Note: Due to the nature of this review, all samples in the tracklist will lead to their video counterpart on our YouTube channel.
I’m sure, if you’re reading this, that you know more than a little about the Persona franchise. But have you ever heard of Game Symphony Japan? If not, allow me to give you a brief introduction. The quick and dirty version is that they’re an independent orchestra, like North American groups such as Video Games Live (VGL), The Video Game Orchestra (VGO), etc. For years, this group has been performing live, but no retail release of audio or video has come to pass. This is similar, in my mind, to the VGO in Boston. They’ve performed some exceptional concerts, but the best audio you’ll find from many of those concerts are bootleg recordings.
Fortunately, with the advent of the Persona series 20th anniversary, Atlus saw fit to associate themselves with, and fully endorse, the GSJ for a holiday performance (“Concert” and “Encore” sections were performed and recorded on December 25, 2016, which explains the appearance of “Silent Night”). Without question, this was GSJ’s biggest performance to date. And when you watch the video, this becomes immediately apparent. Throughout the concert, we see solo vocalists, a full choir, a traditional symphony orchestra, a percussion section with some of the weirdest gadgets you or I have ever seen (seriously, a cranked wheel with a towel on it?), a full pipe organ, and a “rock band” section featuring guitar, bass, and a full drum kit when the need arises for them. Oh, and of course, there are many featured instrumental solos/ensembles, including piano, harp, and four traditional shamisen players.
By my count, there are approximately 50 musicians in the traditional symphony orchestra, approximately 20 singers in the choir, and specialized sections and featured soloists that number at least 20. If my calculations are correct, then, it’s safe to say that 90 performers participated (margin of error plus/minus 10 performers). That’s a big deal.
So, we have a big concert, a huge audience, endorsement from Atlus … are we set for success? Well, there is one more crucial thing to consider: arrangement. A total of eight different arrangers — per the packaging, concert website, and previous concert footage found in the bonus section — worked on this release. Perhaps some are better suited to arrange for such a large group than others? Maybe they all nailed it! Or, wait … what if none of them know how to translate Persona’s VGM style, whether Tsuchiya or Meguro, into a full orchestra and choir? What a disaster that would be!
Before I let my head spin in circles any more, let’s allow the first impression set the stage, shall we? “Aria of the Soul,” the iconic theme written for the first Persona and found as the “Velvet Room” theme in every Persona since, is used as the opener, and at nearly seven minutes long, it is quite the opener. Better yet, the solo vocalist is none other than Tomoko Komiya, the original vocalist who recorded on the Persona 1 OST and returned multiple times to do additional work on the franchise. Komiya has the operatic classical voice nailed down; one can imagine she’s been training her voice for this kind of work for decades, and she still has it absolutely perfect. The orchestra and even the conductor seem to be following her enchanting lead, and they do an amazing job. The arrangement does feature an instrumental break, giving Komiya a chance to rest her voice. During that time, we see some other key performers: the lead clarinet, the oboe, the harp, and a smattering of the very interesting percussion section. As Komiya returns, the piece builds to a fantastic climax and ends on a surprise major chord. Bravo!
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before I noticed some cracks in the armor. After a lovely yet sparse “Opening,” the orchestra moves swiftly into “Legends Awaken.” And by swiftly, I mean “too swiftly” for some of the orchestra, apparently. The rift in tempo is so obvious there’s even a shot of the conductor’s face where you can see he’s frustrated and trying to get the strings to catch up with the rest of the orchestra. It’s a painful cacophony to witness … it always is, with any orchestra. But these things happen.
Anyone else remember the “Tesso” battle? It’s this thing, the mechanical rat in the garden labyrinth. Beneath this cheesy music, however, is some fairly impressive arrangement and performance. I am particularly enamored with the female half of the chorus, dressed in white, each singing “meow!” at different times, and always with a cute cat-claw hand motion. High marks for choreography!
Then, almost as if to make up for the mess that was “Legends Awaken,” the orchestra is joined with the full rock band for an epic performance of “The Brink of Death.” There is no noticeable tempo lost. There is, however, a noticeable inclusion of the pipe organ … though I personally wish the microphones had picked up on this better, as I imagine the live audience heard it better than anyone behind the sound booth was able to discern. That little frustration aside, this battle theme was epic and it made my heart soar to hear music from the very first entry in the series get such special treatment. But it only got better: “Snow Queen” is a slow-tempo piece that runs for nearly five minutes and features the entire orchestra and choir. It’s a fantastic piece of music, a fantastic arrangement, a stellar performance, and one of my favorite parts of the entire concert.
Fun fact: the entirety of the Persona 1 section was arranged by one person, Ayana Tsujita. The entirety of the Persona 2 section, likewise, is handled by one arranger: Ikumi Nakayama. Perhaps Ikumi Nakayama will avoid giving the strings section fast-tempo items it isn’t meant to handle? Let’s move on to the music for Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment!
For track selection, Nakayama splits the set directly in half. We get four tracks from Innocent Sin (including its opening and vocal ending “Next to You”), followed by four tracks from Eternal Punishment (including its opening and vocal ending “Change Your Way”). For the openings, things work out great in both cases, though I have a soft spot for the Eternal Punishment opening, and I thought the orchestra and choir did great with this one. “Knights of the Holy Spear” sounded great in orchestra form, but it is something of a boring track. Fortunately, things get a lot more interesting with “Joker Theme,” and then “Next to You” makes fantastic use of the female choir to sing the lyrics and the male choir to offer a foundation and the occasional counter-melodic strain.
Skipping ahead, I thought that while “Boss Battle” sounded fantastic, I wish the arrangement had been longer. Nakayama pushed some of the instrumentalists to their limit, including keyboardist Noriko Kajita and the entire pitched percussion section (marimba, xylophone, chimes, etc.). In fact, Nakayama did a great job incorporating pitched percussion all throughout the P2 section of the concert. But it was most noticeable in the Boss Battle theme.
And now for my big P2 complaint. “Maya Theme” and “Change Your Way” have shared melodic and harmonic roots. Of all the great songs to pick from the Eternal Punishment soundtrack, I frankly think it was lazy for Nakayama to use both songs in the concert, no matter how good they sound. And yes, they did sound good. Maya’s theme, in its quickened pace, sounded wonderful, with no tempo disintegration on the part of the orchestra. “Change Your Way,” however, went as I predicted it would. I said to myself just before it came on that if they had a solo vocalist (whether the original or someone new), it would work out fine. But, if the choir was left to do the same with this song as they did in “Next to You,” there was going to be a problem. And yes, it’s a language problem.
You see, “Change Your Way” is written in English. It is performed in English. Remember? “You can go where you want to go / Be who you want to be / Change the way you live!” Even for a non-native speaker of English, this song can be performed fairly easily with one vocalist. However, for a large choir to sing in a foreign language — especially when the song has an R&B sound with lots of syncopation — this is a recipe for mediocrity at best, train wreck at worst. Fortunately, we got the best possible result with “mediocrity.” Nakayama straightened out some of the syncopation intentionally to give the choir something more attainable, something that would work with the large orchestra. But the struggle with singing a foreign language in unison and in a way that makes any sense is very difficult. Perhaps, as a native English speaker, this bothers me far more than it bothered the audience that night.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to enter the world of Shoji Meguro. Meguro took the lead with the Persona series (and much of the SMT meta-franchise) with SMT3 and Persona 3, respectively. It is here that concert takes a noticeable turn in a certain direction. How to describe that direction? Let’s say that Persona 1 and 2 take themselves very seriously but also have quirky, fun sections. Persona 3-5, on the other hand, somehow synthesize serious and fun into a package deal in almost every composition. That’s Shoji Meguro for you.
For Persona 3, the arranger on deck is Yutaka Kimura. This GSJ member saw fit to give us three short arrangements and one incredibly long arrangement (Memories of You). This whole section is basically built around vocalist Yumi Kawamura. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The original vocalist for “Burn My Dread” and “Memories of You,” she is the consummate professional singer. She is full of passion, she hits every note with the appropriate strength, and she has a great ability to lead the choir and blend with an orchestra.
The problem here, in my opinion, is that the Persona 3 OST is filled with incredible BGM. Putting in a total of 2.5 minutes for “Heartful Cry” and “Because I Will Protect You” is a disservice to what I consider the most memorable entry in the series. So maybe it’s just my sensibilities and priorities that are left to suffer. However, I also feel that Yutaka Kimura provided milquetoast arrangements of the instrumental tracks, and generally relied on Yumi Kawamura to do the heavy lifting, which she did. The one strength, if anything, is the interesting trade-off between Kawamura and the choir at different points in both songs. The video samples provided demonstrate this. I like the effect, and I’ll credit Kimura for the idea.
Ready for P4? Good. I’ll give you the spoiler up-front: it follows the same pattern as P3 … which, if you think about it, followed the same pattern as P2IS and P2EP. Opening, two other songs, ending. What makes the P4 section so much like P3 is that a solo vocalist — this time, Shihoko Hirata — takes lead for opening and ending themes, as she was the original performer for both songs. In the case of “Pursuing My True Self,” the bad news is that we get our second tempo disintegration … and it’s between Hirata herself and the orchestra. I’m half-tempted to blame the arranger, Souhei Kano, for failing to put any kind of notable tempo-denoting rhythm into the section of the song where things fall apart (it’s the verse, the “talk/rap” part). Then again, Ms. Hirata is wearing an earpiece. I don’t think the orchestra is working with a click-track, though I could be wrong. Either way, there isn’t much excuse for getting lost here. However, get lost they do, and as I said before, it’s always painful to witness such a thing. Fortunately, the rest of the song sounds great, especially the end.
The instrumental interludes are another story. Kano’s arrangement on the battle version of “I’ll Face Myself” isn’t just mediocre: it’s downright weak. I was disappointed, and I fail to understand how anyone could flub such a catchy song. The orchestra seemed worn out by this point, and maybe they hadn’t practiced it enough. Who knows? All I know is that the OST version and all other arrangements I’ve ever heard officially released top this performance.
On the other hand, for whatever reason, “Fog” came out just fine! After the previous track, I really wasn’t expecting it to… but it did! And it’s really, truly good! The orchestra is on point, the conductor seems to be in good spirits, and there’s a great balance between the low brass/strings against the high winds/strings. And the rock band section really shines here. They embrace what Shota Nakama of the VGO calls the “rockestral” sound.
And then, for the ending track “Never More,” Hirata returns, but the music is arranged by a different person … someone credited only for this one track, Kenichi Shimura. But he’s more than just the arranger. He’s the man standing front and center. That’s right, the conductor of GSJ himself did this arrangement. He’s familiar with the tools of the trade, the instruments in front of him, and he did a great job with this arrangement. Though this is not my favorite song from P4, this is one of my favorite performances from this entire concert. It represents everything I love about music, the universal language. And yes, Hirata and the choir are singing in Japanese. But you could give this score to any decent orchestra in London, Prague, Sydney, Singapore, Cape Town, Dubai, Stockholm, Rio, Boston, Vancouver, or one of dozens of other cities across our world: the results would be nearly the same. This isn’t a particularly difficult piece to perform, but the combination of mastery among the performers and emotion expressed by the lead vocalist (enhanced by memories of the game if the listener is familiar with Persona 4) makes for something extra special.
For the end of the concert, of course, we have music from Persona 5 — a total of five songs, each of them given significantly longer arrangements than the other four games. The Persona 5 section lasts for over 25 minutes of the concert, meaning the average track time is 5 minutes, as opposed to those 90 second interludes we saw back in Persona 2 and 3. For this portion of the concert, there are two arrangers: Tomomichi Takeoka handles tracks 23, 26, and 27; 24 and 25 are handled by the P1 arranger, Ayana Tsujita.
But we might just call this section “Lyn in concert.” Remember your timeline, if you will: Persona 5 was released in late 2016 and the OST didn’t even hit retail until 2017. The music was brand-spanking new. So why not feature the amazing jazz vocalist Lyn in the concert? And so they did on track 23 “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There,” as well as “Life Will Change” and “With the Stars and Us.” Take your mask off and be free, my friends. The first two songs are lively disco fantasy at its best. The latter, being the ending theme for Persona 5, is like a bright shining spot in the middle of a smoky barroom. Bright jazz in a dark place. It feels so good.
As for the instrumental performances, they too are jazzy tunes. I especially appreciated “Beneath the Mask” for all its fantastic instrumental solos, the first of which was a stand-out performance from a female trombone player. I also must give a shout-out to the vibraphone player throughout the entirety of the Persona 5 section: she had her work cut out for her, and she did a great job. The string ensemble also handled their part immaculately well, particularly in maintaining appropriate volume all throughout the P5 section.
Now, what about this encore? What about singing “Silent Night” at a Persona concert? Again, remember that this performance took place on Christmas Day. It might feel strange hearing them sing it, but the three featured vocalists from P3, P4, and P5 take the stage for this one. For the first verse, the most famous one, Yumi Kawamura, sings “sleep in heavenly peace.” Shihoko Hirata, of P4 fame, brings some interesting decorative work to the song’s melody, and ends by declaring “Jesus the savior is here.” Perhaps not the message you’d expect during a Persona concert, but here we are! And now, for the third verse, Lyn just takes it to a new level. But things go crazy for the final verse when all three vocalists join together for three-part harmony. I was truly not expecting that. What a magical moment.
After that sacred, solemn moment, it’s time for some goofy songs! The orchestra acts as accompaniment for the choir as they sing the infamous “Satomi Tadashi Pharmacy Song,” and a very quick nod to Tanaka’s Amazing Commodities (it only takes 10 seconds, but they are a lovely 10 seconds!). After that, the fantastic “Persona Ondo” opens with a confident young man carrying a large taiko drum front and center and pounding on it to set the rhythm before the choir gets deep into this fun and lovely chant, originally written for Persona 2: Innocent Sin. The crowd goes wild at the end of this one, and for good reason. But the concert is not over yet! For the true encore, the final song of the night, classical vocalist Tomoko Komiya returns. Remember, she of the famous “Aria of the Soul” from the Velvet Room? One must not forget that this classic melody was transformed into a battle theme, first in Persona 3, and later for Persona 4 and many spin-off titles. If you’re going to take on one of those super-hard optional boss fights against Velvet Room residents, you’d best come prepared. Part of that preparation, apparently, means having a full orchestra, choir, and classical vocalist on hand to make the sound stick. This ending is just too cool for words. I wish I had been there to witness it!
As a bonus feature, GSJ included some footage from some recent concerts that also took place in 2016 and featured Persona. Most of these songs are repeats from the previous show: the three original performances here are “changing me,” “Price,” and “Junes Theme.” These are great additions to include. “changing me” is the ending vocal theme to Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth and the respective vocalists from P3 and P4 do a great job with this one. It is really nice seeing Yumi Kawamura and Shihoko Hirata taking turns on the verses and then harmonizing together on the chorus. As for “Price,” this is an instrumental piece from Persona 5 that was not included in the 21st concert but was arranged by one Yoichi Horita for a previous show. It was definitely worth keeping. As for Junes? It’s downright perfect. For starters, it must have operated as an encore for the 19th concert (11/27/2016), as it features the P3-P5 vocalists (Kawamura, Hirata, and Lyn) singing the song together. They even have choreography worked out, and you can plainly see the conductor and even the audience getting into it. And, in case you’re wondering how the Junes jingle goes on for more than 30 seconds without getting old: there are verses! On Persona 4: Dancing All Night (the rhythm game), the song was extended with a vocal version featuring lyrics by Shinji Yamamoto. Finally, for those of you expecting “Every day is great with your Ju-nes,” the original Japanese game used this English phrase instead, so get used to it: “Every day young life, Ju-ne-su!”
Now, why did GSJ decide to include all those other repeat tracks? For Persona Ondo, the shamisen players are front and center. For the Tadashi Pharmacy song, it’s double the length, with a surprising slow-tempo section that makes it sound like they’re holding a memorial service for the pharmacist, or for the chain of stores altogether! As for having an alternate take of “Aria of the Soul” — I don’t know. Maybe some people will find that version superior somehow? I thought the 21st concert version was equally impressive.
And … I have very little left to say. It took me months to research this concert release even as I watched, listened, and enjoyed the experience many times over. During this research time, Game Symphony Japan continued to move forward. They just released a digital-only audio recording of their 23rd concert, which featured games released on PlayStation platforms. It’s an interesting list, including Arc the Lad, Popolocrois, Wild Arms, the “Trico trilogy” (ICO/SotC/Last Guardian), and more. I feel like I can hardly keep up with this organization’s work at this rate, and they’ve only officially published two releases so far! Keep an eye out for this group. For them to pull off something as big as a two-hour tribute to the Persona franchise when no one has ever done anything remotely like this before … I think they have something special going for them!