Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"Objection!"

「ぼくの名前は、成歩堂 龍一。3ヶ月前に弁護士になったばかり、今日は始めての法廷だ」
『逆転裁判』

"My name is Phoenix Wright. I became a laywer just three months ago and today is my first time in court
"Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney"

Ever since I played first played Gyakuten Saiban (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney), I've considered it as one of the most memorable detective stories ever. Heck, I easily rank the series as more fun than a lot of 'conventional' detective fiction (books) and I always find it a shame that even though a lot of mystery blogs out there do seem to discuss movies (and occasionally audio dramas), they very seldom discuss videogames. The medium might be different, but it is certainly not one unfit for the genre and it is a shame a lot of readers seem to miss out on great stuff, just because it is in a slightly different medium (the same for detective comics like Conan by the way). The Gyakuten (Ace Attorney) series really offers a unique experience, which everybody should have tried.

I had missed seeing the Gyakuten Saiban live action movie when it was first shown in the Netherlands earlier this year, so had I wait for the home video release. Which was last week. In the near future, crime rates have risen so high, that a new judicial system has been implemented to cope with the problem. Under the Initial Trial System, trials will last for a maximum of three days, as to speed up the process. In these trials the prosecution and defense only have to focus on the question of the defendant's guilt, with the actual punishment being determined at a later stage. With the high turnover rate in this world, trials have also grown out to be a kind of high speed consumer good: trials are open to the public to view and the battles between prosecution and defense remind of the gladiator games in ancient Rome. Enter rookie defense laywer Naruhodou Ryuuichi, who has taken the grand case of defending Ayatsuji Mayoi (Maya Fey), who is accused of murdering her sister, who also happened to be Naruhodou's boss at the law office. Will Naruhodou be able to turn the case around and find the real murderer?

Gyakuten Saiban is a condensed version of the first game and a mighty interesting movie too! It is an actual good movie based on a videogame, though still not without its faults. One problem might be the fact that it tries very hard to fit in most of the first game in its two-hour run and especially the first 20 minutes of the movie can be hard to follow if you're not familiar with the original source, I think. It runs at a very high speed, with lots of happenings and most of all: Gyakuten Saiban features its own, particular and unique world, which might be hard to get into if you have not played the game. The above mentioned Intial Trial System is one, but Gyakuten Saiban also features some very unique character appearances (almost all of them being faithful reproductions of the game, including Naruhodou's spiky hair) and a distinct sense of comedy. The summary above might sound very dark and gloomy, but Gyakuten Saiban is definitely a comedy. It might hard to catch all that in the first half of the movie. Are you able to get into this world view, then you're in for a treat. A great comedy-detective with its own face and featuring some of the most memorable scenes in detective fiction. And a lot of fingerpointing!


If one is to compare this movie to the Takarazuka Revue musical, I would say that the latter actually feels closer to the videogames though. Despite the singing and dancing and added romance plots. Visually, the movie is much closer to the original, but the motions of the characters in the game were reproduced more faithfully in the musical. Which doesn't make it better automatically though: it's just that the dialogue and movements of the characters are much closer to the game in the musical than in the movie. Overall, the movie works much better as a stand-alone product though.

As a fan of the game, it is almost impossible for me to not compare it to the original. So I won't even try. The game is naturally quite a bit longer, so a lot of the human relations (Naruhodou - Mayoi, rival prosecutor Mitsurugi and police detective Itonokogiri) feel a bit downplayed in the movie, as there was just not as much time spent on it as in the games. But the visual designs of the characters made it all over perfectly and while the set design is very different from the more colorful videogames, I really like the darker look to the world, with the bright characters running around there. Director Miike also made use of a very cool way of showing the audience the evidence used in the trials, which is a crucial concept in the original game. It is one thing to say someone is wrong and to show him the supporting evidence for that, it is another thing to actually throw the evidence at that person's face. And the occasional use of the music from the videogame in the movie soundtrack is fantastic. At the right moments, you'll hear the great music that is so much a part of the Gyakuten series. 


I have mentioned countless of times that I absolutely love the Gyakuten videogame series. Heck, in a not-so-distant-past, I even wrote my bachelor's thesis about the use of role language in these games! The great thing about the detective plots in these games is the way they are told. We have locked room murders, seemingly impossible crimes and other 'grand' tropes, but there are also 'normal' poisoning cases and seemingly ordinary murder cases here, but even these latter 'simple' cases are made memorable because of how Takumi Shuu, the original creator, wrote the stories.

He mentions it in this essay, but there is an inherent contradiction in detective fiction: readers want to solve the mystery themselves, but they also want to get surprised. And now try to change that into a detective videogame. Players want to get surprised by the mystery, but the game must also be beatable, the player must be able to complete the game themselves. With fighting games, you might expect a player to train, but that is more difficult with detective stories. Well, Takumi wrote all of his stories focusing on contradictions. No matter how big the case, if we look at his storytelling as a sort of grammar, then the smallest unit in Takumi's storytelling is the contradiction.


How is this implemented? In 'normal' fiction, the reader is presented with a big problem (i.e. a naked body found in a department store), with the detective going here and there looking for clues and presenting his conclusions in the denouement. In the Gyakuten games, there is still the big problem, but the road towards the final solution is cut into little pieces, the contradictions. You assume the role of Naruhodou in most of the games and during the trials in the game, witness make statements which usually contain something that contradicts the evidence you have. Why did that witness say he was watching TV, even though I have a report that there was a power shortage? Why did that witness say the defendant hit the victim with his right hand, even though he is left-handed? These may seem like small problems, but eventually, these little problems lead back to the main problem (usually murder). So the player is expected to solve these little contradictions one by one, which in turn slowly lead towards the truth. If a conventional detective works towards the solution of a problem once, than the Gyakuten games are a constant series of little solutions, that in turn lead to the solution of the main problem (like this).

What makes this so fantastic is that the player is never bored. Everytime you manage to explain a contradiction, you find yourself in the particular situation of having brought forth a new contradiction by solving the previous one (and usually, these new situations are not particularly saving your case). You are constantly challenged with new problems that you need to solve on the spot, and your back is against the wall practically all of the time. There is a sense of pressure and with constantly changing circumstances, this is a prime example of presenting a detective story, which often can be quite boring if sticking to the murder-investigation-denouement model, in new and exciting ways.


ADDENDUM: The way the characters keep throwing new evidence towards each other, leading to new contradictions and views on the murders is reminiscent of the way Columbo often spoke with his suspects: coming up with small contradictions, allowing the suspect to present a plausible explanation, which in turn led to new contradictions. In that sense, it is not new per se, but the tempo of Columbo and Gyakuten Saiban is very different, with the little confrontations regarding contradictions in Columbo being more of a tool, while it is a fundamental part of the storytelling in Gyakuten Saiban.

Anyway, sorry for this sidetracking, but this type of storytelling is also present in the movie, which makes it a very interesting kind of detective movie: it is much more action-packed than a movie like Green for Danger or The Devotion of Suspect X, and I don't mean action-packed in the sense of the Sherlock Holmes movies. It is action-packed because the detective plot is presented to the viewer with a distinct rhythm, which allows those with a quick head to think along (or even out-think) the protagonist, which is one of the joys of detective fiction. But unlike 'conventional' detective movies, where you have to wait until the ending, Gyakuten Saiban keeps you on the edge of the seat, constantly bombarding Naruhodou and you with new problems to solve. Like the videogame, this feels like a new format for detective movies, very strongly related to thrillers/adventure movies, despite being an orthodox detective movie!

Hmm, this review definitely lost its direction halfway through. But anyway, this is definitely a must-see for fans of the videogames and it works as a standalone comedy detective movie too, though it might be hard to get in the beginning. If you're able to get accept the unique world of Gyakuten Saiban, then you're in for a great movie which brings a new dynamic to detective movies!

Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転裁判』 

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