Last week was the beginning of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and with it came the international premiere of Miike Takashi’s film, Ace Attorney, or “Gyakuten Saiban” as it’s known in Japanese. Based on Capcom’s video game franchise of the same name, Ace Attorney follows a bumbling wet-behind-the-ears defense attorney named Phoenix Wright and is quest to figure out the truth behind a string of murders leading back 15 years (and defend his clients along the way) using a combination of wit, courage, and irrefutable evidence. Opposite him is prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, a former friend of Phoenix’s from childhood whose ruthless approach to justice is a far cry from both Phoenix’s ways and how he used to be.
(Note that the film was English-subtitled with the official English-language names, so I’ll be referring to the characters as such (Phoenix Wright instead of Naruhodo Ryuuichi).)
The Ace Attorney video games utilize a very “anime” aesthetic, and for anyone who saw the preview images or the trailer, the first thing that stands out is the fact that all of the characters’ costumes and even the sets are very close to the original source. Phoenix looks like he practically stepped out of the tiny DS screen, and when someone wins a court case in the film, even the way the background actors clap like stock animation looks like it came straight out of the games. However, what isn’t so obvious from the previews is the fact that, while the faithfulness of the dress results in distinctly spiky hair, frilly collars, and unique color combinations, the actual colors of the backgrounds and even the clothing itself are quite subdued. Phoenix Wright’s suit may be blue, but it’s a very toned-down blue that is a far cry from the bright, primary colors that mark the video games, and rather than clashing with the anime elements in the film, the more realistic use of color actually helps to bridge the gap between the iconic anime elements and the use of live actors. Whereas the original games’ aesthetic presents a world and motif unto itself, with the way the film looks there is a sense that our world could possibly someday turn into the larger-than-life world of Ace Attorney, however small those chances are.
In a way, this gives the film a rather prominent science fictional element, as if it’s asking, “What if the criminal justice system were like this?” Indeed, Ace Attorney even presents the unique gameplay of the video games (using evidence to find contradictions in witness testimony) as a transformation of Japan’s court system. In the story of the Ace Attorney film, the Japanese government has set up a new judicial method in order to deal with the increased amount of criminal cases. This “Bench Trial” is a court where evidence is king and which must conclude after a maximum of 3 days, giving both prosecution and defense a limited amount of time to make their cases before the judge (not a jury) makes a verdict. Moreover, in this court, evidence is presented in the form of Minority Report-esque holographic projections, flown to the center of the courtroom through the signature cries of “Objection!”, “Take That!”, and “Hold It!”, helping to bolster that larger-than-life feel. Just in case I’m giving the impression that the film is mainly serious business though, I have to point out that the movie will make the occasional sudden tonal shift like in a Tezuka manga in order to lighten the mood (and succeeds in doing so without disrupting the pacing of the movie).
The storyline and court cases of Ace Attorney is familiar to anyone who played the original, though it combines a few of them together, both for the sake of time and for all of the characters involved to have their own denouements by the end. As I have played those games and thus pretty much knew how the cases would go, I cannot comment on whether or not the narrative events of the film would be a surprise or difficult to figure out for someone new to the series. However, what I can say is that the actors do a very good job of portraying their characters, conveying a strong sense of both their personalities and their approaches to handling trials. For me, the two most outstanding performances in the film are by Phoenix Wright’s actor Narimiya Hiroki and by Ishibashi Ryou, who plays the wily veteran Manfred von Karma. Narimiya does an excellent job portraying Wright as a very clever and observant but inexperienced attorney; when he sees evidence of a clear contradiction, you can see him struggling to connect the dots that he knows have to be there, gradually forcing the words out until the crucial element comes to the surface of his mind. Ishibashi meanwhile comes across almost perfectly as a man who cannot be fazed, a man with a 40-year undefeated prosecution record, and who can even take some of the anime mannerisms from the game and actually make them look perfectly natural. If that isn’t amazing, I don’t know what it is.
Overall, the Ace Attorney movie is fun and exciting, and never feels all that awkward combining the anime aesthetic with the live-action atmosphere. While fans of the game will almost certainly enjoy it, I think people unfamiliar with the franchise and even people have been turned off by Miike’s work in the past (perhaps due to their ultra-violence) have a very strong possibility of coming out of the theater satisfied.
One thing that made this showing of Ace Attorney special was that Miike himself was in attendance. Before the film began, there was a 15-minute interview session with the director where he spoke about this film as well as his experience in filmmaking in general. Miike had actually last visited the Rotterdam International Film Festival 12 years ago with Ichi the Killer and some other movies, and he claims that the extremely positive reaction he received in Rotterdam back then was actually the launching point for his international success and why he’s able to do bigger-budget movies today. He spoke about his use of extreme violence not for the sake of violence but to show the strong emotions which drive his characters, and his desire to make films which surprise himself (something I find he has in common with the creative process of Getter Robo and Devilman creator Nagai Go). He also showed great respect for the original source material of Ace Attorney, but pointed out that a good deal had to be done to convert that game format to a film. I have to say that he did a good job in that regard, transferring the excitement of figuring out the cases as a player to watching the characters work to reach their conclusions.
After the interview was over, the person next to me turned to me and asked, “Spreekt u Nederlands?” After I responded “Nee,” we then had the following conversation:
“What was that word he said, ‘man…gu?'”
“Yes, manga. What is that?”
“It’s Japanese comics.”
“Oh, like Pikachu.”
“Yes, like Pikachu.”
Like Pikachu, indeed.