Ace Attorney (Gyakuten Saiban): Film Review

A Takashi Miike-directed courtroom battle based on a video game is as zany as it sounds.

Cult Japanese director Takashi Miike's cartoonishly fun legal drama, which stars Hiroki Narimiya, is based on a popular Nintendo DS game.

Cult Japanese director Takashi Miike has often been pronounced guilty of extremism, but his outré style perfectly suits the funky futurama of live-action video game adaptation Ace Attorney.

Safe to say it’s a courtroom drama like no other, set in a Japan where a surfeit of criminals has led to three-day speed trials in which defense and prosecution duke it out in the bloodless legal equivalent of a fight to the death.

Based as it is on a popular Nintendo DS game (known in Japan as Gyakuten Saiban), this manga-influenced murder mystery has a built-in fanboy audience, but it’s also a cartoonishly fun, if overlong, ride for those who’ve never even heard of side characters like Detective Dick Gumshoe and Lotta Hart.

Ace Attorney is possibly the most accessible film to date from the prolific, genre-hopping director and provides a zany, tongue-in-cheek counterpoint to recent heavyweight festival offerings like 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. The film was greeted warmly at the New York Asian Film Festival last month after a modestly successful theatrical run at home in February.

Miike’s great accomplishment here – executed with his usual visual panache – is in fusing the real with the surreal so that the surface silliness and caricatured personalities are underpinned by a propulsive dramatic arc. The ambitious narrative stays close to the source material, spanning the first five court cases of the Capcom videogames that star the young defense attorney Phoenix Wright.    

When our rookie hero (an enthusiastic performance from Hiroki Narimiya, the handsome delinquent from Drop) stumbles upon the body of his murdered mentor Mia Fey (Rei Dan), he steps in to defend her younger sister Maya (Mirei Kiritani), who has been framed for the crime, and finds himself tangled in a complex web of court cases that lead back 15 years to an unsolved mystery known as the DL-6 case.

His nemesis and former classmate, champion prosecutor Miles Edgeworth (Takumi Saitoh), is involved and so is a celebrated legal eagle named Manfred Von Karma (Ryo Ishibashi), who has not lost a case in 40 years. With Maya and another old school friend, the manic blonde Larry Butz (Akiyoshi Nakao), by his side, Phoenix chases down clues to unravel a conspiracy that involves, among other things, a miniature version of Rodin’s The Thinker, a Loch Ness-type lake monster and a talking cockatoo.

“Don’t sweat the details,” drawls murder witness Redd White (Makoto Ayukawa) at one point and Miike, too, lets wild theatrics do the talking when the legal banter threatens to get dull.

The duelling lawyers’ weapons of choice are large holographic evidence frames, summoned with flamboyant hand movements, and these clashing blue screens do much to keep the courtroom antics engaging. Objections are completely over-the-top as per the video game, and ticker tape rains down from the ceiling whenever someone scores a legal point.

At one point, Phoenix drops a bombshell piece of evidence during cross-examination, there’s a loud explosion and the courtroom audience hits the deck.

Miike is having fun, and so are his actors, with their gravity-defying hairstyles and hammy performances. The whole thing looks polished and cool and there’s a buoyant theme song by Japanese pop-rockers Porno Graffitti.

Production company: Nippon Television Network, Toho, Capcom Pictures, OLM
Cast: Hiroki Narimiya, Takumi Saito, Mirei Kiritani, Akiyoshi Nakao  
Takashi Miike
Screenwriters: Takeshi Iida, Sachiko Oguchi
Producers: Naoki Suganuma, Minami Ichikawa, Toshiaki Okuno, Hiroyasu Asami, Ken Hironaka, Fumihiro Hirai, Naoki Kitagawa, Masayuki Higashiyama, Naoto Hatakeyama, Shigeshi Maeda, Seiji Okuda
Executive producer: Hiroshi Miyazaki
Director of photography:
Masakazu Oka
Production designer: Yuji Hayashida
Costume designer: Chieko Matsumoto
Music: Koji Endo
Editor: Kenji Yamashita
Sales: Nippon Television Network
No MPAA rating, 135 minutes