School Judgement: Gakkyu Hotei brings a truly impressive team together behind its helm. This work marks the serialization debut of Jump Treasure New Artist award winner Enoki Nobuaki. Nobuaki’s writing is brought to the page by the Osamu Tezuka Prize winning pen of none other than Obata Takeshi, renowned for his work on series such as Hikaru no Go and Death Note. Published in Weekly Shounen Jump and brought to English by Viz’s label of the same name, the experienced Mari Morimoto–known for her work on Dragonball, and Naruto, to name a couple — provides the translation.
In the face of rampant bullying and abuse of corporal punishment within schools, the government of Japan is left with only one option to reform its crumbling education system: the institution of The School Judgement System. Grade schools are now host to trials held for the students, by the students. Specially trained transfer students act as prosecutors and defense attorneys with preschool aged judges presiding over trials for any student accused of delinquency. Twelve year old Tento Nanahoshi finds himself standing as the accused in one such trial after the vicious murder and dismemberment of his class fish, Suzuki. The very next day, the key players in his trial arrive: a pedigreed young prosecutor named Hanzuki Pine and the disrespectful and argumentative defense attorney Inugami Abaku. With Inugami as his guide, Tento learns firsthand the challenges faced in the new School Judgement System. Yet even when his trial concludes, it seems that there’s still work left for Inugami to do as Tenbin Elementary School is center stage for a growing rash of grade-school level crimes.
It’s clear enough from the story’s title and Inugami’s introduction that School Judgement is a series that has its roots in the popularity of courtroom trial video games like Ace Attorney and Dangan Ronpa. Yet while the first two chapters in the volume establish a formula where the circumstantial evidence needed to solve the mystery is laid out in the first chapter with the second chapter culminating with the trial and reveal, the manga only barely manages to pull this formula to the end of the volume. By the last chapter, it seems to have been abandoned entirely. Enoki’s sense of direction and character arc are also particularly lacking when, rather than working to establish a well-known cast of characters through the successive trials within the volume, he writes up two-dimensional parodies out of thin air to play the necessary part for his trials before casting them aside–especially when that part is played by a female character. Aside from Tento himself, Tento’s friend Uozumi is the only other character to feature prominently both before and after the trial he’s involved in. Five female characters are introduced in their respective trials only to completely disappear off the pages of the manga.
This lighthearted and episodic sort of storytelling would work out fine if it weren’t for the fact that Enoki clearly has bigger plans in the works. The teasing scenes and flashbacks that we’re given as a window into Inugami’s past paint a significantly darker picture when compared to the rest of the volume’s lighthearted parody. Even the story’s premise can’t seem to decide whether it wants to commit to the more serious subject matter at hand. While we’re told that harsh circumstances have brought the School Judgement System into existence, the actual punishments handed down in the cases are as childish as the judge who’s handing them down. In the end, this only results in a series that seems to be at odds with itself, which doesn’t inspire much confidence in whether Enoki will have the storytelling ability to execute on the deeper levels of intrigue that the first volume promises.
With all the flaws of Enoki’s writing to consider, it feels like a waste to see the artistic talent of a mangaka as skilled as Obata put to the page for such a weak story. Yet Obata does do an excellent job with the material provided, switching tone and style with his drawings from panels bordering on grotesque and macabre to the caricaturesque designs of the players in Enoki’s trials. Every characters on the page is expressive and distinct, and the series’ backdrops and settings are drawn with an impressive level of attention. The latter is particularly noteworthy when some of the elements of the trial depend on catching smaller details on the page. Morimoto’s translation also bolsters Enoki’s work perhaps more than it deserves, with extensive translation notes at the back of the volume to contextualize the details of Japanese classrooms and courtrooms alike. Her attention to voice lends itself to a smooth and easy read, with each character’s words popping off the page with unique personality.
In the end, School Judgement very much feels like a series that’s ridden on the coattails of much more powerful works to get to where it is now. Though it delivers in its promise of fast paced courtroom action, whether Enoki’s skill at putting a story to the page will remain as confused and derivative as it is in the first volume remains to be seen.