The Spring 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ace Attorney ?
What is this?
What a beautiful day! The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and Ryuuichi Naruhodo's (Phoenix Wright's) childhood friend has been put on trial for murder! Fortunately, this is his first day as an ace defense attorney, in a world where trials must go to court and get settled within three days to accommodate the cartoonish rise in crime. He'll have to put both his wits and debate skills to the test if he wants to save his buddy Masashi Yahari (Larry Butz) from the electric chair. It's a good thing he has the expertise of his mentor, Chihiro Ayasato (Mia Fey), to guide him, but what if she's not always around to ensure his legal victories in the future? Ace Attorney is based on a video game series and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Saturdays at 7:00 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Ace Attorney makes me re-evaluate any complaints I've had of anime adaptations steering too far from the source material. The first game's tutorial case is played out here, with game window intro text and dialogue lifted directly from the Nintendo DS game. What we're treated to is a jilted, unnatural script dressed up in some of the worst animation I've seen in a while. As someone who has played every North American release from this franchise, it's disappointing.
It's not like the tutorial case couldn't be reworked. The episode could have been padded out a bit to introduce Maya and Phoenix's dynamic, and they could have skipped over the whole “player made the wrong choice so Maya hands over the autopsy report” bit to come up with something else. These kinds of illogical writing flaws work in the game because it's a way to slowly teach the player how the trial system works by introducing new items. This doesn't translate into a non-interactive medium, but no one on this production seems to have accounted for that.
I really can't overstate how unattractive this show is, from its CG-rendered court props to the hilariously bad running sequence in the opening. The source material didn't lend itself to a lot of animation to begin with, since most the game is back and forth dialogue between characters standing around. Where it did excel was over-the-top facial reactions, but A-1 Pictures's anime adaptation barely captures this, losing a lot of the reaction humor. There's also plenty of off-model contorting or really obvious technical oversights that shouldn't be in a series' premiere episode. Check the screencap for Phoenix's six-fingered right hand.
What A-1 Pictures has created is a safe, by-the-books adaptation that neither impresses in technical merit nor brings any surprises for long-time fans. If you wanted to see your favorite CAPCOM characters come to life on screen, this barely serves that purpose. It does nothing to outright tarnish the franchise, but it hardly makes it shine.
Jacob Hope Chapman
Way back when Ace Attorney was finally announced for an anime adaptation, I was ecstatic for a fleeting few seconds. (I can't help it, I've been a huge fan since high school.) But then the ill-fated anime adaptation of Danganronpa leapt to my mind, and I thought better of my enthusiasm. (Danganronpa is my favorite visual novel series now, I love it even more than Phoenix Wright, and I was introduced to it through the anime, but it's such a poor adaptation that I never need to watch that show again and didn't even bother adding it to my collection.) I decided that the only way to make an Ace Attorney anime worthwhile standalone was for the production team to do something creative and a little artistically zany with it. I wasn't expecting much, but I had hope in my heart for just a little directorial innovation that might bring the story to life in a unique way for the small screen.
This did not happen. Far from it, this Ace Attorney anime is not only slavishly faithful in its translation of the first game's tutorial case (all the details are the same, but with no breathing room for character moments or any chance for the audience to solve the mystery), it also looks like it was all farmed out to grunts at tiny unknown studios in 2002. This is absolutely the least visually engaging version of Phoenix Wright they could have made, short of just making it unrecognizable somehow. Flat, bland, utilitarian, and paced/edited/scored almost painfully identical to any number of lowest common denominator j-drama serials. It's not the Ace Attorney anime that anybody was dreaming of, but it does two key things perfectly that made me pretty okay with the experience.
For one thing, the voice acting's great. It may not seem like much, but the gleeful bombast and absurd conviction in everyone's voices as they duke it out in the courtroom could only be conveyed in text when experiencing this story through a Gameboy Advance, so giving Larry Butz and Mia Fey expressive cartoony voices did add a lot to the experience. (I was hoping to see more overreactions and objections from Winston Payne, but the incompetent prosecutor basically gets one line before disappearing from the episode entirely.) The colorful shock waves used to illustrate objections were also a nice touch. I can't imagine how boring this episode would have been if these barely-animated characters just shouted at each other without any added effect.
The other thing this anime gets right is the overall tone of Phoenix Wright: dramatic yet inviting, family-friendly yet clever, and full of cheer no matter how dark the story might turn. It might seem like a given that they would at least get the spirit of the games right even if the adaptation is uninspired, but capturing the soul of the original goes wrong all the time. Heck, Takashi Miike's completely joyless (you know what I loved about Ace Attorney: not being able to see anything!) yet bizarrely literal (everyone's in cosplay!) live-action Phoenix Wright film is a perfect example of getting the details right and the spirit wrong, so I'm glad that this disappointingly bland effort from A-1 Pictures, if nothing else, has its heart in the right place.
Unfortunately, there is more to complain about than praise for Phoenix fans seeking their fix from this anime. Phoenix's lovably bumbling personality is completely lost in the rush to have him solve the mystery in twenty minutes, making him seem more like a sharp detective than a purehearted kid in way over his head. It's not great for newcomers either, because there's no way to solve the case yourself before Phoenix does it for you. But it airs on prime time in Japan, so maybe it'll capture the imaginations of more young'uns to check out the wonderful game series, awful production values aside.
Videogame adaptations really do tend to get the short end of the stick. Though a great deal of anime is greenlit largely to advertise other products, with videogames, the fact that you're adapting from one screen medium to another seems to almost encourage directorial laziness. Ace Attorney's adaptation sadly continues this trend; seemingly more a Let's Play of the game than a fully realized production. It looks to hold so closely to the game's aesthetic that you might as well just be playing that instead.
This first episode runs us through the entirety of Phoenix Wright's first case, where he defends his friend Larry Butz from a murder accusation. We're not really “introduced” to these characters so much as they're thrown at us over the course of this mini-trial, and you don't really get the sense of an actual world here outside of the confines of the game-styled courtroom. Stages of the trial are announced with block letters presumably cribbed directly from the game, and Wright's various deductions are heralded by game-evocative beeping noises as well.
If the appeal of seeing an anime version of Ace Attorney is just seeing these stories articulated with more compelling visuals, then even there, this show is bound to be a letdown. Ace Attorney looks ugly from start to finish - its character designs seem too beholden to the game's defined style to allow for much expressive behavior, and the animation isn't smooth enough to add anything to the production. The show's CG courtroom is both ugly on its own and doesn't naturally integrate with the traditionally animated characters, making the production feel even more artificial than it would otherwise. And that's before you get to the straight-up terrible CG characters populating the witness stands.
Overall, the Ace Attorney anime may well be succeeding in its job - I don't want to watch any more Ace Attorney, but I do feel kind of compelled to check out the games. But as a self-contained show, Ace Attorney feels like a totally phoned-in effort. An easy skip.
Is he Phoenix Wright or Naruhodo Ryuichi to you? In a rare case of “whichever you prefer,” Crunchyroll is currently offering an alternative subtitle track that gives the characters their localized English names, which is a nice touch for people who prefer to keep things the way they remember them. Since I've never played the games (though my sister has talked about them a lot), I went mostly with the regular subs; I generally prefer that the names I hear and the names I read match up.
That information aside, Ace Attorney’s anime debut is an awful lot of very silly fun. It's Perry Mason lite – a corny, goofy trial wherein rookie defense attorney Naruhodo Ryuichi manages not only to defend his friend Yahari (Larry) from spurious murder charges, but also to turn things around and accuse the witness on the stand – a classic Perry Mason move. This show owes a lot more to that stand-by of 1950s and 60s television (and literature) than it does to more contemporary crime dramas, so if you're more the Law & Order type, this may have less appeal. The court procedures are iffy at best, and the drama is cheesy and intensified by music that sounds suspiciously like in-game midi tracks, to say nothing of the use of plenty of transitional cards of people's heads looking shocked and/or suspicious. Add in some twinkly sound effects, and the episode gives off the definite feeling of watching someone play a video game. Somehow it manages this without making you feel like you're missing out on something, however; this may be due to the fact that the mystery itself isn't difficult to figure out. Granted, this is the first case our hero has ever tried, so it seems like there's a good chance that the mysteries will get more complex. In fact, the preview for episode two looks like it's going to raise the difficulty level considerably, so this may have been just a light-hearted intro to the story's world.
Regardless of whether or not that's the case, there's just something appealing about the bright colors, blocky character designs (and stunning hair that looks like it was once siding on a steampunk airship), and simplicity of this episode. There isn't much emotion shown on characters’ faces, which is a bit off-putting. Instead, the show relies on over-the-top visual effects to show us when someone is upset or makes a good point, literally blowing Naruhodo off his feet or having a carefully crafted façade fall apart under “intense” questioning. This again feels like a tribute to the show's game roots, and it works for this particular episode. Despite the fact that the case in question is a murder trial, there's no tension or question about the outcome – heck, the show opens with a scene of the murderer murdering and then basically twisting his moustache and wondering what patsy to pin it on. But that's the joy of this episode – it's neat, tidy, and corny in the best way. Regardless of whether it stays that way or not, this is just a fun diversion in a serious genre, and even if you haven't played the games (or maybe especially if you haven't?), it's worth checking out for some Saturday morning-style campiness.
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