Film / Reviews

'i: Documentary of the Journalist': Japanese press freedom laid bare

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

This has been an interesting year for political cinema in Japan. First came Miki Dezaki’s controversial documentary “Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women,” which caused such a stir that it ended up playing at a Tokyo cinema for over six months.

Then Michihito Fujii scored an unlikely sleeper hit with “The Journalist,” a scathing portrait of politics and media manipulation, loosely based on a book by the pugnacious Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki.

While the latter film proved there was a surprisingly large audience for broadsides against the current administration, as a depiction of journalism it was pretty flimsy. That’s been rectified by the appearance of this companion documentary, once again produced by Mitsunobu Kawamura, who’s clearly a man with an axe to grind.

i: Documentary of the Journalist (i Shimbun Kisha Dokyumento)
Rating
Run Time 113 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOV. 15

“i: Documentary of the Journalist” is directed by Tatsuya Mori, the author and filmmaker last seen interrogating disgraced “deaf” composer Mamoru Samuragochi in “Fake” (2016). With his camcorder and hangdog expression, he trails Mochizuki through the first half of 2019 as she chases some of the stories that have dogged the government in recent years, from the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa to the Moritomo Gakuen scandal.

Time and again, her investigations lead her back to the twice-daily press conferences given by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the administration’s blandly impassive spokesman. Mochizuki’s persistent questioning during these sessions has become the stuff of legend, earning her an official rebuke. In most countries, that would be seen as a badge of honor, but in Japan’s timid media world it’s practically made her a pariah.

Mori replays many of Mochizuki’s exchanges with Suga, in which she rattles off her latest findings, ignoring repeated calls to “skip to the question,” only for him to fob her off with a one-line answer. It’s an oddly performative spectacle, which appears designed more to shake the complacency of the current system — with its cozy relationships between government bodies and the “press clubs” covering them — than to get to the bottom of the story.

Mori’s repeated attempts to gain access to these briefings so he can film Mochizuki in action seem like an indulgent detour at first, but they gradually reveal how opaque things become when you attempt to identify who’s actually in charge. Scenes of the director getting accosted by police outside the Prime Minister’s Office recall Kazuo Hara’s “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” (2018), another portrait of citizens trying to hold the state to account and discovering how slippery this can be.

Viewers who haven’t followed the Japanese news cycle over the past few years may struggle to keep up. Mori doesn’t try to impose a narrative arc on the different threads and leaves you to draw your own conclusions.

The film reaches a climax of sorts when Mochizuki is championed at a free speech rally, looking awkward as she lets other people do the talking for a change. Mori only stumbles during the final minutes, when a bizarre anime sequence and a concluding voiceover attempt to bring closure to a story that’s clearly far from over.

Nevertheless, “i: Documentary of the Journalist” is a timely, bracing snapshot of the sorry state of news media in Japan today. Mori isn’t just showing how the sausage gets made. He’s taking you into the slaughterhouse.