Gyakuten Saiban — the movie based on Capcom's visual novel series, Ace Attorney — was released in Japan to sold-out theatres this past weekend. Staying closer to the source material than any video game movie before it, does this film prove that games can successfully be adapted into movies or does it reiterate the idea that games and movies are fundamentally incompatible forms of art? (Hint: it's the former.)
Gyakuten Saiban, the movie, closely follows the plot of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney — specifically the overarching story of the first, second, and fourth cases in that game. Upon finding his mentor, Mia Fey, murdered, rookie defence attorney Phoenix Wright finds himself trapped in the middle of 15-year-old mystery. With the help of Mia's little sister, Maya, Phoenix sets out to match wits against prosecutors Miles Edgeworth and Manfred Von Karma to unravel the conspiracy that connects them all together.
A movie like this could find no better director than Miike Takashi (Ichi the Killer, Audition). Known in the West mostly as a horror director, he's actually done everything from children's fantasy films to classic anime adaptations in addition to his horror work. His ability to merge the real and the surreal does more than hold the often-comical/often-serious drama of Gyakuten Saiban together: it crafts a world where such things feel natural.
If you've ever complained that a video game movie strays too far from the source material, then Gyakuten Saiban is the movie for you. Everything from hair styles to the Blue Badger come straight from the game with little to no embellishment. Much of the game's music returns — now fully orchestrated — and even the set design perfectly mirrors the in-game locations.
That said, the movie and game are not identical as Miike doesn't hesitate to take the ideas present in the game and run with them to their logical conclusion. In a world where all trials last for a maximum of three days, Miike treats courtrooms as the world's most popular sport, where fans buy tickets and lawyers face off in pre-fight interviews.
Moreover, witnesses are developed into true characters with their own complete stories and motivations far beyond source material. This extra insight provides the key to some of the film's most emotional-and haunting-images.
But by far the best thing in the movie is Miike's insistence to show, not tell. Deconstructed to its core, the Ace Attorney series is about a group of people standing around talking in a courtroom. But in Miike's Gyakuten Saiban, being visual is key. When a witness is testifying, we see the events happen via flashback. When a spirit medium contacts spirits of the dead, we don't just see a woman writhing around; we see the ghostly figments of death and the hellish landscape beyond.
This is the very reason for one of the film's most obvious additions, the holographic evidence windows. Ostensibly made to emulate the game's court record, they do far more by creating a way to make even the most mundane piece of evidence exciting and engaging. They also serve to set the time period, with comically large CRT monitors being used in flashbacks.
If the movie has any weakness, it's the casting. While most of the cast, especially Phoenix, Edgeworth, and Von Karma, are spot on, the same cannot be said for the supporting characters. Maya, a 17-year-old who is far more child than adult in the games, comes off less like an innocent girl and more like an emotionally unstable woman in her 20's. Gumshoe, on the other hand, comes off looking like an intelligent, clean-cut rookie cop rather than a middle-aged screw-up.
But as a whole, Gyakuten Saiban is by far the best video game adaption I have ever seen — though given how low that bar is, I'll do you one better. Gyakuten Saiban is on its own a fun, engaging mystery/comedy and a legitimately good movie.
I'll end this review with a little story. I had the pleasure of seeing this film with a non-gamer who had never even heard of the Ace Attorney games. He came out of the theatre raving about the swerving plot twists, great characters, and amazing direction. He then proceeded to download Gyakuten Saiban 123 HD — the new iSO HD versions of the first three games — onto his iPhone. I don't know if there's any bigger praise than that.