So, Ace Attorney is a show that comes with a pretty predominant following already, because it’s an adaptation of a pretty unique series of games that came from Capcom. Not only were they popular games in Japan, but they’ve found a strong audience in the United States, insofar as Capcom games go. The main character even wound up in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3! I haven’t played the games themselves, but when the anime came out, I thought I’d give it a check. Currently, eight episodes have aired, and I’ve seen the first seven, so it’s past the halfway point of the cour (a twelve/thirteen-episode chunk of an anime). So, what’s the verdict?
Author’s Note #1: When the games were localized into English, the translations changed the characters’ names into ones that sounded more “normal” to English-speakers. So, for instance, the main character is called “Naruhodo Ryuuichi” in the Japanese, but you’d probably more commonly know him as “Phoenix Wright”. I wound up watching the show with the subtitles for the Japanese character names, because it was distracting to see a distinctly different name from what I was hearing; Crunchyroll has subtitle options for both the English and Japanese versions of the names, however.
Author’s Note #2: I’m going to be avoiding spoilers for the show, but there’s a couple brief things I want to mention that are somewhat spoilery. They’re not big enough to warrant a full-on spoiler section, so I’ll use a ROT13 cipher to obfuscate the spoilers. You can use a site like rot13.com to unscramble it; I’ll be underlining the ciphered text so you can pick it out. The main point is that you can read the page and scan past the spoilers without spotting anything in the corner of your eye.
Ace Attorney: the Briefing
Ace Attorney follows the adventures of Naruhodo Ryuuichi (Phoenix Wright), a young criminal defense attorney in the Japanese legal system who begins the first episode as a total rookie–it’s his first case. The rest of the series follows him through various legal cases (all of which seem to be murder mysteries so far) with a fairly set structure: Naruhodo investigates the scene of the crime, then there’s a charged trial sequence where he works to convince the grey-bearded judge that his client is innocent, at the same time unmasking the true culprit of the crime. So it’s a bit of a cross between a legal drama and a murder mystery.
Now, when I say “legal drama”, I’m talking about drama. The aesthetic of the show is unabashedly over-the-top, with dramatic “OBJECTION!” and “TAKE THAT!”, and the thundering declarations of lawyers sending witnesses flying. It’s a bit goofy, but it’s pretty fun once you get used to it–and, I daresay, it’s thrilling once you’re along for the ride. (Also, you may have noted that I mentioned nothing about a jury above. United States viewers may note that the Japanese legal system, especially back at the time that the Ace Attorney games first came out, is different from our own.)
Each case (which often involves multiple episodes) often plays out similarly to a detective TV show like Columbo: we see one depiction of the crime, then Naruhodo (Phoenix) becomes involved and starts investigating. When the case comes to trial, it’s a battle of wits, as witnesses reveal what they’ve seen and Naruhodo (Phoenix) tries to poke holes in their testimony. They backpedal or reconcile their testimonies, and he tries to find new holes, and so on. Eventually, the case comes to a dramatic close once the right bit of pivotal information is discovered, and the day is saved!
As I watched through the series, I wasn’t terribly impressed by a lot. There’s a ton of what folks usually refer to as “phoning it in”. Sure, there’s some great hamming-it-up dramatic moments, but the first few episodes are fairly paint-by-numbers. Granted, the murder mysteries, and the way that the back-and-forth of evidence went in the trials was rather logical and dramatic, but the whole show just felt unspirited and flat.
There’s an introductory episode (“The First Turnabout”) where they introduce the characters through a quick court case, followed by a three-episode arc where they cover Phoenix’s first major trial (“Turnabout Sisters”). The problem is, Turnabout Sisters, although the stakes are in theory pretty high, doesn’t really hit home the way it should, despite the fact that all the stakes are such a big deal. Heck, Anehubqb’f zragbe syng-bhg qvrf ng gur raq in the first episode, and it just doesn’t hit home at all.
I think part of that is definitely the fact that the animation and the writing are pretty mediocre at that point. It’s hard to really get attached to anyone, because of how much scant characterization gets invoked, and it’s not drawn well enough to really draw you into the world. The conceit is novel and amusing enough, but the payoffs don’t feel earned. And that’s the attitude I had going into Episodes 5-7, the “Turnabout Samurai” trial/case. It seemed pretty straightforward; the grade was panning out to be a pretty solid “highly mediocre”.
Somehow, they actually turned me around. The “Turnabout Samurai” case is a fine bit of watching. More importantly, it takes the hastily-developed characters from the first four episodes and starts doing things with them. It’s not night and day, but it’s still a strong change. The first four episodes are a lackluster origin story for Naruhodo (Phoenix), but the next three episodes show off promise, because you finally get some meat to the adaptation. With that, everything clicks into place better: characterizations shine forth, so the overdramatic nature of the show starts reinforcing that, and I think they may have even improved on the visuals. They also start messing with the standard formula of the cases in a good way.
I can’t predict where the show is going to go after this point, but my hopes definitely raised after seeing what they managed with Turnabout Samurai, and I’ll definitely be reporting in when the first cour finishes up.
You can watch Ace Attorney for free on Crunchyroll
Content Advisory: some blood/violence involved in the murder scenes; one of the characters claims to be a spirit medium, and during the Turnabout Sisters case, npghnyyl punaaryf gur fcvevg bs Anehubqb’f qrnq zragbe, which definitely bothered me