In Japan, online bullying can ruin the lives of not only individuals but also their families. Its roots lie in traditional beliefs that shameful deeds derive from bad blood, with the badness extending beyond the shamed individual to their kin, even to future generations.

Thus the ancient punishment of mura hachibu — social ostracism — still exists in forms adapted to the digital age, with consequences that can be extreme and long-lasting.

This is one of the topics covered in “A Balance,” the second feature by Yujiro Harumoto. Based on a true incident, the film is a nuanced, unblinking look at how the media shapes narratives of innocence and guilt, while disregarding truths that don’t fit them. The film’s protagonist, a documentary filmmaker who moonlights as a teacher at her father’s cram school, faces pressures to go along with lies of omission and commission under the label of jishuku (self-restraint).

A Balance (Yuko no Tenbin)
Run Time 153 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Sept. 17

“A Balance,” however, is not another Japanese film, like the 2019 award-winning “The Journalist,” that celebrates a lone crusader’s struggle to shine a light on scandals in high places. Like the other main characters, the filmmaker is fighting for personal stakes, while dissimulating for her own purposes. That is, she is hardly a flawless role model. Also, similar to “Going the Distance” (2016), Harumoto’s first feature, the slow-paced slice-of-life story could have benefited from trimming. But scene-by-scene, it is compelling, engaging and often disturbing.

It begins with the director, Yuko Kinoshita (Kumi Takiuchi), filming a documentary about a bullied schoolgirl’s suicide and the subsequent cover-up by the school, which apparently cooked up a story that the girl’s affair with a male teacher drove her to her death. The teacher then took his own life, and his family became the target of relentless online harassment. Meanwhile, media coverage sacrificed accuracy for sensationalism.

But when Yuko learns things from her subjects that don’t fit the storyline her employers expect, and she tries to include them in her film, she faces demands for cuts. Meanwhile, her interviewees, including the teacher’s widow and adult daughter, have become skittish after living like fugitives to escape their tormentors.

Then Yuko learns that her father (Ken Mitsuishi), has committed an act with a female student (Yuumi Kawai) that, if exposed, would destroy his business and endanger her career. Truth-telling suddenly looks less noble than professionally suicidal.

As Yuko, Takiuchi never loses her look of knowing intelligence and sympathetic understanding, whether she is listening to the emotionally fragile widow or lying to the distraught teenage victim of her father’s lust. It is, we realize, a mask, but Takiuchi, who won acting prizes for her erotically charged performances in Ryuichi Hiroki’s “Side Job.” (2017) and Haruhiko Arai’s “It Feels So Good” (2019), plays Yuko as, not solely selfish and cynical, but instead a complex, credible mix of sincere idealism and not-so-quiet desperation.

Also, Yuko’s moral dilemma is not as clear-cut as it first seems. Confession, as we are told, is good for the soul, but in the film’s shades-of-gray world it can be hurtful and even dangerous to others — and not even factually accurate, since the so-called victims may also be telling lies.

In its honesty about the real-life pitfalls of finding and telling the truth, “A Balance” is a rare and brave achievement.

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