This is not a film review. That wouldn't be fair to Takashi Miike, a director whose better known films (Audition, Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins) I've, by and large, enjoyed. This is simply purging. When you ingest two hours and fifteen minutes of something that simply doesn't agree with you, you've got to get that stuff out of your system.
I made three attempts to watch Ace Attorney, Miike's newest film and one of the centerpieces of the upcoming New York Asian Film Festival. After my first failed attempt I figured it was a little late, around 1 am, and while I wasn't tired I told myself that I had to've actually been so zonked I wasn't even realizing it. That was the only reason, I surmised, why I was fifteen minutes into a movie and had no idea what the hell was going on.
Feeling fresh the next day I popped my screener back in and, huzzah, with perseverance I was able to make it past that fifteen minute mark. Indeed, that was just about where an inkling of a narrative came in, and some of the characters started to form. Prior to that, really, this Japanese movie may as well have not bothered with the subtitles.
Ace Attorney is set in a world much like our own, but one where everyone has crazy hair and legal proceedings are framed like wrestling matches. The prosecutor and defense summon computer generated displays of documents and hurl them at one another. (Think of the battle of the bands sequence from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.) The judge is charged with making decisions as quickly as possible, allowing the lawyers just seconds to jump in with an objection.
Our hero, Phoenix Wright, is able to envision crime scenes in his mind, parse clues and serve up summations with aplomb. In the first act, after finding his co-worker Mia dead and her sister framed for the murder, he is able to rescue her from the dock (with some aid from a possessing spirit from the underworld or something.)
The way I'm describing it, it may sound kinda cool. I'm here to tell you that it is not. It is the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. It is a lot of hammy acting, shouting and headache inducing camera moves. The costumes are amusing in a Pee-wee's Playhouse kinda way, but these trace elements of craftiness aren't enough to keep you interested.
As the story unfolded, something strange was happening for a guy who has devoted so much of his life to watching and responding to movies. I was just UNABLE to absorb this film. I couldn't focus. It was like I was suddenly stricken with the worse case of ADD.
As the first courtroom scene dragged on and on I did something I very rarely do. I picked up my phone (reminder: I was at home, I'm not a monster) and made a Twitter comment that I was watching Ace Attorney and found it baffling. I got a few comments back, some from strangers, some from acquaintances, saying they loved the game.
Aha! This is based on a game! That had to've been why I wasn't getting it.
Lemme tell ya something: I'm not much of a gamer. This isn't for lack of interest – I find some video games fascinating – but because I find them extremely frustrating. I'm what the New England Journal of Medicine categorizes as a spaz. I'm just no good at games. As such, with the exception of Clue, I've never seen a film based on a game I've actually played. (Sorry, Peter Berg, I skipped Battleship. Join the army, motherfucker.)
My inexperience with the source material hasn't been a problem with the enjoyable Resident Evil films or, say, Prince of Persia, which I didn't despise, but I refused to accept that there was a movie out there that I couldn't “understand.” I mean, shit, I'm the guy who scoffs at people when they can't sit through something like Bela Tarr's seven hour Satantango. I'm a full contact cineaste! I'm not going to be defeated by this!
I stormed Wikipedia. I read all I could about Ace Attorney. I watched gameplay clips on YouTube. I started to grok the vibe of the world, the game maneuvers that were somewhat replicated in the film. And I noticed that most of the side characters in the film – Detective Dick Gumshoe, the maniacal blonde sidekick Larry Butz, the villainous Redd White – were all canonical to the series. As a guy who respects other people's obsessive disorders, this made me happy.
So I hit restart and went back for round three – somewhat in keeping with Ace Attorney's in-universe structure of three day speed trials. Again: white noise. For a moment, as I stared at frenetic Japanese actors jumping around and yelling at each other, I began to panic that I was experiencing a dissociative break.
If you've never had the misfortune of experiencing a bad LSD trip, allow me to explain. Dissociative disorder, sometimes called derealization, is when all visual information suddenly becomes unrecognizable to your brain. You still see the person you are looking at (or in my case, the tuna fish sandwich you are eating – don't ask) but it just becomes blocks of meaningless color. If you are John Lennon you write songs that like Tomorrow Never Knows. Most people, however, just freak the fuck out.
I didn't freak out watching Ace Attorney but it did make me very uncomfortable. It became an unending fever dream that made me nauseous. Have you ever had the flu, been unable to sleep and an annoying song – or perhaps a series of images – just plays over and over in your mind until you finally get out of bed and vomit? (If you haven't, and are starting to think I am crazy, know that this is, in fact, fairly common, so I'm not ranting.) Anyway, that's what was happening to me – and that's when the full realization that Ace Attorney was two hours and fifteen minutes long!!
Nevertheless I forced myself to at least stare at and listen to the film, even though I wasn't processing any of it. (Not the first time – try watching Last Year at Marienbad when you are in junior high because your parents rented it on accident.)
What I did pick up was that our hero's nemesis, prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, ends up on trial for murder so, of course, Phoenix Wright is the only one who'll defend him. The murder ties in with a legendary unsolved case and Wright must go up against the 40-years undefeated prosecutor Manfred von Karma in what you video game whippersnappers refer to as a boss fight. Also there's a Loch Ness Monster subplot, something with a giant blow-up balloon set to game show music and a cockatiel at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
I'm clearly not the one to tell fans of the video game if this is a good adaptation or not. I think it is fair to say, however, that as a film qua film it is not successful. I can do boisterous and zany films. Even Japanese ones. Each year I've been to Fantastic Fest I make sure to catch one of the Sushi Typhoon movies - Karate-Robo Zaborgar, Mutant Girls Squad and the like – and while I'd be hesitant to call them my favorite cup of tea, I'm able to have a cheery time, my appetite sated for a solid year.
Watching Ace Attorney however, is, for me anyway, a strange psychological torture. My objections, I trust, have been clearly noted.