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CPH:DOX 2024

Review: Black Box Diaries

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- In her CPH:DOX award-winning film, Shiori Ito is simultaneously the author of the source book, an investigator, a director and the victim of a rape by a high-profile journalist

Review: Black Box Diaries

The film that has just won the HUMAN:RIGHTS Award at CPH:DOX (see the news) is unique: this story of rape, and of dealing with its personal consequences and an antiquated legal system, is told by the person who is at the same time the victim, an investigator, a journalist and the director. Black Box Diaries by Japan’s Shiori Ito is dubbed as being based on her 2017 best-selling book Black Box, but its many layers transcend both the literary and the documentary worlds.

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The film opens in an eminently Japanese manner: cherry-blossom petals, the true, horrifying significance of which will be revealed near the end, are floating on the river. Narrative titles, in diary-like handwriting, inform us that this is a story told in first person and give us a trigger warning. This is followed by the first of her painful iPhone testimonials, seemingly made very soon after her rape at the age of 25 by Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a former Washington Bureau chief for the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and a friend and biographer of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Accompanying the symbolic footage of a subway train moving away from the light at the beginning of a tunnel, in voice-over we hear her talking to her sister, who shares the family’s wish for Ito not to go ahead with the press conference where she is intending to reveal the crime. But she does so, initially with the desire to change the 110-year-old law which doesn’t recognise consent and is one of the reasons why only 4% of sexual assaults in Japan are reported. Another reason is that it is shameful to speak about such things in this heavily traditional society. The reactions of the public following the press conference only confirm this, causing her to move in with friends.

The film unfolds as an investigative thriller that moves between 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021. Thanks to spectacularly skilful but subtle editing by Ema Ryan Yamazaki, these shifts precisely connect the dots and tell Ito’s personal story while painting a wider picture in which the #MeToo movement is preceded by this case, but its global impact gives it a key boost.

Ito’s journey to seek justice in such an environment is predictably tumultuous and painful. At first, the police don’t even want to hear about it. Then an investigator starts believing her, and an arrest warrant is issued, but at the last minute, Yamaguchi is let through at the airport. The criminal case is dropped, and the civil one takes months to set up. It is discussed in the Parliament. Ito decides to write the book, whose publication coincides with snap elections, and she is both attacked by Abe’s party and invited by the Tokyo mayor to run for Parliament. Yamaguchi countersues her for defamation. Veteran journalists celebrate her, and women start coming out with their own experiences: black boxes are finally opening.

The most emotionally impactful aspect of the film is Ito’s intimate experience. While she is investigating her own case, she is a “third person”, as she puts it. But the making of the documentary itself triggers memories that cause her trauma to resurface with a vengeance, threatening to completely grind her down despite her refusal to be a victim.

Besides Ito’s testimonies and the footage she made in order to document the events even before deciding to make the film, the documentary includes snippets of conversations she secretly recorded, which are set against nocturnal cityscapes, often seen from a moving car, and abstract images of shadowy alleys. Mark degli Antoni’s score similarly leans more towards dark ambient than suspenseful electronica.

Black Box Diaries is a co-production between Star Sands (Japan), Cineric Creative (USA) and Hanashi Films (UK). Dogwoof manages the international sales.

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