Before Donald Trump made “fake news” the buzzword of choice for dissemblers and autocrats, Japanese netizens were already starting to question the veracity of what they read in the papers, albeit for very different reasons.

The media’s handling of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, in particular, convinced a generation of online warriors that most news organizations weren’t so much speaking truth to power as speaking whatever the people in power wanted them to.

There’s ample drama to be found in the relationship between the government and the press, and “The Journalist” is a brave, well-intentioned attempt to package it into a conventionally entertaining thriller. That a film like this even exists is heartening, even if the end product is far from perfect.

The Journalist (Shimbun Kisha)
Run Time 113 mins.
Opens June 28

Michihito Fujii’s movie is loosely based on a book by Isoko Mochizuki, a Tokyo Shimbun reporter recently singled out as “problematic” by the Prime Minister’s Office. Mochizuki first came to prominence during the Kake Gakuen affair, when a school operator appeared to have benefited from government favoritism. It was the kind of scandal that Japan does so well: Both serious enough to threaten the administration and so obscure that most people had glazed over before you’d finished explaining the details.

Not the most promising material, in other words, but that’s where “The Journalist” initially seems to be heading. When the fictional Toto Shimbun receives a classified document about plans to build a new medical school, the task of chasing up the lead falls to Erika Yoshioka (Shim Eun-kyung), a U.S.-educated Japanese-Korean reporter.

Meanwhile, at the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, elite bureaucrat Takumi Sugihara (Tori Matsuzaka) is starting to have doubts about his job — as you might do if your coworkers spent their days manipulating public opinion via Twitter, and your boss dispensed bromides about protecting the country while ordering a smear campaign against a sexual assault survivor.

After a former colleague comes to an untimely end, Sugihara starts to contemplate rebelling against the system, and he may have the key to Yoshioka’s story.

With much of the action taking place in the offices of the real-life Tokyo Shimbun and on the streets around the National Diet, “The Journalist” certainly looks the part. Mochizuki herself pops up in an online talk show that the main characters seem to watch religiously, and which conveniently spells out the film’s concerns about press freedom.

Yet for all the documentary-style camerawork in the newsroom scenes, the details don’t stand up to closer inspection. With her halting Japanese and permanently startled expression, Shim never convinces as an intrepid reporter, and the movie is awfully vague about the mechanics of news gathering.

Yoshioka is repeatedly seen at her desk, scribbling things like “misinformation” on Post-It notes and scrolling through her Twitter feed, as if landing a big story was a question of waiting for inspiration to strike. The scenes of the government’s intelligence agency at work — full of didactic dialogue, and shot with blue gels that make them look like a dystopian sci-fi flick — are even less plausible.

For all its timeliness and sense of urgency, the film is too simplistic to work as an expose, yet lacks the righteous anger of a polemic. “The Journalist” has chosen a noble calling, but Mochizuki’s story might have been better served by a documentary.

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