School Judgement Volume 1 by by Nobuaki Enoki and Takeshi Obata
This was a series that I expected to be wildly enthusiastic about, just for the Takeshi Obata art factor alone, so I was surprised to have a more measured reaction once I read the first volume. There were aspects of the setting and execution that didn’t sit well with me, but as always Obata’s art is beyond excellent.
School Judgement is set in an elementary school where conflicts are resolved by formal classroom arbitration, along with child prosecutors and defense attorneys. Two transfer students are introduced at the start of the volume. Abaku Inugami is a defense specialist whose hobby is arguing. He establishes his skills in an epic cross examination of his new teacher that results in her lifting the ban on video games at school. Pine Hanzuki is a prosecuting attorney who enjoys dressing up in magical girl outfits and is accompanied everywhere she goes by a rotund sidekick.
The new students are put to work promptly in “The Suzuki Dismemberment and Murder Case” where the Suzuki in question is a classroom fish. Tento Nanahoshi is the hapless student accused of fish murder, and when he is acquitted, he sticks around to provide a normal sidekick counterpoint to Inugami’s intensity. School Judgement is very entertaining when it sticks to power courtroom poses and mystery unraveling. I thought it was hilarious that the judges of the cases are babies who have prematurely aged due to their judicial duties, looking like wizened old men. Obata made Go dynamic and filled with suspense, so I was fully expecting dynamic courtroom scenes. There were some unexpected artistic choices too – when an adult is unmasked as evil, she’s suddenly rendered with a greater level of detail and rictus-like facial expressions that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror manga.
It could be that I didn’t like many of the characters due to their single-minded obsession with arguing, but both Inugami and Hanzuki aren’t particularly sympathetic. Hanzuki’s a spoiled rich girl, and while it seems that Inugami’s obsession with the law is due to a tragic event in his past, he’s too abrasive to root for. Nanahoshi is around to be a counterpoint to all the lawyering, but for the most part he’s also bland and forgettable.
The aspects of School Judgment that I didn’t care for were the contrast of the lower school setting and the art, which looked more like Hikaru no Go Obata in style with some of the darker or more mature themes. In a shonen manga set in a high school, I’d not really care about random bath scenes for example, but in School Judgement when the character is 12, that creeps me out a bit. Also, another story line is an extended drug metaphor, which also seems to be a bit much with the current setting. I think I would have enjoyed this manga much more if it had either aged down and just been an all ages title with cases to solve that invoked lighter themes, or if was aged up and set in a high school with the same type of stories. As it was, I found the manga entertaining in spots, a bit unsettling here or there, and I didn’t really care about what happens to the characters at all. My quibbles are mostly with the writing, because I think any manga by Obata ends up being a master class in illustration. So I’d recommend this for the art alone, even though I didn’t enjoy the story.