Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Gakkyu Hotei: School Judgment
According to new laws, all disputes in school will now be resolved in a court of law. To this end, some students are trained as attorneys and spend their school days being transferred from school to school in order to arbitrate and prosecute cases ranging from cheating to bullying to...murder? At Tenbin Elementary, Tento has been accused of murder, so the government sends Abaku Inugami to defend him, a kindergartener to judge, and a girl named Pine to prosecute. Are these eleven-year-olds able to run a court system? And what secrets is Abaku hiding beneath his Sherlockian exterior?
How many of you attended or participated in mock trials in school? In the school system I attended, it was a pretty common social studies exercise in middle and high schools, and in some cases students even went to the courthouse to play out their cases. Gakkyu Hotei: School Judgment takes the idea of a mock trial one step further, creating a world where all student problems are handled by an in-school court system, with students trained as actual lawyers and judges. While this is the second series (to my knowledge) to use this as a theme – the first being Setona Mizushiro's 2001 shoujo manga Diamond Head – it is still precisely as bizarre as it sounds, and the story flirts between being serious and melodramatic and being silly.
The opening case introduces our two protagonists and the antagonist who wavers between being creepy and intensely irritating. Tento, a sixth grade student at Tenbin Elementary, has been accused of a horrific crime, and so the government sends in a team to take the case to court: prosecutor Pine Hanzuki and defense attorney (just called “attorney” in the story) Abaku Inugami, along with a frighteningly old-looking kindergarten student to serve as judge. In true Perry Mason style, Abaku trumps Pine, but instead of moving on to the next school where he is needed, he opts to stay at Tenbin, taking on Tento as his Watson. Pine, humiliated and infuriated by her defeat, decides to remain as well, and the two take on various other cases as the volume proceeds.
While there is a definite lack of seriousness to most of the cases, unless you're an eleven-year-old, in which situation they really would seem like a major issue, School Judgment is not afraid to go to some very dark places. Abaku's past is wrapped up in a classroom massacre that occurred when he was in the first grade, and unlike the murder case presented in this volume, which does have its bad implications but isn't as horrible as it sounds, the massacre is a true crime. It's clear that Abaku knows something about it that hasn't been believed by the legal system and that Tenbin Elementary holds some major answers for him, but not much beyond that has been revealed. Likewise the final case in the book, which will carry over into volume two, deals with addiction and drug dealing, although author Enoki tries very hard to make light of it. It still is fairly upsetting, however, and Enoki comments several times throughout the book that he and his editor didn't always agree about subject matter. Other issues that are more poked fun at or glossed over include a case about posting vaguely suggestive pictures of an eleven-year-old idol online without her consent and Pine's...doting...manservant Lolimatsu. He's clearly meant to be a joke (just look at his name), but the way he's slavering over Pine is uncomfortable, even when you consider that she appears to be aware of it and using it to her advantage. That's not a great message about sexuality as a means of controlling others for the elementary school set, plus seeing an older man fawning and drooling over a pre-pubescent girl is more disturbing than funny.
Unusually, the translation notes for this volume feel very incomplete, focusing on specific words/kanji and a reference to a 19th century children's novel rather than the Japanese pop culture references. Given that Pine introduces herself by saying her favorite Pretty Cure (Cure Peace, the yellow one from Smile PreCure/Glitter Force) and that she consistently references magical girls in her courtroom persona, this does feel a little odd. Perhaps the recent Netflix release of Glitter Force and the return of Sailor Moon was behind the omission? Also strange was the decision to leave Abaku's use of the word “ronpa” untranslated rather than going with a philosophy or debate equivalent in English. While again I can reason this out – using a foreign word is perhaps shorter and makes it sound more exciting – it still is a bit bizarre and potentially off-putting.
As usual, Takeshi Obata's art is gorgeous, although pages and panels can get a bit crowded. Enoki gives us glimpses of his own draft artwork and how Obata changed them, which is interesting, and his tales of the trials he goes through with his editor(s) are very interesting. The portrayal of the classroom teacher is another interesting piece of the story, with both author and illustrator working together to make her more than she at first appears, an indication of how this is a put-together team that really does work.
Gakkyu Hotei: School Judgment is a little like a combination of the Encyclopedia Brown books and the 1970s Ellery Queen TV show with its wall-breaking narration at the end of each chapter and the invitation for the reader to figure things out along with the detective. This style can get to be a bit much, and the story sometimes crosses the line into uncomfortable, but despite that this is an interesting new mystery title. If you need a new child sleuth in your life, this is a good series to check out.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Fun concept, good underlying mystery for Abaku. Can be both funny and creepy, lovely art.
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