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Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney Movie Review from HIFF

About two months ago I had the pleasure of seeing my new favorite movie, “Phoenix Wright — Ace Attorney”. I saw it at the Hawaii International Film Festival and I loved it. Capital L O V E, LOVED it. I recommend it wholeheartedly for anyone who is in the legal field, in the trial field, likes good movies, or has a pulse. It’s a Japanese movie, so while I read the subtitles I was listening to the Japanese as well.

If you read this blog, I’m giving away the end of the movie.

I’m going to discuss the movie without worrying about spoiling it, so if you need to be in suspense, go watch the movie, and come back and read this after. But I think it says some important things about the legal system that I want to discuss. Also, I saw it about two months ago now, so I’m going to get parts of it wrong in my explanation. Don’t worry, my memory will only make the story better.

Below is the trailer for the movie, after which the discussion will start:

So the basic premise is this: there are so many crimes in Japan, that they need a new trial system. Japan institutes a system where each trial has three days before a judge, at which point there is a winner. It also seems to have “sudden death”, if the Prosecutor produces enough evidence the Defense doesn’t have a response for, the judge will decide against the Defendant.

The most fascinating part is how the Japanese satire of a court system, is the Hawaii judicial system.

But before I get to that, the moral of the movie, and one I agree with and harp on, appears in the first few minutes of the movie. I’m going to paraphrase it here because I don’t remember it word for word, but the old prosecutor tells the young hungry prosecutor, both of whom are undefeated, “You can’t do whatever you want, you have to do it the right way.”

And the Young Prosecutor’s response (which you kind of hear in the trailer above) “Nothing’s illegal about what I do.” But is there a gray area? Are there things that are “not illegal” but at the same time not cool? Is there a zone between illegal and allowed? I suggest yes. This is why lawyers have tons of rules, entire organizations even, dedicated to ethics. Even Guidelines of Professional Courtesy and Civility that we are required to follow.

You don’t make guidelines on civility unless people need guidelines to be civil. Said another way, if every lawyer was ethical, we wouldn’t need ethical rules; classes on ethics; mandatory ethics training.

It’s amazing the way the investigation and the trial case in this movie parallels a young attorney’s trial work. He investigates on his own with his girlfriend. He has to look at the evidence himself, visiting the scene, retracing the steps. He prepares the questions and the evidence for the trial in depth. Then it all goes out the window the second trial starts and he has to think on his feet!

And this is a satire of a failed judicial system!

So the big hook at the end is that the Old Prosecutor who warned the younger Prosecutor to “do things the right way” had been lying and cheating for years. So while he paid “lip service” to doing things the right way, meanwhile he was manipulating the evidence to make sure he would win. His version of the right way was to be humble while cheating, as opposed to the Younger Prosecutor’s legal, but loathsome, lack of civility.

The interesting part of this is that while the Old Prosecutor advises correctly, he acts poorly. This is always an interesting line in fiction and a pathway to tragedy in reality. This “do as I say, not as I do”; Jimmy Falwell, Ted Haggard, or Eddie Long. Why is it always the people who warn most strongly against X are found with X? And does that mean you can’t talk a stance against anything since we will suspect your darkest secret is the same?

This is reflected in the Young Prosecutor. He is absolutely convinced everyone arrested is guilty. Right up until he is arrested.

I’ve often commented that it’s impossible to overestimate the influence of Japanese ethos on the way business is done in Hawaii. It blows my mind how useful my short time in Japan has been for me since I moved here. Just today I had a conversation with another attorney who talked about “Plantation Values”, which I couldn’t understand until he started describing the way Japanese people handle certain obstacles in their lives.

The success of this movie is that old yarn about the path being more important than the destination.

That, and the fact that this movie that this sarcastic fantasy that includes ghosts, psychics, lake monsters, amnesia, rock-star ninjas, and policeman mascots is so darn realistic when it comes to the inner workings of the investigation and prosecution of a trial…in Hawaii!.