Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva was shown as part of the 8th Japanese Film Festival at Yongsan CGV in Seoul. Being a huge fan of the original game series on the Nintendo DS, I was drawn to it like moth to a flame, and when I arrived at the venue about 5 minutes late (they scheduled it for 17:50, putting the film beyond the logistical reach of most working Korean adults) the director, Masakazu Hashimoto, was already introducing his work through an interpreter.
The film itself was the kind of soft disappointment that most movie adaptations of famous animes / games usually are. It starts promisingly in an opera theatre that transforms into a cruiser liner (don’t ask): the audience, including Layton and his earnest and puppy-like assistant Luke, is forced by masked henchmen to participate in a battle royale to obtain eternal life, by solving cryptic puzzles. The twenty minutes or so devoted to this section, which sees our heroes as well as a host of other personalities straight from the Kindaichi school of supporting characters using their reasoning in a simple yet not unconvincing way to remain on the ship and in the competition, are true to the gentle, whimsical charm of the first two Layton games and thus quite enjoyable. But suddenly the proceedings are jolted onto another environment, an island said to contain the secrets of an Atlantis-like civilization called Ambrosia, and things quickly go downhill. Eternal Diva makes the same mistake countless other similar adaptations make, which is that to compensate for the lack of recurring commitment or direct interaction afforded by weekly shows or game controllers the filmmakers fall victim to the big-screen complex and simply make everything bigger and louder. Things get increasingly ridiculous, and by the time a mecha makes its inevitable appearance the film loses all semblance of coherence and forfeits the good will generated by its charismatic lead character. I’ve only played Curious Village and Diabolical Box (because they’re the only ones to be released in Korea), but those games had an internal logic that, while its world and the events in it are very unlikely, they’re never completely impossible, and so doesn’t force the players to disengage their emotional investment. They were also quietly affecting stories of loss and renewal told in an understated yet confident voice, but while Eternal Diva has traces of that in the denouement, it nonetheless exhibits little of its forebears’ strengths throughout the runtime. The island scenes, however, with sun-drenched ocean and the promise of Atlantean mystery, have echoes of Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, the landmark Gainax anime of which I would love to see a modern movie version made.
After the credits rolled, Hashimoto and his interpreter came back, and the Q&A session began. One or two in the audience who spoke excellent Japanese were clearly budding animators, addressing the director directly on technical challenges of adapting a popular games series. A couple of others were critical of the film and tried to offer some advice, but the interpreter smoothed the edges off and the director ended up giving benign responses. I, for some reason, decided to ask whether there were any plans for either an adaptation of the upcoming Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney game or any other crossover projects. The lady interpreter was clearly not a gamer, judging by her bafflement at how to translate Ace Attorney, so the aforementioned Japanese-speaking members of the audience helped get my message across to Hashimoto. His answer was the shortest of the night: he said that wasn’t something he was able to shed any light on. I want to take that as a sort of NDA-induced company line on the director’s part, but he probably genuinely doesn’t know and was just being polite. The auditorium was only about half-full, which is as much a reflection of the inconvenient scheduling as the fact that the last three games in the series have yet to see release here, a grievance raised by one punter and agreed by many in the audience. While it’s unlikely that the film’s showing will help spur Nintendo Korea’s localization of Unwound Future, but the fact that Diabolical Box, released only last Autumn, was dubbed in Korean (when most others stop at text translation) raises cautious hopes for further releases.
With the last question delivered and answered (“Will Professor Layton be released on PSP or other consoles?” “I’m not allowed to answer that.”) people filed out and I headed for dinner. I’m not too intrigued by the other films on the festival, and Yongsan is a slightly tricky place to get to, so I’m unsure if I will be back to see anything else. Eden of the East is a big name, but it’s another movie version of a famous serial so that doesn’t fill me with confidence; Kara no Kyoukai is apparently highly regarded, so perhaps I might pop in for that tomorrow. In a nice – if personally impractical – touch the festival travels down to Busan in early February, so otakus down south will get their own chance to ask directors questions they can’t answer.