Friday, May 27, 2016

The Judges of Hades

"You're alone."
"I don't care whether I'm alone or not! It's my right."
"12 Angry Men

I know of mystery games that place you in the role of a defense attorney, a prosecutor and lay judges, but I can't remember whether there's one where you play a professional judge presiding the court. Or one where you're the stenographer.

The lay judge system was implemented in Japan on May 21, 2009. In trials on certain severe crimes, six lay judges join three professional judges to decide about the fate of the defendant, and in the case of a guilty verdict, the judges need also decide the weight of the sentence. Ashibe Taku's Saibanin Houtei ("Lay Judge Trials", 2008) is a short story collection starring the attorney Morie Shunsaku, Ashibe's long-time series detective. Or wait, that is not true. The true protagonist is perhaps you. In the three stories collected in this volume, you (the reader) take on the role of a lay judge present at a trial ("you" are a different person every story, naturally) and watch over the court proceedings. While Japan is known for its incredibly high conviction rate (because prosecutors don't prosecute unless they're sure they'll get a guilty verdict), the young, but experienced Morie Shunsaku shows he too is desperate to save his clients and that he is even capable in performing some amazing courtroom magic.

A while back I read Sekishibyou no Yakata no Shi, another short story collection by Ashibe Taku starring Morie Shunsaku, but that was a rather 'conventional' impossible crime story collection. This time however we see him actually doing his work (a defense attorney) and Saibainin Houtei is definitely structured like a proper courtroom drama. The stories are all titled after, and set in the different phases of a trial (Shinri ("Examination"), Hyougi ("Discussion") and Jihaku ("Confession")). In fact, there is a certain educational factor to this novel though, as the book was originally released just before the implementation of the lay judge system and it does appear to be written with that in mind: over the course of the book, it will explain why the system was implemented, the role of the lay judges will have to fulfill and how the proceedings go in a trial overseen by lay judges. This is strengthened by casting the reader ("you") in the role of one of the lay judges in each of the story.

In that respect, Saibanin Houtei reminds me of the DS videogame Yuuzai X Muzai, which was also about the lay judge system and cast the player in the role of a lay judge in each of the four stories included. The big difference however is that in Yuuzai X Muzai, the player would unravel the truth behind each case himself (together with the other judges), while in Saibanin Houtei, Morie Shunsaku does most of the work. Oher fiction related to the lay judge system by the way, are the DS videogame Ace Attorney 4, as well as the Ace Attorney spin-off novel/guidebook Gyakuten Houtei.

Normally, I try to discuss each story in a story collection, but I gave up on that for this review. Each of these three stories work that much better if you indeed take on the role of a proper lay judge and step inside the courtroom with no preconceptions about the case. As mentioned above, each of the stories is set at a different stage of a trial, but in practice you'll be given a 'traditional' courtroom mystery every time. A courtroom mystery often follows the same basic pattern for obvious reasons: the prosecution always starts with accusing the defendant and then lays out the evidence. And just as a guilty verdict seems inescapable, defense starts its counterattack by slowly picking out faults in the prosecution's story (and in mystery stories, they usually find the real person behind it all too). In general, the three stories in Saibanin Houtei follow the same pattern, but the mystery plots are entertaining, so no problem there if you like courtroom mysteries. A little gripe I have is that the 'trick' behind each case (that turns the case around) is rather similar for all three cases. The best story is probably the last one. The plots of the first and second story suffer a bit from dependence on random knowledge nobody would usually be aware of.

Oh, and a random note, but I think this was one of the very few mystery novels I've read that actually use the second person, "you" in the narration. First person, third person and "all-seeing" narration are of course extremely common, but the only other example of a second person narration I can think of now from the top of my head is Norizuki Rintarou's 2 no Higeki.

Ashibe Taku's Saibainin Houtei is a fairly amusing courtroom mystery short story collection that manages to be both educational as well as entertaining as a mystery novel. The basic idea behind all three stories do resemble each other a bit though, but I think that anyone with at least some interest in courtroom mysteries and perhaps the Japanese lay judge system, can safely pick up this book.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『裁判員法廷』: 「審理」 / 「評議」 / 「自白」

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