header is screenshot from Judgment
Street Level Judgment
Yussef Cole

During his brief career as a lawyer, Takayuki Yagami, the main character of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s Judgment, struggles to fit in. He used to run with the local yakuza, and he knows how to scrap; both unsavory character traits, at least according to his over-stuffed and jealous colleague, Masamichi Shintani. Law, after all, is considered an elite profession; one that cares more about reputation and clout in the courtroom and newspapers than it does about relationships made at the street level, among regular people. When Yagami secures an against-all-odds acquittal for his murder client, it’s this sense of distate, in addition to basic jealousy, which so rankles Shintani.

This victory is short-lived, however, as the client immediately goes on to murder his girlfriend and set fire to their apartment, torching Yagami’s prospects as a lawyer in the process. The next time we see Yagami, he is working as a private detective, prowling the streets of Kamurocho for odd, paying gigs. By all accounts this is a shameful demotion from his previous position. But in spite of his new status as “little people,”—something Blade Runner’s Cpt. Bryant might’ve called him—and in spite of the apparent disgrace many of his old colleagues now hold him in, he is far more capable of helping people from this outsider position than he ever was trying to work within the Japanese legal system.

When, in 1854, a cholera epidemic broke out in the areas surrounding London Soho’s Broad Street the leadership of the city was ill-prepared to deal with it. Prevailing wisdom failed to comprehend how the disease transferred between victims, sticking to outmoded theories like deadly clouds of “miasmata” or blaming illness on the moral failings of the poor. It wasn’t until two residents of Soho, Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead acted outside of the established channels, by mapping the contagion and interviewing sick residents, that the actual transmission method of the disease, the drinking of infected water, was discovered. In his book about the epidemic, The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson suggests that the work of the two men represented “…the triumph of a certain mode of engaged amateurism.” After all, while Snow may have been a medical doctor, Reverend Whitehead’s only qualifications were “…his open and probing mind and his intimate knowledge of the community.” It was actually Whitehead who discovered the source of the plague: A choleric infant whose diapers were deposited into a cesspool that connected directly with the infamous Broad Street pump, the point from which hundreds of people in the surrounding neighborhood were infected.

Like Whitehead and Snow, Yagami is well suited to solve the dilemmas and issues facing the people of his neighborhood because he actually lives and works in that neighborhood. He isn’t cooped up in a law office or stuck at a courthouse. Instead, he’s beating pavement across the streets of small, but densely populated Kamurocho. Meanwhile, the story provides us with multiple examples of people from large organizations like the courts, the police, and even the yakuza doing an awful job helping Kamurocho’s residents, thanks to distance, detachment, and ambivalence. But Yagami was raised in Kamurocho; he knows all the drunks at Bar Tender, he recognizes the faces of the yakuza skulking on the street corner, and the more time he spends working in the neighborhood and solving cases, the better he comes to know it and its people. The tragedy that cut short his prestigious legal career did not interrupt his ability to help people; instead it freed him to serve as an engaged amateur, precisely the role where he is able to do the most good.

Many of the characters who Yagami meets during his investigations embrace some version of this amateurism, rejecting the stultifying structure of the state and other large organizations. Doctor Moroboshi, who serves Kamurocho’s homeless population from his makeshift operating theater tucked within a sewer tunnel, left a prestigious medical career at a hospital behind. Here, administering to people who have largely been ignored and forgotten by society, he finds a more useful output for his admittedly unconventional approach to medicine. He may not have the support of the greater medical establishment behind him, but he has the freedom to do things his own way, along with the satisfaction of seeing the direct result of his work.

Yagami’s partner, Masaharu Kaito, is another case of someone getting more out of working outside of an organized structure than within it. He is ex-yakuza, having been expelled a year ago from the same organization that Yagami himself once worked for. The conditions around Kaito’s exit are apparently as shameful as Yagami’s descent from the law world (he was framed for a theft), but ultimately, he gets to do a lot more good as a citizen than a soldier. As a yakuza, Kaito ran rackets, extorted small businesses, and found other, similarly parasitic ways to live off the misery of his fellow Kamuchorans. As a citizen, he assists Yagami in solving problems for Kamurocho’s residents—people he might have preferred to spit on from the vantage of his previous position.

Another colleague of Yagami’s, who comes to embrace the ethos of amateurism, is Makoto Tsukumo, a computer hacker who sometimes helps Yagami with his cases. While he didn’t transition from an institutional job like the others, his friendship with Yagami reinforces the importance of personal relationships over cold and indirect ones. Tsukomo’s normal mode of interacting with the rest of the world is through the anonymity of the internet—his social anxiety keeps him holed up in the booth of an internet cafe. But Yagami is able to draw him out into the world, inch by inch, as he seeks his help in solving cases which only someone with Tsokomo’s particular skills can accomplish.

All of these characters are able to take the knowledge and ability they developed performing previously elite and impersonal positions and put them to better and more effective use in their new roles as talented and driven outsiders, serving others instead of their own inflated sense of self (something most of Judgment’s villains are arguably guilty of). They all have an attachment to the people of Kamurocho that large institutions, meant ostensibly to serve the same people but, operating as they do behind walls of privilege, starkly lack.

Like Yagami’s Kamurocho, Snow and Whitehead’s Soho is an area that polite society prefers to ignore. Even the architect, John Nash, who designed the neighborhood where cholera struck hardest, felt it necessary to silo away its residents from those with greater means. When deciding where Regent Street should go, Nash “…planned the thoroughfare as a kind of cordon sanitaire separating the well-to-do of Mayfair from the growing working-class community of Soho,” according to Johnson. This architectural barricade served its purpose not only in hiding the less-than-pretty hardships of the city’s poor and working class from its rich, but eventually their illnesses and deaths, too. Gazing through layers of misinformed ambivalence, investigations by government officials to determine the cause of the episodemic were similarly blinkered. As Johnson notes: “The miasmatists from the Board of Health weren’t interested in transmission routes, in flows. They didn’t see the outbreak as a relay network the way John Snow did.”

After all, It’s much easier to spot this stuff when you have no choice but to return to the scene of the crime over and over again, when the scene of the crime is right outside your front door. Every time Yagami leaves his office, he’s criss-crossing his way through evidence related to dozens of different cases, ones which have run cold alongside ones he has yet to even discover. Every time Yagami solves a new case, or helps a stranger, the ties of his community draw closer around him, and his capacity to provide much-needed aid expands in turn.

Despite his discomfort with once wearing the advocate’s badge, Yagami’s nights spent learning the intricacies of Japanese law should not be discounted. In his hands, with his sense of a more egalitarian, less rigid justice, this law school education is a benefit, something that helps him accomplish his lofty goals. John Snow first became famous as an anesthesiologist, even helping Queen Victoria deliver her eighth child, at his career’s height. But instead of remaining satisfied with the pomp and recognition associated with this career, Snow chose instead to apply his talents toward helping people that the illustrious medical institutions of the time were not interested nor capable of looking after. Yagami, similarly, seeing the limits of the justice offered by the judges and courts of the legal world, sheds their weight without necessarily abandoning the lessons he acquired during his time within them.

This decision, inevitably, sets Yagami upon a lonely road. Ex-colleagues, who he still visits and depends on for work scraps, have not abandoned the promise or the understandable appeal of proper, institutional law. On Twitter, user @DavidKailb writes: “It would be worth thinking about the ways that debt for law and medical school shape who future doctors and lawyers serve.” The heavy investment of those who seek to practice law often ties them to a career they may not necessarily believe in. Striking out alone, away from the relative comfort, safety, and compensation provided by the institution likely remains a daunting decision. But, at least in the world of Judgment, it appears to be the course most taken by those uniquely suited to tackle the vast and varied problems of a society. Snow and Whitehead, as engaged amateurs, reflected these values in their own work. Their perseverance changed history, not only for the rich but for the poor. Yagami’s path, as treacherous and often humiliating as it is, follows suit.

Yussef Cole is a writer and motion designer hailing from the Bronx, NY. Much of his time is spent animating for the screen but he spends the rest of it thinking and writing about games. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.