No Objections Except the Good Kind: Miike Takashi’s Ace Attorney

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?'”

“Manga.”

“Yes, manga. What is that?”

“It’s Japanese comics.”

“Oh, like Pikachu.”

“Yes, like Pikachu.”

Like Pikachu, indeed.

Reading into the Negative Responses Against Phoenix Wright in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

Phoenix Wright was recently announced as a character for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and his reception from fans of MvC3 has been an interesting mix of unbridled enthusiasm and indignant anger. I find the latter to be particularly interesting because of how the criticisms from fans are being formed verbally and what it says about how a game like Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is perceived by its audience on an aesthetic level.

Before we start though, I have to say that I do not know what percentage of fans actually dislike Phoenix Wright’s participation in this game. Whether they are a “vocal minority” or not matters little, as it is more about the reaction of that group in particular.

First off, let’s take a look at some of the comments critical of Wright as a Capcom representative:

“Im not hating at all, the game looks legit I just can’t believe that non-sense was allowed in and not a more traditional fighting game character”

“Phoenix Wright is the most awkward fighting game character I’ve ever seen. Fuck that guy. I hope he’s top tier and everyone ends up using him ’cause he’s so stupid, LMAO.

Nova on the other hand, now that’s a real character. Dude is a beast! He’s like a better Phoenix (non-Dark).”

“I agree, Phoenix Wright feels out of place here, and makes me feel like I want to throat up or something. What a crappy pick, should of been Captain Commando. We already have a Capcom joke character, his name is Frank West and he’s better than Phoenix Wrong lol.”

[In reference to a an attack Phoenix Wright uses in the trailer and the argument that Tron is a joke character too ] “Tron hits ppl, not sneezes on them”

etc.

All of them say essentially the same thing. A) character who is not a fighter an does absolutely nothing resembling combat in his own game should not be in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. B) The humor-based interpretation of his “fighting” style for UMvC3 is a slight against the game itself.

At this point, it would be easy to dismiss these statements with a couple of arguments, but those arguments have problems in and of themselves. The first is the idea that “gameplay is the only thing that really matters, so it’s not relevant if Phoenix Wright fits with the rest of the cast or not as long as he’s a strong character who can create interesting gameplay.” For Marvel vs. Capcom 3, how the game controls and whether or not it’s competitively viable are, while important to its success as a game, are obviously not the only factors in presenting it to the world and its audience. If gameplay were the only relevant component, then it wouldn’t be a crossover of a comic book company and a video game company using iconic characters from their respective libraries. Although it is easy to disagree with people who think Phoenix Wright is too ridiculous for the game (and I do disagree with them), it is besides the point to argue from a primarily theoretical game mechanics perspective.

The second is the idea that “the game is already ridiculous putting up some kung fu guys against ancient gods and beings with the power to rip the Earth in half, so why draw the line at a goofy lawyer?” But while Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (and the entire rest of the Vs. game series) does bring together a cast of characters whose powers and abilities can be horribly mismatched, it does not negate the fact that Phoenix Wright is indeed not a martial artist or in possession of superhuman abilities. A punch is a punch and can be made as strong as necessary, whereas Wright has to use something else entirely.

I think the idea that a fighting game should have “characters that fight” is an interesting one in that MvC3 becomes a sort of haven for a particular type of masculinity, a place where a (presumably male) player can feel comfortable in knowing that the setting and its character will not betray them aesthetically. This is not a coincidence, as the look of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is masculine and powerful in a way that is particularly appealing to American audiences. This is easily seen when comparing it to its sibling, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, whose anime influence gives a somewhat softer look to even the most square-jawed and chiseled of warriors. But Phoenix Wright apparently violates that security; to the people critical of his inclusion for the reasons outlined above, he demeans the game he’s being included in because he ends up mocking the aggressive portrayal of competition. Wright risks emasculating part of the game’s audience, somewhat like the entire Arcana Heart series minus the overt sexuality aspect that is near-unavoidable with that franchise.

Again, I do not know what percentage of people playing games feels this way, but I do have to wonder how much this affects a certain portion of gamers’ decisions in which games to pursue. Are games like Call of Duty and Halo even more indicative of this mindset? If so, it may bear taking a look at how and why men look to games to affirm their masculinity.