Takashi Miike’s hundred-plus film career is one of the most fascinating studies regarding the auteur theory. No doubt a prolific and distinct filmmaker from the 1990s V-Cinema industry to the modern day, his directorial choices take on a fascinating blend of the absurd, unique, and bombastic. Yet even though Miike has straddled the line between his distinct sensibilities and standard studio fare, one can easily tell the signature Miike film from the rest. It is what essentially defines the maverick as an auteur filmmaker.

Perhaps the main reason why the film he makes works outside his signature repertoire is because there is conviction in his efforts and commitment. This is distinctively true of many adaptations he has tackled, namely for remakes, manga, and, in this case, the Phoenix Wright Nintendo games. An adaptation of the first game in the Capcom series, Ace Attorney (2012) follows rookie defense attorney Phoenix Wright on his path of justice and unintentional stardom. The original game is divided into two major components: the investigation of a case and the courtroom trials, where the player cross-examines witnesses, the suspect, and any evidence presented.

Divided into five chapters, the original game dives into multiple cases related to one another and their deeper emotional connection to Phoenix and the characters surrounding him. This includes his childhood friend Larry Butz, his boss Mia Fey, her sister and Phoenix’s assistant Maya Fey, Detective Gumshoe, and rival attorneys Miles Edgeworth and Manfred Von Karma, respectively. Miike’s adaptation focuses on two major cases from the game while detailing the other chapters surrounding it.

It opens with Phoenix (Hiroki Narimiya) winning his first case and defending his friend Larry (Akiyoshi Nakao) successfully, thanks to the help of his mentor, Mia (Rei Dan). A gift from Larry to Mia leads to her death, forcing Phoenix to figure out who killed her and help acquit her sister Maya (Mirei Kiritani), a spirit medium falsely accused of the crime. This pits him against the prodigious Miles Edgeworth (Takumi Saitoh), a former friend turned rival colleague. Phoenix barely wins the case with a stroke of luck and Mia’s ghost possessing her sister’s body to aid him.

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The circumstances of her death lead to the following case and chapter. Phoenix has to defend Edgeworth, accused of murdering a suspect in a historic case. The case ties back to Edgeworth’s father, a legendary attorney in his own right. This final case is what forms the majority of the plot, shifting between investigation mysteries and emotionally charged courtroom battles. Miike essentially adapts the first game to the tee, even in the treatment and over-the-top tone. The film is interspersed with bouts of comedy and camaraderie between Phoenix, Maya, and sometimes Larry as they untangle the complex mystery that connects everything together.

Regarding game mechanics, particularly in the courtroom sequences, Miike unabashedly utilizes unique camera angles and cuts to echo the storytelling of the visual novel itself. We see symmetrically framed shots when each witness or the accused is brought to the stand. There are exaggerated slides and smash cuts as both sides of the courtroom square off.

Even the lighter moments are enhanced by the wild reactions of the crowd, mainly when Phoenix makes amateurish mistakes and inconsiderate remarks. Where the faithful recreation of the mechanics of the game falters is in the presentation of the evidence in the form of futuristic holographic screens and the final verdict. These absurdly graphical elements showcased in gaudy VFX might fit tonally but are distracting, especially concerning the wildly faithful production design and sets.

Ace Attorney (2012) Movie Review
A still from Ace Attorney (2012)

That level of conviction regarding the production trickles down to how Miike adopts the game’s visual flair, primarily through colors, costuming, and makeup. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who embraces the absurdity of the world in which Ace Attorney exists quite like Takashi Miike. The anime-stylized look of characters, especially their hair and costume, comes true to life in the live-action.

Weird as it all is, it never feels out of place, thanks mainly to the performers embracing the humor and melodrama of the tone.  Perhaps the most interesting directorial choice is how Miike adapts aspects of the game’s protagonist, Phoenix Wright. His reactions via the players’ game choices are aptly translated to Hiroki Narimiya’s performance. There are moments in the game, especially during the courtroom scenario, where we cut away from Phoenix’s POV shots to Wright himself as he fights these battles. He sweats and reacts almost absurdly in defense of his clients, and because of the player may find startling success or even humiliating failure.

Narimiya utilizes these sequences to punctuate the heightened absurdity of the game and its depiction of law, order, and the battles of the court. We witness these stodgy scenes, akin to how the game pauses the surrounding action to allow Phoenix to figure out his next move. The static cutting between reaction shots effectively adapts this turn-based element of the game. In many ways, it is the most faithful adaptation of the players’ experience and most certainly jarring for anyone unfamiliar with the series beforehand.

What’s fascinating here is how Miike adapts the player’s experience and the entire game faithfully. It’s an odd but inspired choice, thanks to his snappy crosscutting to move at a brisk pace. Miike also chooses to deviate tonally by employing surreal breaks between these cases to truly mine the depth of themes the games barely touch on, namely the complexity of the ideologies of justice. He also uses these surreal callbacks to add visual touches to witness testimonies, circumventing the game’s static action. It adds a bit of cinematic flair to the narrative, also allowing brief haunting scenes to really drive it home that this is still a Takashi Miike film.

However, what suffers in this scenario are the distinct arcs of his characters, especially those surrounding Phoenix and their relationships with one another. The games often, within each case, find time to examine and explore these archetypal characters. Here, the focus on plotting and themes eliminates any chance of nuances, leaving the film feeling like a vapid exercise in faithful adaptation.

No one can quite complain about how the score faithfully recreates the game’s intense but sprightly music, especially during moments showcasing Phoenix’s latent brilliance as an investigator. Yet perhaps dealing with one case at a time and instead creating a trilogy or franchise might have allowed for greater emotional engagement and clarity to the proceedings.

Regardless, Ace Attorney is a refreshing success in a sea of video game adaptations that generally fail to match the storytelling elements that one medium provides in the other. Miike utilizes his trademark editing and visual language and perfectly blends it into the novel-styled formula of the Ace Attorney games. He is able to craft a film from a story that isn’t his but feels very much like his signature style. In that way, Ace Attorney becomes the perfect study to understand why Takashi Miike truly deserves his status as an auteur and iconic master of genre cinema.

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Ace Attorney (2012) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
The Cast of Ace Attorney (2012) Movie: Hiroki Narimiya, Mirei Kiritani, Takumi Saitoh
Ace Attorney (2012) Movie Genre: Comedy/Crime, Runtime: 2h 15m
Where to watch Ace Attorney

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