Black Box Diaries
(Japan/United States/United Kingdom, 2024)
Dir. Shiori Ito
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
Shiori Ito’s Black Box Diaries is a remarkable feature film debut. The director’s mix of facts and feelings is potent and it’s difficult not to get swept up in its whirlwind. This intimate diary turned criminal review is full of twists and turns as it shape-shifts through various styles to become a powerful affirmation of resilience. A journalist by trade, Ito creates a unique documentary experience, crafting a compelling testimonial that unfolds like a thriller but ends up being a public act of personal bravery.
Ito sets up the almost impossible task of objectively investigating her own sexual assault while rousing herself to confront her own trauma. She is aware of her audience, and she invites others into the process, conscious of the complex reactions that her work may engender. The film is heartbreaking–and triggering–but it’s also a rewarding journey.
Ito tells how she was raped by Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a high-profile journalist who was interviewing her for a potential job. This man had powerful allies throughout Japanese society, from his own colleagues to powerful players in the judicial system. His influence extended to then prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Her first hurdle is the societal one, as she is ashamed to put herself out in public as a victim. It’s a particularly untenable position in Japan, as her own family members are keen to remind her. They do not want to be implicated or shamed by association.
In her quest, Ito must push past those who attempt to hamper justice, starting with the police who fail to investigate for lack of evidence. The odds are stacked against her, as they are in any society. In Japan specifically, there are structural as well as cultural and societal pressures that, along with an outdated judicial system, make this type of case very difficult to pursue.
But getting the police to even open an investigation is a challenge. It’s not surprising for any viewer that, as many times as Ito goes back to them, the officers keep dismissing her account for lack of concrete evidence. They keep bringing up the old “your word against his” scenario. A leading investigator takes pride in dismissing the case within a day. These roadblocks lead her to build her own case and eventually pursue Yamaguchi in a civil suit when criminal charges prove unlikely.
This is where Black Box Diaries’ strategy proves ingenious. It’s a complex blend: confessional and vérité footage that’s full of surprises, such as the secret recordings that Ito illegally obtains. With her core group of crew and supporters, Ito’s investigation is teeming with facts and testimony, complemented by news reels and even surveillance footage. She plays and replays her story, probing and re-examining like a detective solving a mystery. Her investigation is twofold: on one hand, the evidence gradually supports her testimony. Piece by piece, evidence both circumstantial and concrete, including eyewitness testimony by men compelled to come forward thanks to her public fight, add weight to her emotional recollection of events. At the same time, every piece of evidence she gathers builds a case against the apathetic system governed by patriarchal values.
Her strategy requires a constant formal shift which she expertly executes. The film’s movement is jarring at times, and it needs to be – this is a cinematic representation of trauma. From investigation to personal account to police procedural to courtroom drama to societal critique, Ito commands the form, all the while being brave and unwavering in her investigation. She uses direct address to speak to the viewer, but she also uses the written word on screen to warn of triggers and to ease the viewer into the most traumatic sections.
At the same time, Ito is not afraid to reveal her own raw emotions. Something is taken away during a sexual assault since it’s a particular act of violence that can also silence a person. In her book, Ito likens the act to a murder of the soul. Most judicial systems don’t help. It’s difficult enough to speak out about one’s sexual assault, but to document the process of bringing your story forward and to demand to be heard hits on another level entirely as the exhausting circularity of Ito’s footage shows how the system fails women by design.
From the outset, Ito recognizes that she is not just speaking publicly but that she is speaking directly to individuals with shared experiences. She wisely acknowledges that she may even be speaking for a community of survivors. The more she speaks up and shares her story, the more women she inspires to bring their own experiences to light. Ito’s campaign coincides with the #MeToo movement and she becomes both a symbol for Japan’s need to modernize but also a target, drawing threats from others for persisting. In Black Box Diaries, she is both exposing and educating.
With this level of candour and such a command of cinematic form, the film is both shattering and hopeful. Moreover, Black Box Diaries ultimately interrogates the nature of truth, developing a cogent analysis of the meaning of an action and revealing its consequences.