ACE ATTORNEY AND TAKASHI MIIKE’S IMPROBABLE DEPARTURES
By Melissa Howard
The lighthearted Ace Attorney, based on the Japanese adventure video game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is Takashi Miike’s most recent and perhaps most unlikely film to date. Though Miike’s reputation for extreme cinema precedes him (at least here in the west), Ace Attorney showcases a completely different side of the director’s psyche. A comparatively mainstream feature that could attract both gamers and non-gamers alike, Ace Attorney is a transgression of Miike’s usual comfort zone into a cartoonish kids tale – part courtroom drama, part comic-strip, part mystery and all fun and games, except here, nobody gets hurt – not in true Miike fashion anyway.
This artistic shift leaves me wondering if fans of the director’s more violent and bizarre work may be confused. How does a film adapted from a Nintendo video game become a draw for Miike fans of old, who reveled in his more violent and perverse attempts at storytelling? Think Ichi the Killer (2001), the story of a mobster protégé whose sadomasochistic impulses make him seek out the only person who could inflict such pain; or Audition (1999) a backwards love story about a girl who goes to gruesome lengths to keep tabs on the objects of her affection. But Miike, as always, is testing his own boundaries. Fans who appreciate his cinematic bloodlust may feel disoriented at first, but there’s a unique visual camaraderie worth exploring in Ace Attorney, the story of a goofy young defense attorney and his efforts to crack some dubious cases. These visual gags appear during testimonies and scenes of evidence-gathering, where statues double as clocks, spectral bodies offer clues and holographs drop from the ceiling, adding a surreal touch to more realistic plot lines. Miike’s ability to fuse the real world with the gaming world has the potential to draw fans, to great effect, from both new and old camps.
Miike has proved to be an impressive filmic journeyman, and his foray into lighter fare has been increasing over the past few years: in 2011, Miike’s family-friendly comedy Ninja Kids, an adaptation of the comic strip Nintama Rintaro about a school for young samurais, was released theatrically and had its Canadian premiere at Fantasia last summer. Nonetheless, Miike’s family-oriented films have not necessarily been what set him apart from the league of Asian filmmakers. When he began his directing career in the early 1990’s he made several films for Japanese V-cinema – the direct-to-video enterprise in Japan well known for its slack censorship constraints and subsequent tendency for greater creative license. Such freedom of expression backed by producers more accustomed to risk-taking than content-censoring, appealed to Miike, who benefited from this distribution platform. This paved the way for Miike’s diverse talent, allowing him to make the daring and subversive films he’s known for today.
Over time, Miike’s range of genres increased tremendously, but he’s always kept one foot in the horror door. Psychological terror and tension are particular trademarks of Japanese horror, detectable in films such as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on (both of which deal with Japanese myths and folklore), but Miike’s bent has always been on the more grisly side of the fence. Enter Imprint (2006), an anxiety-inducing episode about a disfigured prostitute living in feudal-era Japan. Miike was given complete creative freedom to create a one-hour program to be televised as part of the anthology series Masters of Horror. The brutal episode never aired on the cable networks, but was released instead direct to DVD, since the content was deemed much too graphic for television. Imprint depicted scenes of aborted fetuses and a graphic torture sequence of a woman having needles driven into her nails and gums. Oddly, Miike’s next piece was a great divergence from Imprint – the unusual Japanese-American hybrid Sukiyaki Western Django (2007). Sukiyaki played out as the archetypal western, replete with dusty showdowns and a frontier mentality of the everyman’s search for gold. Miike however, never lost sight of Sukiyaki’s built-in peculiarity – the film is brought to life by rifles and samurai swords alike and by an entirely Japanese cast who speak English phonetically (albeit, with bizarre cadence). So while Sukiyaki is a western shoot ‘em up with the cultural bi-polarity characteristic of many westerns, this film (unlike other westerns) points at this discrepancy and laughs. Even Quentin Tarantino makes an appearance in Miike’s absurdist flick, adding to its cross-cultural charm.
While Miike’s new endeavor Ace Attorney could be considered his most mainstream – he has, after-all, decided to capitalize on the gaming phenomenon that’s been gaining speed in Japan and the world over for more than two decades – there’s something refreshing about Miike doing this type of film, and it’s not that game adaptations have never been done: after all, Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat, and Super Mario Brothers were all well-known crossover concepts. But Miike’s Phoenix Wright, with his cartoonish hair and verbal “objections”, as well as the neon visuals and game board sound effects are all part of the fun. Fans of all sorts will be in for another unusual offering in a long line of Miike’s admirably unpredictable exploits.
ACE ATTORNEY has its Canadian Premiere on Thursday August 2 at 10:15pm and screens again on August 3rd at 1:00pm, both in the Hall Theatre. More info on the film page HERE.