[Gamasutra visits a recent Tokyo-based live concert for Atlus' fan-favorite role-playing game series Persona, bringing details of the musical event, its themes and all its fan-pleasing surprises.]
Recently the publishers of the Persona soundtrack albums organized a live concert of music from the role-playing game series. "Live in Velvet Room," presented by Aniplex Records, took place at the Wel City Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It marks the second gathering of its kind in the span of a year, centering on performances by the artists featured in-game.
The program included nearly thirty tracks, with two encore sets, a representative sampling culled from the Shin Megami Tensei universe. With some heavy expectations to contend with, the event organizers provided a spectacle aimed at satiating the most emotionally invested of Atlus devotees.
Sound producer Shoji Meguro himself was on stage for every performance, kicking the battle themes into high gear on electric guitar. Brief talk sessions offered each performer their moment as emcee. It was a chance to briefly get to know singers Yumi Kawamura and Shihoco Hirata, though the program never lingered long before conversation yielded to beats.
Characters from the game also made larger-than-life appearances on a giant monitor above the stage. Igor, Teddy, Tanaka and company were given concert-specific dialog, supplied by the original voice actors, fully in character. Implicit in the entire affair was a recurring theme of the amalgamation of real and imaginary worlds.
This report from Wel City details the strategies employed by Atlus and Aniplex during the live event. The summary extends to an overview of the songs performed and a viewpoint on the roles they have served in furthering the narrative styles of Personas 1, 3 and 4.
In the lobby of the Wel City hotel, cosplaying attendees had canvas bags prepared for those who had preordered concert tickets in advance. They carried glossy ads for Persona 3 Portable, its original soundtrack album and a recent DVD release covering the previous year's concert in Akasaka. Also included were light sticks resembling the familiar blue Persona butterfly. When the lights dimmed inside the hotel auditorium and the theme of the Velvet Room came up on the speakers, the seats were illuminated by the glow of blue wands.
The previous year Persona 4 had been relatively new to shelves, and music from the game had led "Live in Velvet Room at Akasaka Blitz." This time, however, it was the portable games Persona and P3P more immediately on attendees minds, and the concert got started with two vocal themes from the games.
First, however, on a video monitor located above the stage, there appeared the interior of an elevator bathed in blue light. One of the few points of reference uniting the Persona installments, the Velvet Room will appear in such forms as a jazz lounge or the rear of a limousine, depending on the situation. As might be expected, the first to appear on the screen was series regular, Igor: an intently staring old man, seen tucking a handkerchief into his breast pocket.
Once Igor had welcomed the audience to the Velvet Room, he was joined by two of his female assistants, Margaret and Elizabeth. A moment meant to be disorienting (the two play the same role in separate games), “What are you doing here?” they demanded in turn. This prompted a brief debate about who should tell the members of the audience to turn off their pagers and cellphones.
This back-and-forth, which was met with laughter and applause, marked the first of several instances over the course of the concert where the interplay between real and fictional contexts was used to comedic effect. Only brief pauses as the vocalists introduced both themselves and their representative game installments would punctuate the unyielding musical momentum of the concert that followed.
Yumi Kawamura of Persona 3 entered in an outfit modeled after Igor's suit and tie. Together with male vocalist Lotus Juice, they got things underway with two moodier musical offerings from the game series: "Dream of Butterfly" from Persona for PSP and "P3 FES" from the Playstation 2 title's expanded edition. Atlus has uploaded videos of both opening themes, and watching the two together offers a sense of their shared styles, alternating between passages marked by tension and repose.
As the Persona series has gained an audience, the scenario writers have increasingly taken their time in allowing otherworldly presences to encroach upon the everyday lives of their high school protagonists. The first Persona wastes little time before the principle characters invoke their beastlike allies in battle, the Personas.
The lyrics to the game's “Dream of Butterfly” revolve around dreaming and wanting not to wake. An implication of the opening scene of the first Persona is that the ritual that starts off a chain of paranormal events is enacted out of the characters' desire to escape reality.
Seeing as arguments dominate the relationships of the party prior to the arrival of the Personas, battling otherworldly forces is perhaps the key to bringing them together. The song might even be taken to suggest that the students of St. Hermelin have an unconscious desire to see the familiar markers of their everyday existences corrode.
In Persona 3, the recurring image of the gunlike Evokers and the refrain of "Burn My Dread" paint a self-destructive image of human desire. Meguro makes the most of Kawamura’s strengths as a vocalist with the song's characteristic alternation between serenity and angsty, guitar driven passages (as with "Butterfly"). Making leaps between tenderness and aggression, the transitions are accomplished without seeming disorienting. Both songs "Dream of Butterfly" and "FES" mirror an uneasy division between dream and reality that is a predominant motif of the Persona series: a note of suspense to start off the Wel City concert.
Following the opening themes, Kawamura took a moment to introduce herself to the audience. Reminding everyone of the impending return of P3, she sang "Want to Be Close," "When The Moon's Reaching Out Stars" and "Living With Determination." The songs, performed back-to-back without pause, were intended to elicit memories of sprinting through the halls of Gekkoukan High School and afternoon train rides around town. These vignettes from the game were projected onto the overhead monitor, distorted through image software filters, as if seen through the hazy lens of memory.
Moving right along, vocalist Shihoco Hirata ushered in Persona 4 through a musical introduction that for many accompanied their first glimpses of the game. "Pursuing My True Self" appeared both as the background music for the teaser trailer and with the opening animated montage in the game. The lyrics, turning on keywords "unconscious" and "relationships," introduce the central themes. Alongside the performance, images of animated sequences depicting Chie Satonaka and company mingled with the strobelike effect of entering the Midnight Channel.
Hirata, who became something of a celebrity in Japan following the breakthrough success of the Persona 4 soundtrack album, was exceedingly gracious in introducing herself and sound producer Shoji Meguro. In a pattern mirroring the previous set, the band launched into a medley of three vocal tracks, “Signs of Love,” “Heartbeat, Heartbreak” and “Your Affection,” which transitioned one into the other with only a momentary pause in between.
As the Persona series will typically expect players to invest somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 hours into a given installment, it was likely that many of those in the audience knew the source material by heart. While the performances were based on recording sessions blessed with the luxury of multiple takes, the live renditions therefore had to be spot on so as not to disappoint. Hirata managed to provide both momentum and grace to her songs, which contain some tricky flights into glass rattling higher registers.
Upon the completion of the Persona 4 set, the montage of battle gameplay displayed on the overhead screen gave way to the image of Tanaka, host of the "Amazing Commodities" home shopping TV program. In a demonstration of business savvy completely appropriate to the character (and implicitly a well calculated move on the part of the event organizers), Tanaka announced that tonight he had a special offer for Persona t-shirts and posters for purchase at the booths located in the lobby.
A non-vocal musical interlude followed as Meguro took center stage, making calculated use of the whammie bar on P4 battle theme "The Almighty" and Persona 3's hip-hop flavored "Mass Destruction." The series took a risk on infusing its RPG musical palette with hip-hop in the days before this convention was adopted by other franchises. Musicians Lotus Juice and DJ Waka attempted to drive home the point with an English-language beatboxing interlude and P3's "Burn My Dread." More in keeping with industry standards, the roles of vocalists Mayumi Fujita and Shuhei Kita have been to infuse the animated series Persona: Trinity Soul with familiar JPop conventions. Both have been recruited to provide vocal tracks for Persona 3 Portable.
Several of the slower anime songs that appeared the previous year were removed from the Shinjuku concert program to make room for Kita's opening theme "Soul Phrase" for P3P. The choice of a male vocalist to counterbalance Kawamura's role on the Playstation 2 game is in line with the male/female mirroring that is a key feature of the PSP port.
When the game goes on sale in Japan in November, players will be able to choose between unnamed male and female protagonists. The art and music style of the entire game will undergo transformations depending on the gender selected. For instance, Igor’s attendant Elizabeth is swapped out in favor of a male substitute named Theodore, social links develop around different characters, and several visual cues change from blue to red after the eye color of the alternate character. Never before heard musical themes are also scheduled to accompany the female protagonist's quest, providing material for the Aniplex original soundtrack going on sale later this year.
While the geographical setting of the Persona series is firmly grounded in Japan (Revelations: Persona aside) many of the vocal tracks are inexplicably sung in English. However the three ending themes that followed were primarily Japanese-language, beginning with P4's "Never More." One can never tell how much the atmosphere of the game would have changed without Hirata’s participation as vocalist. On songs like this one, however, it's hard to play down her role in taking a series with a predominantly unsettling subtext in a new direction. The brightness of the song, complemented by the art design's yellow-dominated color scheme and upbeat personalities, offer in a snapshot P4's emphasis on hope and friendship.
Kawamura and Hirata switched roles as primary vocalist and backup for "Kimi no Kioku/ Memories of You," a bittersweet coda for Persona 3. The third end theme, this time for Persona for the PSP, also posed something of a discordant resolution. Titled "Voice," and sung by Kawamura, the song alternates somewhat uneasily between major and minor chords. Perhaps an expression of the impermanence of their victory, a central character from Persona is destined to return to do battle in Persona 2 Innocent Sin. Again, Atlus has made both ending themes available online for structural comparison.
Following "Voice" was the intentionally less disconcerting "Reach Out to the Truth," another tribute to the game's theme of harmonious friendship. Hirata’s control of vocal pitch may be partly attributable to her training in classical piano, and the song's melody is set in sharp contrast with its rhythmic rap-influenced passages.
Just as it seemed that the concert had drawn to a close, the image of the P3 protagonist lying on the ground appeared on the overhead screen, together with the words "The Plume of Dusk in your pocket is radiating a warm glow. Would you like to use the Plume of Dusk?" The audience clapped and chanted as offstage the musicians prepared for another encore set.
In a moment of levity that turned out to be one of the most memorable moments of the Velvet Room concert, Kita emerged dressed in coke bottle glasses and a bald cap in impersonation of the Persona series' pharmacy owner, together with Hirata in the school nurse’s outfit. The two sang the Satomi Tadashi song, which goofily offers a rundown of all the healing items on sale in Persona for PSP and their medicinal uses in battle.
The concert concluded with the rock track "Battle for Everyone's Souls," fittingly containing the melody of the theme of the Velvet Room, bringing things full circle. As the musicians took their bows and Igor offered some closing remarks from the screen overhead, the curtain closed on another year of Persona live music.
[Persona series original soundtrack albums can be imported from Amazon.co.jp. Images courtesy of Aniplex Records.]