Ace Attorney (known as Gyakuten Saiban in Japan) made its Texas debut at the 2012 Asian Film Festival of Dallas. Unlike most of my fellow audience members at the sold-out closing night screening, I was neither a fan of the Phoenix Wright video games nor a fan of director Takashi Miike. I was, however, curious about the franchise that spawned hoards of cosplayers shouting “Objection!” across a con floor and a huge fan of the movie’s two stars: Hiroki Narimiya and Takumi Saito. The trailer promised an intense, over-the-top courtroom drama. What I didn’t expect was to be laughing for the majority of the film as well.
Warning: this review may contain minor spoilers.
Ace Attorney takes place in the “near future”, in which people have anime hair and punny names and courtrooms employ Stark Industries holographic technology. Court cases must be settled in three days in a reality TV-like format. Phoenix Wright (Narimiya) is a rookie defense attorney who after nearly choking on his first trial, finds himself entangled in two big cases. The first deals with the murder of his mentor Mia Fey (Rei Dan) and the wrongful accusal of her sister Maya (Mirei Kiritani). Wright battles—and that is the best term to describe the courtroom showdown—Miles Edgeworth (Saitoh), a prosecutor whose ruthless tactics have won him admiration but not a lot of allies. Edgeworth is later framed for murder, and Wright has to not only solve the mystery but face the undefeated Manfred von Karma (Ryo Ishibashi).
The plot tries to accomplish a lot, maybe a little too much. Although the minor events are connected to the main plot, some of the side scenes, as funny as they were, took away from the sense of urgency that the new trial system should bring. Wright’s personal growth also isn’t very evident. Mia continues to help him from beyond the grave, thanks to her medium-in-training sister. He does gain more confidence, and the additional scenes during the credits do suggest that he is a better litigator at the end.
Narimiya’s exaggerated facial expressions and gestures are perfect for the fervent Wright. Kiritani does her best to give Maya as much passion as Wright, but the character is little more than a cute sidekick. It’s unfortunate that Maya is most interesting and useful when she is possessed by her older sister. Saito gives Edgeworth a cool arrogance with a hint of foppishness (okay, a lot of foppishness when you consider how natural he looks in his purple suit). His expressions are subtle, making his interaction with Narimiya interesting to watch. Both actors deliver intensity in one of the barest settings: a dark interrogation room. They are at their best though when facing off in the courtroom, and it’s worth staying through the credits to see them duke it out some more.
The Phoenix Wright games have a reputation of being borderline ridiculous, and Miike’s adaptation remains true to that. The trial in Legally Blonde the Musical is more realistic than the ones here, but the cartoony elements brighten up the often dreary settings of Ace Attorney and make the film really fun to watch. Miike never lets viewers forget the gravity of the crimes though. There are truly heart-breaking revelations, and the grisliness of a couple scenes evoke his more infamous works, Audition and Ichi the Killer. Past the flash and comedy is the heart of Ace Attorney: one man’s quest for justice—and it’s one hell of a journey.
Listening to: “Revenant Choir” by Versailles