by Jaime Grijalba.
a.k.a. Ace Attorney
(Japan, 135 min.)
Isn’t it hard to write sometimes? I mean, sometimes you promise yourself that you will write on certain topics on certain dates, and then you promise yourself that you will write more frequently, and then you promise yourself that you’ll try to keep it fresh, keep it good, keep it with a modern context, keep it emotional, maintaining some kind of overall quality that people may seem to expect from you, but you actually end up finding out that either no one reads what you’ve written or that your actual writing skill level is lower than you initially thought it was. Now, I’m not telling you all this because I feel that I place myself in any of those two cases (maybe I am, maybe not, maybe I’m in both categories and I’m just an idiot with no future), but because when you are in the position to write about something (or maybe just write whatever comes into your mind: fiction) and then you start reading instead of writing, you find out either one of these two things: someone else wrote it better (or just already wrote it, not better or worse, but someone already did what you are doing) or that you already wrote about it earlier, and you would only be repeating yourself. Why am I saying this? Because some weeks ago I wrote a piece on this same space about a movie called ‘Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker’ (2012), where I made a two paragraph introduction regarding video game adaptations and films that I like inside that sub-sub-genre of films that usually come out to the public, and I specially was worried about theorizing about the different kinds of videogame adaptations, as that animation was a very special one, one that used the same world in which the game takes place, but tells a totally new and maybe canon-related story, much like the ‘Resident Evil Regeneration’ (2008) japanese animation film or its sequel that will come out later this year and I hope I can see to review in this same spot. The problem was when I finished watching the film that is the subject of today, I was totally sure how I was going to write about it, I was going to do a mini-history lesson on the video game adaptations, and if it wasn’t that I was looking for a template to do my review that I stumbled upon the one I did for the other video-game adaptation of sorts (you can read that review here) and read that I had already written about it. So, what the heck was I supposed to do know? I had to improvise some structure of sorts, something fresh, something new, and I guess I didn’t found it, because I’m going through the laziest of the processes: telling you the how-I-got-here story that makes me deliver a review that in my mind was totally interesting, and maybe now is just a bit lackluster. So, first point that I have to get across in this review: yes, this is a videogame adaptation.
Now, how many people are actually aware that there is a videogame series under the name of ‘Ace Attorney’? Maybe no one in the usual target of the people who read this blog, and when we widen the perspective, even if all the games in the series have sold over 4 million copies worldwide, I don’t think that if you ask your closest gamer they would even know how to play this game. That’s it because, even if it’s considered a success, it is in a genre and an specific instance in which the game community moves. This one is closer to what we could call a ‘visual novel’, and even if its a thousand times more interactive than any other visual novel that would ever exist (calm down, I’ll explain what a visual novel is in a minute), it still is more narrative than interaction on the long run, no matter how much interaction you can have within the game (after all, there is still just only one way to solve each puzzle). Visual novels are usually a gaming genre that has been restricted to japanese players, usually making it across the pond to us, western gamers, due to fan petitioning, high hopes of developers, a giant machine of advertisement (in some way that’s what actually helped the recent game ‘Catherine’ to be a success in the US, having pictures of semi-nude animu girls helps a lot), or in most cases, importation. Visual novels are actually what they sound like, a story that is told to us, in which we have some kind of interaction and then it ends, the story never changes, only the choices you make (and these games are mostly either strategy choice or just emotional choice) can alter the flow of the narrative, and sometimes even then, it really doesn’t. Most visual novels are text and still images with barely any animation, and even if the animation in this particular game series is a bit more fluent, its still just usually one movement to have the ilussion of it, and frequently, the themes and genres in which this one plays around are the romantic and erotic, where you are the new guy trying to hook up with every chick available in the place you end up. In that way, the ‘Ace Attorney’ series is interesting, since it takes such a basic genre into new levels thanks to the story and genre it puts in place: mystery and investigation.
The way the story goes is that you are an attorney (no surprise there) that tries to defend his clients, that are always innocent, so you must make sure that you also, in the process of cross-examination of the witnesses, one of them must be the true mischiever, murderer or thief. The thing is that the most famous element of the film is the actual court segments, in which you are doing the work of an attorney, presenting evidence, interrogating witnesses, making choices, doing statements and, of course, saying “OBJECTION!!!!” quite a lot. The game puts you in the skin of Phoenix Wright, and in the first game of the series (‘Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney’) you are just out of law school and put in your first trial, and you are defending your best friend, Larry Butz (haha, a pun), who has supposedly murdered his fiancee, who he had just broken up with. Obviously, the real murdered comes as a witness, as he was the one who, according to his version, saw the body and called the police, and when you find him in constant mistake, objectioning everything he says and going through metodical detective intuition, work and examination, he finally confesses the dirty deed, and finds himself imprisoned. You did it! The game is not overly serious as the plot summary may tell you, the characters are quirky and funny, Phoenix Wright is insecure even later, even if he is already a professional famous attorney! And his friends are all dumb as a wall, but helpful, as you would expect, and all the names are puns on their works or how involved they are in the case, it’s a great comedy, and specially the interaction between his desesperation, the new evidence, when he is under the pressure of a much more experienced attorney that tries to put him down. Of course, the logic of the cases and the verdict of the judge isn’t always pitch perfect when you think about it too much, but hey, you can always say that it’s the way that it must be in this neo-Japan, where the judicial system has changed a lot in this recent future.
Now why did I spend so much time talking about the videogame and not the movie? Because it’s the same freaking thing! The game is as close an adaptation can get from videogame to feature lenght film! The characters have the same crazy hair, the same personalities, even the plots are similar, if not identical, to three cases featured in the first original game, including a brief glimpse into the chaos that was Wright’s first case with Larry Butz involved (orange spikey hair included). The film is a laugh riot every now and then, it certainly has some japanese attitude towards the source material, even replicating some elements from anime and the videogame world into the plot, the dialogue or the acting of some characters, and even sometimes the framing and the direction. Takashi Miike has given us a movie to look and cherish for a long time, just because of how much entertainment and visual mastery you can find in every scene, shot and dialogue piece. Of course it’s not perfect, and the film may seem too long for some, but it has an intriguing premise, something dark and obscure under the bright aspect of the trial sequences, something that reminds hidden under the recent history of trials and attorneys, a crime that has not been forgotten, something that is truly great and interesting to watch evolve. The acting is exagerated at points, but its the beauty of it, they are videogame characters with flamboyant hair styles and costumes, the craziest you can think of, and it all fits well in a world of post-modernism future that is bright and crazy at all times. The film is totally enjoyable in any level possible, the fans of the game will enjoy the similarities and will not be dissapointed, while the rest will look at a nice comedy-mystery that is actually worthwhile exploring and thinking about as you laugh with these crazy characters.
A full recomendation for this film, this is one of the best movies of 2012, a visual masterpiece and one of the greatest achievements in the career of Takashi Miike, one of the best working directors right now. Props to him, and may we see a sequel to this film, because this was so much fun and it left well developed characters to explore more and more, maybe adapting new stories and new games as they come along. Great stuff!