Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
A Century of Nationalism
The advantage of being on summer break is I have time to dig a little deeper into my backlog of games than I normally do. This week—after finally finishing Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth—I picked up my mostly-unplayed copy of Great Ace Attorney 2, the second in a series spun off from the murder-mystery-slash-legal-drama visual novels that are Ace Attorney.
The Great Ace Attorney games are something of a reboot of the series. While the main series Ace Attorney games continue under a new creative team, the series’s original creator, Takumi Shu, wanted to move on to a fully new setting and set of characters, and thus Great Ace Attorney was born. The Great Ace Attorney games are set in the late Meiji Period—starting in the fall of 1902, specifically—and while the protagonist is a distant relation of the original Ace Attorney’s protagonist, the gap of a full 100 years ensures there’s no character overlap.
The series’s setting is its core strength. Takumi leans fully into the geopolitical dynamics of the day, portraying a time when Japan had already come a long way in the process of modernization and was continuing to push itself further, a time when Japan was striving to earn recognition as an equal player on the world stage. The basic premise is that a group of young Japanese legal scholars travel to London to learn about England’s legal system—the sort of thing that did happen in the Meiji period—and while the focus of the games remains on the individual mysteries, the historical context informs every case.
The Ace Attorney games in general are, to put it lightly, thematically unambitious. I really like them—they’re highly enjoyable mysteries—but they are meant exclusively to entertain. It was, for this reason, extremely interesting to me to see Great Ace Attorney grapple with historical ideas and geopolitical power dynamics, even if tangentially. It was a direction in which the series had never gone, and even though it didn’t really say anything, the fact that it was present at all added a bit of nuance to the first game.
The second, though, takes this a step further. Great Ace Attorney 2 was released in 2017, at a time when nationalistic tendencies were straining international relations across the globe and when Japan’s relationship with South Korea in particular was moving towards its lowest point in recent memory. The game’s first case—the only one I’ve read thus far—takes place back in Japan, following the first game’s secondary character rather than its hero. It seems at first to be a fairly straightforward case, but a certain twist near the end casts the thing in a somewhat more interesting light.
Essentially, the victim is an Englishwoman set to be extradited from Tokyo to Shanghai, where she is to face murder charges in a British-run court. The woman has already acknowledged her guilt to the Japanese authorities, but there remains some doubt as to whether the court in Shanghai will find the evidence gathered in Japan persuasive, and the woman believes she has a chance of getting away with her crime. The killer, then, takes it upon himself to kill the woman before she can leave Japan in order to ensure “justice” is served.
His reason for doing so is couched in what amounts to nationalism. A running gag in the Ace Attorney games is the killers’ dramatic breakdowns when they lose a trial. In this case, the killer launches into a rambling tirade about his motivations that scrolls by so fast it’s nearly impossible to read. If you look at the game’s backlog, however, you see a defense that echoes Japan’s frustrations in the half-century leading up to World War II. The culprit says, in essence, that a “civilized nation” shouldn’t have to bow its head submissively to the other nations of the world, and that Japan should have the authority to handle crimes committed on its own soil.
He is, in other words, frustrated with Japan’s lack of international recognition. After he calms down, he starts to explain his reasoning more thoroughly, expressing a desire for justice and a fear that the Englishwoman would have gone unpunished otherwise. He claims to have been acting from a standpoint of moral outrage.
The defense attorney for the case, however, interrupts his attempts at justification in order to assert that at the point he killed the woman and tried to frame someone else, he lost all right to speak about morality. In other words, there is a line that, when crossed, outweighs any possibly-legitimate grievances.
This is, I think, meant as something of a criticism of both Japan’s imperial history and the Japanese government’s response to South Korea’s recent anger. In other words, even though Japan had legitimate grievances on the international stage in the pre-WWII period, the country’s actions in China and Korea in particular were so horrific as to firmly establish Japan as being entirely “in the wrong” regardless. The sentiments expressed by the case’s killer—who is himself fascinated by “isms” of all types—are essentially the beginnings of what would develop into Japanese ultranationalism in the buildup to World War II.
This is, as I understand it, something of a politically sensitive topic in Japan. It is extremely rare for it to show up in popular media—the only other example I can think of offhand is Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises—so to see it addressed in Ace Attorney of all things came as something of a shock. I’ll be curious to see whether the game and series continue with the idea or if it was just a one-off.
Detective fiction in general is not known for expressing sweeping societal criticisms or nuanced thematic ideas, but that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t. You see this somewhat more often—the idea of developing theme through mystery conceits—in Japanese fiction than elsewhere, I think, largely because of the influence of Edogawa Ranpo. Sometimes called the father of the Japanese mystery novel, Ranpo wrote “mysteries” that were more societal critiques than they were true mysteries, applying the twisty, suspenseful writing typical of detective fiction in order to paint a picture of a society that was unsettled and off-balance (primarily in the pre-WWII period, interestingly enough). Ranpo’s approach to writing mysteries has been profoundly influential on Japanese detective fiction as a whole, and his style still pops up here and there. Great Ace Attorney might be a similar case.
Regardless, it’s an impressive departure from Ace Attorney’s typical form, and I have to say I am impressed thus far.
As one final note, I will be on vacation during the next two weeks and as such will not be able to write my usual blog posts. Expect the next post on Monday, June 17th.
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition