Sundance 2024: ‘Black Box Diaries’ is More Than a #MeToo documentary

Journalist and director Shiori Ito’s case was a landmark one, exposing how outdated Japan’s judicial system is.
Sundance 2024: ‘Black Box Diaries’ is More Than a #MeToo documentary

Director: Shiori Ito

Duration: 99 mins

A young Japanese intern is invited to have dinner with a senior figure. She hopes he might offer invaluable career advice; she hopes to learn from him. Instead, her worst nightmare comes to life. He sexually abuses her that night. The fallout is familiar. The authorities try to silence her. He is a powerful man; the Prime Minister is on speed dial. The system – propelled by archaic rape laws (“non-consent is not enough to prove rape”) and patriarchal complicity – protects him. She goes public and is threatened with severe legal (and illegal) consequences. Her trauma widens, but she battles on. 

A young female journalist pursues the case. She reports on this when nobody else does – probing reluctant police chiefs, investigators, activists, lawyers and witnesses. Over five dogged years, she turns it into Japan’s definitive #MeToo moment. When the criminal case is dismissed, a civil case is launched. She even publishes the survivor’s endless experience in a book called Black Box, putting her life and career at stake in a system determined to erase their voice. Their battle gets global recognition. Japan is forced to take note and change. Eventually, she makes a documentary about it. It’s called Black Box Diaries.

A still from Black Box Diaries
A still from Black Box Diaries

 A Portrait of Dignity and Discrimination

The reason Black Box Diaries is so remarkable is because the journalist is the survivor. The documentary is a resilient first-person account of a woman who is left with no choice but to become two women – the story and the storyteller. She must find the courage to be objective and subjective at once. Shiori Ito, the intern that night, investigates her own case and uses all her journalistic might to indict her influential perpetrator, Noriyuki Yamaguchi. Her journey guides the viewer through a notoriously sexist culture, merging procedural angst with emotional candour in the face of crippling odds. Her video diaries serve as the primary narrative, but she somehow ensures that her ability to turn the camera onto herself doesn’t hijack the factual grammar of the film. She allows herself to be the same person – a manifestation of personal and professional agency – rather than let one ‘personality’ bleed into another. 

Most of all, this is a film of great poise and dignity. There is both a distance and closeness to the events, with Ito retaining as well as rebuilding an identity within the closing walls of the world she navigates. The film-making eschews dramatic value, often trusting the audience to grasp the historical significance of her situation. The subliminal bond between mindscape and landscape defines the visual language. One of the opening moments relays recorded phone calls with disapproving family members over the shot of a long and dark tunnel. The ‘stock footage’ of the city is used to solid effect, making it look like isolated memories of streets and skyscrapers flashing through Ito’s head during her lowest phases. The CCTV footage of the hotel she was taken to is employed with deadpan silence. 

A still from Black Box Diaries
A still from Black Box Diaries

She even records her message before a suicide attempt, but the film doesn’t stay with it a second longer than it should. She’s back on the saddle in the next scene. The camera captures her falling face while she politely seeks the support of an officer on the phone, even as he starts flirting with her. The irony is never spelt out, which in turn lends a sense of looming defeat to her scuffle. But it also leaves space for a moment where she begins another call cautiously – expecting something similar from a doorman whose testimony is crucial – only to be moved to tears by his unwavering support. In terms of chronicling the deep-rooted discrimination of society, Ito leaves nothing to chance. We hear sound bytes of all the slut-shaming and finger-wagging across media coverage. Her attire for the 2017 press conference – where she bravely goes public – is criticized. A mysterious black van seems to be stationed outside a friend’s apartment where Ito temporarily resides. Every casual chat at home is laced with the anxiety of becoming a symbol, and an individual elevated to the silhouettes of socio-cultural heroism. 

Growing into Defiance

Ultimately, it’s her self-awareness – and her power to excavate her own being as a writer – that remains the enduring strength of this documentary. For instance, one of the more haunting moments features Ito speaking to a hall of veteran journalists. She breaks down while describing how the beauty of cherry blossoms is now lost on her because the incident happened during the season. At another point, she playfully reflects on the strangeness of calling customer service to order a…wire detector. Ever so often, her pain adopts these contours of art – the editing of her book, the composition of her blogs and voice-overs, her exchanges with friends and lawyers, her relationship with the lens. The bitterness is therefore tamed by an urgency to construct a case without compromising on a life. 

As a result, we see Shiori Ito grow – nervously, determinedly, slowly – through the documentary. She comes to peace with the knowledge of her own truth and trauma, consistently finding ways to present herself through the eyes of a memoirist reporting on her relationship with herself. It’s a tightrope walk that can sway from privilege to burden in an instant; the limitless bravery of her youth gradually gives way to a quiet commitment to the truth. Her favourite anthem, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” then goes hand in glove with her quest to treat justice as a medium of loss and empowerment. There is no winning, even when there is. But at least the soundtrack of defiance has a story to score.

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