For many people, especially in my generation, anime started with Dragon Ball Z or Sailor Moon. Others got their start with Toonami’s lineup on Cartoon Network. There was a time before this though, when anime was very obscure and many of us Americans could not think of a better term for it than “Japanimation.” It wasn’t until I was about ten years old that the word “anime” became really common and you could start finding it for purchase in its own section of stores like SunCoast and F.Y.E. Before that, you were lucky to find it anywhere and mostly because it was violent, gory, and often sexually explicit. Which brings us to my first Anime, an approximately fifty minute OVA that probably shaped me more than I’m normally inclined to admit. It was simply called Judge.
Now I’ve rewatched the movie as an adult and my understanding of it is much better than when my dad let me watch it at age seven. For one, I realized that it’s definitely not a movie I should have been watching at age seven. Two, I realized that the story isn’t just about action or particularly gruesome revenge, although those are both elements of the story. The story actually contains a strong message about the importance of treating people fairly, even when they may have done horrible things. Oh, by the way, this isn’t review, this is an ethics discussion. Surprised? Well, I think you’ll enjoy it anyway.
Judge kicks off like a pretty standard suspense anime. In the opening credits we watch a dude get executed in South America by a group of mercenaries, and then slowly find out why he was killed over the course of the film. Oh, and the people responsible are hunted down by a member of an ancient line of supernatural judges and sentenced to horrible deaths. When I was younger I remembered this having an almost slasher vibe, but that’s not accurate at all.
The judge in question lives by day as a super nerdy businessman named Ohma. Ohma is a kind, gentle, and very dorky young man whom you wouldn’t think capable of hurting anyone. Once he throws on his judges robes and takes out his law book made of human skin though, he becomes an absolute terror. His first victim is an absolutely unrepentant villain whom he sentences to “nailing through the tongue,” which we are presented with in graphic detail before he delivers his final sentence of death by drowning. We know that the victim was irrevocably evil, so we cheer, but after this it becomes more complicated.
The second victim is Ohma’s boss, named Kawamata. He was the one who directly arranged the murder at the beginning of the movie, or so Ohma believes. Unlike the last victim though, Kawamata is approached by a supernatural defense attorney (There’s a joke about “Devil’s Advocate” in there somewhere) who promises to protect him. Unfortunately, this doesn’t turn into Ace Attorney: Hell Edition. The first step in Kawamata’s defense is going to the mountains to pray for mercy from his victim’s spirit while the attorney goes to confront the Judge.
This confrontation is entertaining, but it also demonstrates the story’s message. The attorney reminds the Judge that he has a responsibility to try to the case in court and the Judge initially refuses, deciding to try to force his way past. At this point it’s difficult to tell who is supposed to be the hero of this story and who is the villain. To many people this could be considered a flaw in storytelling because it means you won’t know who to cheer for, but I think in this case that is the point. I’ll get to that later.
Eventually, the two do make it to THE COURT OF HELL (Capitalization for emphasis) where a council of devils sit in judgment. The Judge calls the victim, who we have come to find out was a close friend of the accused, as a witness. What is interesting here is that just as the Judge could not conceive of the accused possibly being innocent, the victim could not imagine his friend being responsible for what happened. We are told that the dead do not lie, and the victim is thoroughly convinced of his friend’s innocence. Of course (Spoilers) the accused is actually guilty and it is the shame of knowing that his friend had kept an unshakeable faith in him even into the afterlife that results in his confession and subsequent demise.
But I promised an ethics discussion. There’s a message here that I don’t think requires too much examination, and it’s about looking past the surface and treating people fairly. It starts with Ohma, who appears to everyone he meets as innocent, dorky, and a bit of a wimp. Of course that is a mask, one that he wears so well that no one knows who he really is. By comparison, Kawamata appears to be a respectful, kind and generous old man who no one would expect could arrange the murder of his best friend. Everyone is looking at things from a narrow perspective, not trying to look outside of their preexisting viewpoints to find the truth. I’m pretty sure there’s a comparison to be made about how quick we, as a society, are to judge people before we know anything about them, or to how once we get on one side of an argument no amount of facts or evidence can convince us that we’re wrong.
Of course, maybe I’m over thinking things. It could just be a cheesy horror anime.