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Another Decade with Takashi Miike: Flip Your Wig

"Ace Attorney" (2012) is a fearless adaptation of the video game "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney."
Scout Tafoya
Another Decade with Takashi Miike is a series of essays on the 2010s films of the Japanese maverick, following Notebook's earlier survey of Miike's first decade of the 21st century.
Ace Attorney
In tallying up the sum of Takashi Miike’s work, getting anything like a concrete read on his artistic outlook and output is difficult, bordering on impossible. He made it easy to pigeonhole him by specializing for a time on the outré and the unapologetically crass at a time when, in America anyway, artists were losing a culture war. Western critics didn’t quite know what to make of a turn towards unrepentantly violence images in horror films as a species (in 2005 alone, the year before Miike makes Imprint, perhaps his most unapologetically cruel film, a majority of reviewers give Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw II, Eli Roth’s Hostel, Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, and Greg MacLean’s Wolf Creek dreadful notices). Gore in service of a deliberate sledgehammer nihilism seems to be catching on so the majority of critics do as they always do and ghettoized the efforts, even gave the work a suitably boogeyman-style moniker in “torture porn.” Miike nevertheless outpaced everyone for gallingly amoral bursts of sexualized violence. Audition, Visitor Q, Ichi The Killer, Gozu and Imprint all arrived here while his more tender and restrained work stayed in Japan and Europe. But once you write your name in gallons of blood the impetus to continue to push buttons fades. Miike has since been on a mission to define himself by what he isn’t as much as what he is. And what he most importantly became is impossible to predict.
A movie like Ace Attorney became the kind of surest bet when laying odds on the look and feel of the next Miike film, but even that’s changed in the ensuing years. It’s the kind of work that would have been left to directors without recognizable, mass market style in the U.S., the work of any number of interchangeable filmmakers on speed dial at Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp. or Dreamworks. And even despite having flirted with children’s entertainment and childish movies before (and there is an important difference between the two, as anyone who has seen both Yatterman and Ninja Kids!!! can tell you), Miike nevertheless made something singular with his adaptation of the video game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. It’s a film with an iron grip on what it isn’t. It’s not just for fans of the game or the subsequently produced manga adaptation; it’s not a legal thriller; it’s not a superhero movie; and it’s not a video game movie, though it flirts with all of these things. The only certainty is the utter fearless response it has to what’s expected of a film like this.
It opens with an elemental dissection of what people come to his kind of cinema to experience. A woman’s eyelids fluttering, her pupils inside her head, and then a gun drifting through the air and firing. The bullet races around the woman, a medium, like a pixie, and then the gun fires again directly at us in the audience, an Edwin Porter-style summons of our disbelief and implication. The film is about the process of the law and so Miike asks us treat the action as if we’ll later be called to testify about what we see, as we’re shot dead by the film itself. In a sense, we will. The medium is retrieving testimony from a dead man about who murdered him; the “medium” is the message. The afterlife is real here, and the dead can speak, so the film’s reality is already stretched like a rubber band. The first case argued in the film after this stunning introductory sequence involves a murder committed on a film set, which allows opposing council to say things like “the script writer told us,” when laying out testimony. Miike lays out the mechanics of storytelling and storytellers as the gods governing his people, which is how he must make sense of a world that springs from a man-made game. Just as Dead or Alive’s kinetic, cocaine fueled orgy of destruction kicked off the most sensational decade of his career, so does Ace Attorney act as a reset switch. He has effectively set the table for his Mole Song movies, JoJos Bizarre Adventure, his TV series Idol Warriors Miracle Tunes! and their sequels, and perhaps most clearly As The Gods Will, his definitive text on a universe’s inscrutable design revealing itself to us one act of violence at a time.
Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya, who like Mirei Kiritani as Ace’s friend Maya Fey, voiced the same character in a simultaneously released update of the Ace Attorney video game in Japan) is a hot young lawyer who is a rising star in Japan’s new trial system. Due to the huge preponderance of criminal trials, they’re treated like tennis matches, with attorneys facing each other down in open court. Miike never shrinks from the idea of the world being governed by video game logic. The wigs that most of the characters wear are right out of the game, and every so often words will appear in bright floating neon letters above the action, rendering god-like verdicts on moves pulled in court. It’s what would happens in the video games, so it’s what happens here. Miike treats video game logic with the same respect he lavishes on their aesthetic. It doesn’t have to make sense even to the characters, who frequently seem a little stunned by the coup-de-video game intrusions.
The wigs have a mind of their own. In Wright’s first case, opposing council have theirs blown or torn off their head. They are the characters, as much as they’re a joke about justices forced to wear the wigs of their colonial ancestors in court, a tradition that never took hold in Japan. Wigs describe the characters beneath them as clearly as names like Detective Dick Gumshoe, Prosecutor Von Karma, and Lotta Hart do. We know everything we need to know about Wright’s friend Larry Butz (Akiyoshi Nakao) from his fiery waves of dyed-blonde hair. Icy and calculating attorney Miles Edgeworth (Takumi Saito) issues proclamations from beneath a crown of steel-silver hair. Wright himself has an intricately shaped, symmetrical widow’s peak and his hair is gelled behind him to look like it’s being blown back by constant momentum. Miike ensures this is true as he’s constantly moving from crime scene to trial, life throwing new developments at him at every turn as he hangs on for dear life. Miike does mine humor from the sight of Wright asking for autopsy reports looking like he fell out of a video game (a flashback finds the childhood versions of Edgeworth, Butz & Wright with the same suits and hair they were in adulthood discussing their hopes and dreams), but when he’s arguing his last case the irony has been long forgotten. It’s meant to be a children’s film for adults, or a very adult film for children, and of course the impossibility of being itself gives the film purpose.
The constant navigation of the outsized signifiers and the grave matters Wright investigates is never reconciled. The film speaks in a deliberately uncanny grammar, attempting to place the film’s tone and its intent in precisely the nether realm it deserves to occupy. It’s neither a live-action cartoon like Ninja Kids!!!, nor the violent fantasy found in Yakuza Like a Dragon. Like its hero, it plays by its own rules, working up a sweat showing everything made possible in this bizarre universe while still obeying the rules of storytelling. When Edgeworth, Wright’s childhood friend and rival, is convicted of murder, it must fall to Wright to defend him in court. Wright’s search for justice is essentially his search for order to the universe, replacing God with justice and reason. When he starts to see that the murder of high-profile attorneys is connected, he’s creating/restoring moral order like finishing a jigsaw puzzle. Empirically deduced justice is more important than anything else here—even Edgeworth would rather his case be handled correctly than have his own innocence determined. After spending two decades making films about criminals inventing and destroying the world as they lived, Miike found himself in service of the law. It is itself a bitter irony that a universe that obeys even an abstract idea of justice must come in the clothes of a cartoon or a video game. It isn’t enough simply that Edgeworth be found guilty, but that his prosecutor also be implicated in the crime that would have locked him away. The real world isn’t kind, and the guilty walk free every day; it’s only in fantasy that justice is served.

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