Hello, everyone, and welcome, welcome, welcome! to a new posting series on The Cart Driver! The worlds of anime and manga do not always stay in the realm of TV and the page; occasionally, they make their way to the silver screen — sometimes to good results, and sometimes to crap results. In this project, I will take a look at the myriad adaptations of anime and manga to live action movies (and, no, I’m not just limiting myself to Japanese productions here). If I feel like it, I might also check out live action dramas, but because that’s a far greater time commitment, don’t expect one of those to pop up any time soon.
“But Shinmaru,” I can hear you saying, “Isn’t Ace Attorney a video game rather than a manga or anime?” Yes, reader invented for the purposes of explaining why I am going with a video game adaptation for my first post, you make a good point. However, in my mind, the Ace Attorney series is basically anime, and this movie is FUCKING AWESOME, so there. I will bend my own rules whenever and wherever I please! (P.S. I am aware of many live action movies; otherwise, I would never do a project like this. However, suggestions are welcome — you never know if I have missed something here or there.)
Onto the movie!
When I first heard about the Ace Attorney movie many moons ago, I was quick to note that Takashi Miike was attached as director — yes, he of Audition and Ichi the Killer fame (along with many other excellent movies). I didn’t think Miike would turn Ace Attorney into a gory bloodbath; after all, that’s not the only type of movie Miike makes by a longshot, and while Ace Attorney can be violent on occasion, a bunch of it would really run counter to the feel of the series. Nonetheless, I was curious as to the approach Miike would take. How would he interpret the admittedly bizarre world of this video game series?
The answer is that he takes the inherent absurdity of this universe and runs with it.
First a primer for those unfamiliar with the series: The story follows a young attorney, Phoenix Wright, who can be quite bumbling and silly but also has a strong sense of justice and a keen eye for observation when it’s needed most. He works under attorney Mia Fey, whose family was involved in a scandal 15 years prior. The movie goes over the four cases of the original Ace Attorney game, although it’s the second case and especially the fourth case that get the bulk of the time. Miike’s movie does a decent job overall of giving what details are needed to make the plot work, changing a few things and discarding everything else, but I imagine it would still be a bit confusing/far-fetched for those who haven’t played the games since the cases are so convoluted.
Getting into the craft of the movie, I found the style a bit interesting. What I noticed immediately upon beginning the movie is the color palette — it’s much more muted than expected, a sharp contrast to the video games, which are bright, colorful and cartoonish. It’s almost as if Miike takes the palette from Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and transplants it ontoAce Attorney. It seems ill-fitting, but this choice works splendidly because it lends a more down-to-earth, objective point of view to this clearly mad world. It’s a serious courtroom drama played out in a child’s imagination. Everything is played totally straight — the weird anime hairstyles are recreated near-perfectly, the bizarre clothing is all there, and the flamboyance of the court battles is preserved, crazy gestures and all. One detail I also love is that we actually get to see the court audience, and the weirdos who populate the benches are probably stranger than the main cast. (Hilariously, the court sells tickets to view trials like a baseball game — I don’t know if Japanese courts have the same financial troubles as American courts, but perhaps there’s some commentary there?)
The trials are a great sight, too. They’re about as crazy and goofy as one would expect from the games. Probably the biggest addition to the story is the invention of an electronic system to display evidence collected by the court to be used in each trial. In true anime fashion, the holograms are tossed, whipped and smacked at prosecutors and defense attorneys alike as each tries to get the upper hand on the other. I suppose including the big cartoon bubbles for “OBJECTION!” and “HOLD IT!” and the like would have been a tad too ridiculous. Then again, the movie does treat the victory celebration at the end of each case as a literal event, complete with confetti raining down from the ceiling, so perhaps it wasn’t silliness that scared Miike away from that. (Speaking of, there are some amusing payoffs to that stuff near the beginning and end of the movie that had me guffawing.)
I think that while the movie tries to be accessible to newcomers, it ultimately knows that it will be best appreciated by those who have played the games, which is why it includes winks and nods like the bizarre celebrations and bits of fan service. For instance, the Blue Badger police mascot is incorporated in a way that has to be inexplicable to newbies (and pays off in a tremendously weird moment that had me laughing). There’s also a great after credits sequence that plays off a trial in another game (I won’t mention specifics to keep an element of surprise) that is perhaps the silliest part in a movie filled to the brim with silliness. As a big fan of the games, I enjoyed seeing the filmmakers take these quite silly things and have lots of fun with them, particularly the flashback to Phoenix Wright’s childhood that is simultaneously hilarious and totally adorable.
Then there’s the actors. The look and acting of everyone is basically spot on. Hiroki Narimiya in particular is a dead-on Phoenix Wright. Wouldn’t change a thing about his performance — he’s a great underdog. Ryo Ishibashi is also excellent as feared prosecutor Manfred von Karma. He’s cold as ice to the very end. Everyone else is fine, too: Takumi Saito is a cool, logical Edgeworth; Mirei Kiritani is a cute, spunky Maya; Akiyoshi Nakao is a big goofball as Larry Butz; and so on. The main problem is there just isn’t enough time for the whole cast to shine. Phoenix is the hero, von Karma is the villain and everyone else fills in their roles. It’s a bit disappointing that Edgeworth and Maya get relatively little to do considering they’re such important figures in the story. Not that they don’t have their moments, but the big compromise is to center everything on Phoenix. (Although the movie does add a bit to the story of one of the culprits that is quite effective.)
The other main problem is the movie’s length. It’s 134 minutes that flies by quickly until the movie reaches the investigation portion of the case. This is important in the games because it’s where the player has the opportunity to piece the case together in his or her mind before seeing how everything plays out in court. However, without that direct participation, the investigation isn’t particularly interesting. Miike cuts it down as much as he can, because clearly all the most entertaining stuff takes place in the courtroom, but that doesn’t stop the investigation from dragging the movie.
That said, this is basically the ideal live action vision of Ace Attorney. I’m not particularly sure why it was made into live action rather than animation, but bless Miike for translating the absurdity of this universe in a way that is true to the spirit of the games. It treats the silliness of the games in a way that has the viewer laughing with the movie rather than at it, which shows in the genuine care the filmmakers take to recreate this madness. Again, I don’t think that it’s the best thing to watch for newcomers (although it’s undeniably entertaining), but if you like the games, then it’s a must see.