At one point toward the end of Ryu Ga Gotuku Studio’s crime thriller Judgment, a series of exposition scenes is interrupted for a seemingly extraneous depiction of a character being brutalized in a police interrogation. The audience is familiar with this character and knows he’s been falsely imprisoned, so we’re already upset to see him languishing on death row, scruffy, hollow-eyed, and barely able to talk after years locked up for a crime he didn’t commit. But, despite adding no new information to the reams of plot points being detailed before and after, the game spends a few minutes showing his horrific treatment. The man is told to admit to a murder by a pair of officers, refuses, and is repeatedly punched. He cowers on the ground, grabbing hold of one of his assailant’s legs in an effort to make the beating stop. The officers look at him with disgust. We know he doesn’t deserve any of this, but we have to watch his torment to see a fuller, emotionally-resonant depiction of what years of unjust jail time looks like.
This scene is key to what Judgment wants to communicate: That real justice is rarely found within the legal system or at the hands of governmental processes designed and enacted by the self-interested, often venal people who hold the reins of society. The player’s cast as Takayuki Yagami, a former hotshot defence lawyer who left the field to become a detective after a former client he successfully represented was arrested for murder soon after release. Yagami, plagued by self-doubt over his role in defending an apparent serial murderer, is professionally disgraced and near bankrupt when Judgment begins, but, in spite of his turmoil, he spends the entire game always trying to do what’s right. Like Kazuma Kiryu, protagonist of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s related Yakuza series, he’s a character who travels in circles filled with unsavory people—mobsters, crooked cops—who end up being no less morally compromised than the local officialdom of lawyers, businessmen, and government ministers.
Judgment makes this clear from the start. The first case he takes on tasks Yagami with proving a yakuza captain’s innocence in one of a string of murders being carried out in Kamurocho (the same Kabukichō, Tokyo stand-in featured in every Yakuza game). With local law enforcement ready to throw the arrested yakuza away because of his criminal record and part in an ongoing turf war, Yagami nonetheless wants to fully investigate the truth of a murder case that doesn’t quite add up. He collects evidence for the yakuza suspect’s trial, proving that the indicted mobster couldn’t have committed the killing he was arrested for, and, by doing so, ends up pulling the loose string that begins unravelling a vast conspiracy the rest of the legal system hadn’t been interested in investigating.
As Judgment’s story moves forward, Yagami ends up tracing a line from petty yakuza and shady police to respected prosecutors, research scientists, and government ministers. The plot, without detailing the spider web of twists and turns that leads to its ending, is concerned always with pointing a finger at how broken a system must be to allow these supposedly benevolent institutions to create an uncaring bureaucracy—one that allows wrongful convictions and the unsolved murders of innocent people to become an accepted byproduct of the law’s execution.
Beneath the melodrama of the many fist fights and impassioned speeches through which Yagami and his allies defeat overwhelming odds in order to bring a few of the story’s biggest criminals to justice, Judgment stresses that it takes place within the context of a very real legal system. Early in the game, Yagami mentions that Japan has a 99.9% conviction rate—a number so high it seems unbelievable. This is a brief mention of a larger structural problem, shown but not explained in depth as the game continues. Japan’s internationally-renowned low crime rate (itself a figure more complicated than it appears), disguises the nation’s desperate need for massive reforms of its legal and penal systems. The arrest of ex-Nissan CEO/Chairman Carlos Ghosn late last year for allegedly underreporting his pay is just one recent example of a high-profile case that brought the nation’s practices onto the world stage. In a story on Ghosn from December which sought to explain the conditions of his detention, France 24 outlined a few notable aspects of the Japanese legal system. “Under Japanese law,” the piece points out, “prosecutors can detain a suspect for up to 23 days without charge and can repeatedly extend this detention by filing new accusations.”
“Lawyers are not allowed to be present during interrogation sessions,” it goes on. “Some former suspects have accused prosecutors of coercing them into giving confessions that fit their preconceived scenarios. While relying heavily on confessions and testimony in building cases, prosecutors often strategically leak information to the media that could sway public opinion in their favour.”
The credence given to suspect confessions, and their frequent admission as legal proof, encourages harsh interrogation throughout the often lengthy pre-arrest detention period. Ex-judge Hiroshi Segi, who wrote a book about his former profession told The Japan Times that the nation’s “judiciary is extremely sheltered and full of bureaucratic elites” and a place where “the principle of strict hierarchy reigns supreme, while any individuals who are liberal-minded and outspoken are purged.” As the article continues, it mentions that the legal system encourages “prosecutors to bring to trial only the cases they are sure to win, making judges feel less responsible for scrutinizing the merits of the charges—hence the nation’s extremely high conviction rate of more than 99 percent.” In this system, according to Segi, “judges tend to be biased against defendants, occasionally even referring to them behind their backs as aitsura or yatsura (‘those bastards’).” Once someone is sentenced, they’re put into harsh prisons whose rehabilitation style is modelled after military life.
Because Judgment is set in Japan, its story concerns the injustices unique to the Japanese legal system. We see the falsely-imprisoned man being beaten to confess to a crime he didn’t commit and Yagami, as a former defence attorney, go up against the outsized power of the prosecutors and police he’s opposed to because all of this takes place in Japan. Still, the thrust of its story applies to any nation with different legal practices but similarly infuriating outcomes; organized justice, influenced and employed by compromised professionals and government bodies, often fails to serve the citizens it’s designed, nominally, to protect. Yagami, as mentioned before, is able to pursue the murder case—and go after the organizations behind it—more effectively than the police or prosecutors he used to rub elbows with. As a morally-upstanding detective, he doesn’t have to worry about playing nice with corrupt or compromised colleagues and, as he often does throughout the story, is able to search for the truth in ways that another lawyer or police officer isn’t able to without endangering their jobs or lives.
In the Yakuza games, Kiryu left but circled around the mobster life he grew up within to become “the good yakuza.” In Judgment, Yagami, too, works outside the strict confines of his old legal profession to be “the good lawyer. Both men are able to do better at enforcing the idealist cores of their backgrounds—underdog chivalry in Kiryu’s case; uncompromising justice in Yagami’s—by using their connections and expertise to work outside their respective worlds as noble vigilantes. (That a Japanese legal thriller involves the yakuza so heavily is as natural as the Yakuza games involving the country’s government so frequently. These worlds move in tandem.)
Systemic reform is obviously a far better goal for society than relying on the good nature of individual outsiders like these games’ protagonists, but the point of these stories is to show justice being done from inside corrupt systems—to give audiences crime stories that provide a bit of optimism while still operating within the genre confines of noir-ish crime melodramas. Fittingly, Judgment shows both sides of the law, vigilante and bureaucratic, manipulating social guidelines to pursue their goals. Yagami’s enemies in the police department, courtroom, medical field, and government offices bend the rule of law to advance interests that crush ordinary people (and lots of dead yakuza) in the pursuit of a utilitarian social “good” they believe justifies their actions, even as that “greater good” allows murderers and white collar crooks to dodge punishment for their crimes. Yagami and his friends blackmail and wiretap, moving outside of legal right to get to the bottom of a case that his opponents are equally determined to obfuscate. It’s hard to endorse their actions moment-to-moment, but, in the end, Judgment wants us to consider what kind of sanctity the law deserves when those who bend its already unfair guidelines to serve their purposes are capable of harming others by doing much the same.
During a chapter of the game that takes time off from a serial murder case and a brewing yakuza war to see Yagami help mediate a divorce, Yagami’s former boss, Genda, tells one of his old pupils—a sharp-dressed yuppie called Oikawa with slicked back hair—that “if winning the trial is all you’re concerned about, you’ll never be more than a mediocre lawyer at best.” Yagami, in his extralegal quest for real justice, exemplifies the opposite of Oikawa. He may not be a practicing lawyer anymore, but, less concerned with winning trials and playing by rules that so often hurt those they ought to protect, he’s a far better symbol of what the law is meant to do than any of the other lawyers in Judgment.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.,