By Nobuaki Enoko and Takeshi Obata. Released in Japan as “Gakkyu Hotei” by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump. Released in North America by Viz Media.
It can sometimes be difficult, particularly for a Western audience, to remember that Weekly Shonen Jump’s demographic remains young boys in Japan, with the ideal age between 8 and 13 years old. They know the reality of writing for children, which is kids want to read about other kids a few years older than they are, which is why the less fantasy-oriented Jump series feature a bunch of middle and high schoolers. (Speaking of which, when did Bleach last attend high school anyway?) But sometimes there is a series which does give us elementary schoolers, and we have that in School Judgment. There’s a catch, though – some of the students are lawyers, and what follows is, if not exactly a ipoff of the Ace Attorney franchise, at least highly influenced by it.
It becomes fairly clear a few pages into this series that you really have to leave your suspension of disbelief at the door. While true for most Jump series, the combination of 12-year-old lawyers, some of whom are also ex-convicts, and 4-year-old baby judges may make a few people at least raise an eyebrow. But it fits with the manga’s overall mood, which is over the top, a bit loud, and somehow both painfully earnest and deeply cynical at the same time. The main reason that it succeeds is the hero, Abaku, is *not* your standard Jump hero. In fact, he’s more like the cynical, grinning mentor who’s gradually won over by the shiny idealism of the normal hero. No idealism here – Abaku is obnoxious, superior, selfish, and acts refreshingly like a 12-year-old at times.
The cases we see and characters we meet are fairly standard shonen fare – the boy with the pudding bowl haircut is disliked by everyone, who knew? There’s scholastic rivalry, nascent crushes, and intense drama over whether or not to eat the classroom’s pet fish. In the midst of all this, we start to get a bit of a larger ongoing plot – Abaku clearly has a past, and may have at one point been imprisoned in Japan’s maximum security elementary school prison island. (I’m not making this up, you know.) He’s in that classroom for a reason. I was less impressed with the prosecuting attorney, Pine, who seems to be the standard “I pretend to be sweet but am secretly angry all the time” girl, destined to always lose to our heroes. I hope she gains depth in the next volume.
This is not terrific by any means – the mysteries are rather perfunctory, and I’m not sure I agree with using the Japanese word “ronpa” throughout instead of just translating it as “cross-examination” or somesuch. And the baby judges are a hideously stupid idea. Despite Obata’s usual excellent art, this reads like the work of a Jump newbie, and it will not surprise anyone to hear it only has 2 volumes to go. But it held my attention, and is ridiculous in a way that makes you smile wryly, rather than just want to put the book down. Worth a look.