order to stamp out our inhibitions has long provided fascinating subject matter. People are never what they appear to be, or a distinct trauma has brought about a change of character, to the point that we no longer recognise our former selves. Indeed, much of Persona attempts to tackle the issue of identity crisis, fear and chances for freedom in the face of adversity. That alone makes the first act of the film engaging enough, as we begin to see students at one particular high school don masks in a bid to fight back against a system that frankly did next to nothing to alleviate their pains. However, Komatsu gets far too caught up in his great scheme; he allows his streak to spiral out of control by playing the same card for too much of its duration. Once it hits the middle act and careers toward the third its air begins to smell of pretension, due to the way in which it overly stresses its point through the harbinger of reason played by a stoic Ren Osugi. That’s a shame because Persona has psychological merit to it, which is eventually sidelined in order to accommodate a rudimentary storyline.
It’s not surprising that Komatsu can’t maintain the social angle for ninety minutes; there has to be some form of a plot to keep the viewer interested and head writer Hiroshi Hashimoto - adapting from Osamu Soda’s novel - proves to us that it’s no easy task. Sadly the film falls into disarray once character motives are underway and the narrative begins to unravel a mystery surrounding the deaths of several students, with the lead protagonists Yuki and Ashihara turning detective. Komatsu builds up so much by this point that the film leaves little time to focus on fleshing out central characters. Instead it evolves into a predictable “whodunit”, thanks to some inept character building. The biggest problem is that we have absolutely no investment in any of these people, there is no reason why we should even care about where things are heading with them, which is made all the more frustrating when the film introduces several suspects, each of whom has the personality and presence of a nat, in addition to some sort of side story whereby the investigation falls to the wayside so that the director can shift his attention toward Yuki and Akira’s bland relationship. It certainly doesn’t help when the film is led by uniformly dull performances. The only name that springs out for curiosity’s sake is Chiaki Kuriyama in an early and forgettable role, filmed shortly after completing work on the equally vapid Shikoku. Her early roles required so very little of her; her unique face, fantastically long hair and wiry frame placed her into undemanding roles as depressive types, to which Persona does nothing to alter that. She’s not had many great chances beyond those ambiguous silent types, but she does have plenty of talent that deserves to be tapped into more often. Maya Kurosu is competent as the cheery Yuki and Azumi’s Yuma Ishigaki settles into his first film reasonably well, while Tatsuya Fujiwara is predictably annoying. Fujiwara, no doubt most famous for his roles in the Battle Royale films also happens to be one of Japan’s most non-versatile actors working today. Getting past his boyish/slightly girly looks his sole repertoire consists of wearing a sullen frown with the aim of earning audience sympathy - only he fails almost every time.
Stylistically though Persona isn’t too shabby. Although it was in fact released theatrically in Japan it has all the bearings of a straight to video production. Quite minimalist in approach, particularly when centred on the high school, it eventually opens up a few interesting avenues. Komatsu manages to capture an effective surrealness by inserting some curious splashes of colour, as well as representing the rather close knit relationship between copycat students in a suitably claustrophobic manner. The idea appears to be that things are bound to become disorienting as each individual life becomes indistinguishable from the other and by doing so the director attains a certain level of madness to it all, which plays well during the earlier stages and the latter moments of the film when these students rise against the system through acts of street violence. Elsewhere his creative insight is nowhere near as interesting. When the film isn’t dark and dingy it’s caught up in fashion shows which tend to affect the pacing and offer very little to the overall story. As further detriment he has the gall to include Atomic Kitten’s “Daydream Believer” in the soundtrack, so I have to deduct a point I’m afraid. Now I don’t want to see any hate mail from any of you Atomic Kitten fans out there, that is if they have any these days.
Presented anamorphically, with a ratio that appears to be close to 1.78:1, Persona looks to be in its original form. The transfer exhibits window boxing, with larger overscan to the left and right (which are not visible on a television display), which in total brings the frame in at 1.85:1. See example below:
The image isn’t particularly striking, with the authoring doing very little to accommodate the apparent low budget. The transfer is soft throughout, with detail varying from scene to scene and edge enhancement being merely a hindrance, while black levels lack great depth and the image appears quite muddy throughout; however I suspect that some of this is down to the source material. Colours seem fine in general though. Sadly this is another standards conversion, which is something that Terra has yet to improve on, making for yet another sub par looking release.
Japanese DD2.0 is our one and only sound option, and it appears to be quite solid, replicating the original audio experience from its theatrical release in 2000. The audio mixing is a little off, sounding a tad hollow during quieter dialogue scenes, with some hissing to boot, but the ambient effects are nicely channelled and the score is quite aggressive on occasion. Again it’s likely that some of the problems are down to the original audio elements, but it delivers all the same and doesn’t make for too much distraction.
Optional English subtitles are included and there are no errors to report.
There’s a certain amount of validation to be had from Persona. The themes of identity and individuality bare significance in many respects, but Takashi Komatsu’s film all too quickly becomes overshadowed by dire characterisation for its central protagonists and a middling story that goes from being generally solid to tragically uninvolving.