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Michihito Fujii’s 2019 film “The Journalist” was an unlikely success story. A blunt critique of the administration of then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it seemed like commercial suicide; instead, it became a sleeper hit and went on to win three Japan Academy Prizes, including for best picture.

The drama — loosely based on the exploits of Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki — also had some major shortcomings, which makes this Netflix adaptation feel like a good opportunity, rather than merely opportunistic.

Fujii is back in the director’s chair, and the series uses the same heavily stylized aesthetic as the film, though the casting of TV veteran Ryoko Yonekura in the lead role — taking over from South Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung — sets a more conventional tone.

The Journalist (Shimbun Kisha)
Rating
Run Time Six episodes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

The story centers on a fictionalized version of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, a shady land deal involving a private school operator with links to Abe and his wife. Fujii’s script, co-written with Yoshitatsu Yamada and Kazuhisa Kotera, gives a blow-by-blow account of the ensuing cover-up, in which officials fabricated documents to match the prime minister’s Diet testimony.

It’s sometimes gut-wrenching to watch, and the show aims for maximum impact by enlisting the eternally winsome Hidetaka Yoshioka to play Kazuya Suzuki, a guilt-stricken bureaucrat driven to suicide.

He isn’t the only character forced to act against their principles: The official who actually sealed the deal, Shinichi Murakami (Go Ayano), finds himself reassigned to the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, where a legion of keyboard warriors does the government’s dirty work.

It’s left to hard-nosed newspaper reporter Anna Matsuda (Yonekura) to expose the wrongdoing, with help from Kazuya’s steely widow, Mayumi (Shinobu Terajima). Their nemesis is Shinjiro Toyoda (Yusuke Santamaria), a PR guru and special adviser to the prime minister, who has just gotten away with defrauding the government to the tune of ¥10 billion. (It helps when you have friends in high places, apparently.)

Then there’s Ryo (Ryusei Yokohama), a university student working as a newspaper deliveryman, who starts to take an interest in current affairs, only to find himself part of the story.

The show improves on the film in a number of ways. Its expanded canvas and five-hour running time allows for a more thorough account of who is actually pulling the levers of power in Japan. It also comes a little closer to capturing what life is like for working journalists, even if Anna shows a superhuman ability to materialize on people’s doorsteps at exactly the right moment.

With trust in politics plummeting worldwide, “The Journalist” is certainly timely, though its pacing is languid, and the particulars of the story are perhaps too parochial to grip international viewers. After a strong start, it stumbles in the later episodes, becoming repetitive and increasingly sentimental.

Anyone who found Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” too on-the-nose might want to give this a miss, too. The villains of the story are just as cartoonish as in the original film, and the messaging no more sophisticated.

There are whole scenes in which the dialogue seems to consist of nothing but bullet points; at one point, a character even gets taught how to read a newspaper. “The Journalist” knows exactly what it wants to say, which is kind of the problem.

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