[The Journalist] Shines Light on Japan’s Dark Side (film review)

by Kaori Shoji

Shinbun Kisha (The Journalist) is getting great box office and rave reviews, belying the myth that a Japanese movie about newsrooms and politics just won’t cut it. Based on the bestselling autobiography by audacious Tokyo Shinbun (東京新聞) reporter Isoko Mochizuki, The Journalist is a suspense thriller about how the titular woman journalist dared go after the government to unveil conspiracies and cover-ups. Infuriatingly, most of her male colleagues are intent on adhering to the status quo. Alone and isolated, the journalist teams up with a young bureaucrat from ‘Naicho’ – the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office – to expose a government scandal that’s almost an exact reenactment of Prime Minister Abe’s ‘Morikake’ incident. 

“All Japan needs is a mere facade of democracy,” goes a line in this movie, implying that the nation neither needs or wants the real deal. 

But now, with the House of Councillors election happening on Sunday, politics is on many peoples’ minds, including millennials that had shown zero interest in the past. Tickets in 42 theaters have sold out and the movie’s distributors announced that they will be printing 10,000 new copies of The Journalist pamphlet, as they’ve been selling off the shelves in theaters across Japan. Next week, the two main cast members will appear on stage at a theater in Shinjuku, to take their bows and answer questions from the audience. It looks like politics and newsrooms are a winning combination!

The Journalist is gripping, wrenching and ultimately cathartic, even if the plucky heroine doesn’t oust the evil government agents or get an enormous raise for her efforts. No, what happens is that news hound Erica Yoshioka (played by South Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung), after a series of grueling assignments that require round-the-clock investigating, not to mention the actual writing –gets to keep her job so she can start the cycle all over again in the name of quality journalism. Yoshioka also keeps her dignity and integrity intact, which is much more than one can say for Japanese movies about professional women, or let’s face it, women protagonists in general. 

The role of Erica Yoshioka is gutsy and intriguing and you can’t help but wonder why a Japanese actress didn’t snap it up. Rumors are going around that all the possible candidates had turned it down because they didn’t want to get involved in anything anti-government and were afraid of the backlash. Shim can return to South Korea, but Japanese actresses have to live and work here. 

Personally, I’ll take what I can get, and bask in the fact that The Journalist got made at all. Usually, such projects never get off the ground. Not only does The Journalist dig at some old scars the current Administration would rather forget, it bears the hallmarks of a well-meaning dud. There is no love story. There are no sex scenes or girl idols to alleviate the complete seriousness of the proceedings. And the director, Michihito Fujii, is only 32 years old with no blockbusters on his resume. Initially, Fujii turned down the offer of director since, as he professed in an online interview, “I didn’t know anything about politics or the news.” 
Still, once he signed on, Fujii did the research, hit the books and lined up interviews with government officials. The story benefits from his efforts but the directing seems just a tad stiff and two-dimensional. Perhaps Fujii was too caught up in the material to do more than connect the dots, albeit with meticulous expertise. 

As it is, The Journalists belong to Shim and Tohri Matsuzaka who plays Sugihara, the elite bureaucrat working for ‘Naicho’. They give their all to film and Matsuzaka has been commended on social media for taking on a “dangerous” role that could potentially give him a bad name (the anti-government name). 

Compared to Shim’s Yoshioka, Sugihara is more nuanced and inwardly tortured. His job is to protect the current administration and make sure the press don’t get their hands on any problematic information, but he has his misgivings. When his boss commits suicide to cover up another cover-up, Sugihara is shaken.

(Editor’s note–this is based on the suicide of a Finance Ministry official who killed himself rather than take part in deleting or altering government documents that implicated Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a scandal relating to a government land-sale to a right-wing elementary school, run by his crony. None of the other officials who participated in forging public documents, which is a criminal offense, were charged; the female prosecutor who dropped the case was promoted)

The boss’s last words to Sugihara had been “don’t end up like me,” and Sugihara can’t fathom whether that meant “don’t die” or “don’t get involved in anything bad.” For a Naicho bureaucrat, the two most likely mean the same thing. 
Matsuzaka is a revelation – he has always been good but The Journalist shows his range. Last year, he was doing sex scenes ad nauseum in Call Boy and here, he never even takes off his jacket. 

A word about Shim as Yoshioka: in the movie, her character has a Japanese father and a Korean mother, hence her accent when she speaks Japanese. Yoshioka completely lives for her job, to the point of excluding everything else from her life. It turns out that her father (also a journalist) had killed himself over an incident involving fake news. As his daughter, she had vowed to pursue the truth, whatever the cost. Shim’s performance is excellent, and one can only hope there will be a future where Japanese actresses will go for roles like this –  far, far away from the planet of ‘Kawaii’.

In real life, there aren’t a whole lot of women journalists working for Japanese newspapers. Many don’t make it past the first five years; what with the long hours combined with frequent transfers to regional branches, incidents of sexual harassment, gender discrimination and of course, that thick glass ceiling – the job doesn’t exactly encourage them to stay on. 

Isoko Mochizuki, the author of the book on which the film is based, however, is changing the scenery. As mentioned above, she’s a veteran reporter for Tokyo Shinbun which is famed for its hard-hitting investigative journalism and for being the Abe Administration’s most vocal critic. Her frequent cross questioning of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has ripped a big hole in Japan’s infamous ‘kisha club’ system (where only the reporters of major newspapers are allowed to attend closed press conferences). And now, with the unexpected success of The Journalist, perhaps we can start discussing hard-hitting issues like democracy and freedom of the press. Who’s to say the Japanese don’t need it ? They seem to love films that bring up these issues.

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Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji

Kaori Shoji is a film critic for the Japan Times and write about fashion and society as well. 欧米の出版物に記事を執筆するフリーランス・ジャーナリスト。The Japan Times、The International Herald Tribune、Zoo Magazineへ定期的に記事を寄稿している。

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