About a week ago, I posted a photoset on Tumblr. It consisted of two screenshots from Takashi Miike’s Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney adaptation (actually, just one image repeated) with made-up, mostly accurate captions photoshopped onto them. The set was an effort to recreate one of my favorite gags from the movie (seen here), in which our ace attorney, Phoenix Wright, responds to the judge’s ruling with an anguished scream. The joke initially struck me because it encapsulated the desperate feeling of trying to guess key evidence in the games, and it makes me laugh thinking about it now. Thus, I took approximately ten minutes to edit my attempt to capture the joke in Photoshop. I then queued it for posting on my Tumblr, where it automatically posted sometime while I was at work. Usually when I post something on Tumblr, it’ll receive a couple notes from my friends, maybe 200 if it’s especially topical. For whatever reason, as I write this, the post has received 14,411 notes.
Notes on Tumblr are especially significant because they don’t just involve users “liking” a post, but engaging with it by “reblogging” it to appear on their own Tumblrs, usually with commentary. The only post I’ve ever made that came close to reaching this kind of audience on Tumblr was a gif I made from The Wind Waker HD‘s selfie feature. It was posted on Push to Smart within days of the game’s release, thus making it both topical and for a franchise that is a household name rather than a weird, niche “courtroom adventure” (Capcom’s words). I was surprised to see a silly joke I thought only I would find funny receive the same kind attention as something as, well, trendy as a new Zelda gif. I watched the notes it received with interest and paid them as much attention as I could. Purely anecdotally, I noticed a few patterns.
The first round of users who reblogged the post–and a majority of those who continued to reblog it–did so with comments about the joke itself–that the Phoenix in the film accurately conveys the experience of playing the game. “That’s it, that’s the whole game,” read many additional captions and tags for the post. It still receives these kinds of comments, suggesting that the joke spoke to a lot of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney fans as it had initially tickled me.
As the post neared the 5,000 mark in the first 24 hours, I started to notice more users reblogging the image while admitting they didn’t fully get the joke. There were lots of questions of where the images were from, perhaps meaning that they understood and identified with the absurd frustration of playing the game, but didn’t know there was a live action movie produced in Japan. I also saw many comments about wanting to watch the movie, which was great to see as it is such a wonderful adaptation.
And finally as the frequency of the the notes began to slow, I started seeing a handful of users whose commentary interpreted the joke in different ways. Namely, instead of the captions invoking the scene or frustration from the game, the captions themselves appeared to be user’s personal connection to the original post. This meant claiming they had seen the captions in the film when they clearly had not. I had made them up, after all. Of course, like I said earlier, the captions are largely accurate, so they may very well have seen the scene in the movie, but the need to comment on the subtitles in particular was interesting to me. Was it some kind of declaration that they had seen it first–before it was “cool?” Or was it just a fuzzy memory conflating some of the inevitably awkward, unofficial subtitles on English-language bootlegs with my goofy photoshopped captions? It could be an innocent mistake to which I’m prescribing a narrative, but I found these few posts to be the most interesting. Suddenly it’s not just people liking a joke that I liked; now the images are beginning to take on a life of their own. They have their own history and context that I would never have imagined for them.
This is becoming especially apparent as new mutations of the images have recently appeared as new posts in the #ace attorney tag on tumblr. This morning, I noticed that someone had posted this mash-up of Ace Attorney with another series I’m unfamiliar with using the the photoset as a base. This extends the joke to another context completely independent of Ace Attorney and my understanding of it. Additionally, one of the images has been integrated into another, unrelated post by a different user. Here, it’s being treated as a reaction image to something the user has already posted–in this case, making fun of the English dub of the latest game. The surprising end result is that the image is now re-contextualized to be representative of the character Phoenix Wright–and perhaps the player who shares his anguish–independent of the incident that provoked his reaction in the film. In both cases, the images are finding new uses outside of the context I gave them.
I don’t expect the post to continue to snowball, but I am interested in seeing the ways it could potentially crop up in the tumblr fandom (especially with word of a new Ace Attorney game already in development). Will it just be statically repeated or continue to mutate to fit new contexts? At least I know that Phoenix Wright is now perpetually screaming off camera on some corner of the internet.