Black Box Diaries (2024)


Black Box Diaries Review

For five years, a Japanese journalist tracks her arduous struggle to bring an older, more powerful man who sexually assaulted her to justice this is the remarkable film that resulted.

Among the plethora of movies about women’s rights and men’s abuses of power that have arisen in the wake of the #MeToo reckoning, there hasn’t been one quite like “Black Box Diaries.” Shiori Ito‘s directorial debut is a tightly wound procedural documentary with its heart on its sleeve; it identifies a world of systemic iniquities through the lens of one long drawn out case of sexual assault crucially, the director’s own. That raw first-person perspective, untempered by another filmmaker’s agenda and given narrative discipline by Ito’s considerable journalistic talents, makes “Black Box Diaries” not only a damning critique of patriarchal power structures in contemporary Japan, but a vivid chronicle of the day-to-day psychological swings and fractures that accompany being a survivor. The title’s nod to diary-keeping is apposite: Ito’s vulnerabilities can be uncomfortable to witness, even with her consent.

A standout from this year’s Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Documentary competition slate, “Black Box Diaries” comes billed as Ito’s closing statement on an ordeal she has already chronicled in her 2017 memoir though there have been significant legal developments in the case since its publication and served up enough international press coverage to land her on 2020’s Time 100 list. Such relative fame might make it an easier sell for documentary distributors than other titles; however, given its urgent intimate angle and sinewy legal-drama shape-shifting, “Black Box Diaries” will grip viewers who don’t know Ito from Adam.

Ito commences proceedings with an uncommon trigger warning: If any viewers are troubled by the traumas raised here, she advises them to close their eyes and take a breath. “This has helped me many times,” she says. The doc will continue to switch between modes of formal investigation and warm, first-hand confession, as objective archival footage is interleaved with candid, conversational iPhone videos and audio recordings. This material is all skillfully braided by editor Ema Ryan Yamazaki to represent our narrator’s changing states of mind, from coolly detached professional journo researching her own experience to frightened victim swamped by the weight of telling her story.

That story begins in 2015, when Ito then a 26-year-old intern at Thomson Reuters went for a drink with celebrated TV reporter Noriyuki Yamaguchi, only to find herself drugged and taken against her will to his hotel room. Her claims of subsequent rape are summarily dismissed by police: Under an century-old Japanese law that has only recently been revised, sexual assault was not necessarily defined by non-consent, especially if the victim’s resistance was not violent enough. Ito lays out step by step a national culture designed to protect men’s honor first in such cases particularly well-connected men like Yamaguchi, whose high-powered friends include Shinzo Abe, then Japan’s Prime Minister.

Discouraged by both the authorities and her family from taking the matter any further at potential cost to her reputation and career prospects Ito nonetheless goes public with her accusations in 2017, pursuing legal action against Yamaguchi and finding a publisher for her tell-all book “Black Box,” a volume intended not just to relay her experience but to prompt a reevaluation of Japan’s archaic sexual assault laws. Undeterred when the prosecution review board rules that she has no case, she transfers it to civil court instead, whereupon her fortunes gradually begin to shift, even as she faces hostility from the media and hate mail from the general public.

In this system of systems run by men, one thing makes all the difference men themselves. The power of male allies here cannot be overstated; sometimes still requiring women to shrewdly engage men’s vanities. In what may be one of the most unsettling scenes in cinema history (and certainly this film), Ito calls Investigator A one of the officers who had initially blocked her case asking if she can quote him in her tell-all book about their conversation. To Ito’s shock he says yes (“As a journalist you need proof”) then awkwardly hits on her while drunk.

The fateful conversation unfolds without comment: we see that Ito must appease advances from one man so that she can expose those made by another. It is an irony as obvious as it is jarring (although Ito has been through too much to be shocked). Yet later on when speaking with doorman who saw everything go down between herself and Yamaguchi at his hotel; there is no such compromise possible in their exchange “I will do anything for you -no pain compares with what you suffered,” he tells her before agreeing testify during trial. These words touch something deep inside us because they show simple human decency being demonstrated free of charge right before our very eyes.

Without any unnecessary manipulation or sentimentality, “The Black Box Diary” brings out the viewer’s emotions to their extremes by matching them with the highs and lows of this grueling five-year legal battle. In one video styled like a diary entry Ito says she will never die from suicide but if she does then her death should be treated as murder; while in another video recorded at later date but shown alongside previous clip, Ito tries to overdose on camera after apologizing to parents for what she is about to do. More than just being someone who we can relate with easily due to our own human experiences; Ito also has artistic talent which comes alive in film such as when time seems slow down or speed up depending on how well things are going for her within system that was designed keep people like Yamaguchi safe. When things finally start looking good for her again though all it took was playing Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” through phone speakers at full volume something which might have seemed too cliché had anyone else been making movie about themselves surviving abuse but instead feels cathartic because this is one person whose story deserves happy endings.

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