Amid the surfeit of films about women’s rights and men’s abuses of power that have emerged in the wake of the #MeToo reckoning, we haven’t yet seen one quite like “Black Box Diaries.” A tightly wound, heart-on-sleeve procedural documentary, Shiori Ito’s directorial debut identifies a world of systemic iniquities through the prism of a single, long labored-over case of sexual assault — crucially, the director’s own. That raw first-person perspective, untempered by the interests of another filmmaker and given narrative rigor by Ito’s substantial journalistic skills, makes “Black Box Diaries” not just a damning analysis of patriarchal power structures in contemporary Japan, but a vivid evocation of the day-to-day psychological swings and breaks that come with living as a survivor. The title’s allusion to diary-keeping is on point: Ito’s vulnerabilities can be discomfiting to witness, even with her consent.
A standout of the World Cinema Documentary competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Black Box Diaries” is presented as Ito’s final word on an ordeal already covered in her 2017 memoir — though there has been significant legal progress on the case since its publication — and granted enough international media attention to secure her a place on 2020’s Time 100 list. That relative degree of celebrity may make Ito’s film an especially strong sell to documentary distributors, but with its urgent personal perspective and taut legal-drama shaping, “Black Box Diaries” will prove wholly riveting to viewers unacquainted with her name and story.
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Ito opens proceedings with an unusual trigger warning, advising any viewers unnerved by the traumas raised in her film to close their eyes and take a breath. “This has helped me many times,” she states. The doc will continue to switch between modes of formal investigation and warm, first-hand confessional, as objective archival footage is alternated with candid, conversational iPhone videos and audio recordings. This material is all expertly braided by editor Ema Ryan Yamazaki to convey our narrator’s shifting frames of mind, from eminently professional journo coolly researching her own experience to frightened victim overwhelmed by the responsibility of telling her tale.
Said story begins in 2015, when Ito — then a 26-year-old intern at Thomson Reuters — went out for a drink with renowned TV reporter Noriyuki Yamaguchi, only to become intoxicated and taken against her will to his hotel room. Her allegations of ensuing rape are brusquely dismissed by police: Under a century-old Japanese law that has only recently been revised, sexual assault wasn’t necessarily defined by non-consent, especially if the victim’s resistance was not violent. Ito methodically lays out a national culture built to protect men’s honor first in such situations — in particular well-protected men like Yamaguchi, whose friends in high places 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.
Key to the building momentum of her case, in this most patriarchal of hierarchies, is the securing of male allies — often a finely wrought process of negotiation, in which women still have to cannily play to men’s vanities. In the film’s single most queasily gripping scene, Ito calls one of the officers (identified only as Investigator A) who initially blocked her case to ask if she can quote him in her book. To her surprise, he acquiesces (“As a journalist, it’s important you have a record,” he says) before gauchely and drunkenly coming onto her.
The conversation plays out in full and without commentary: The irony of having to humor the advances of one man to prove those of another is plain and startling, though Ito, long hardened to such cruelties, also finds dry, mirthless humor in them. By contrast, a later dialogue with a hotel doorman who witnessed her being forced upstairs is less compromised in its catharsis: “I’m willing to do anything to help you — nothing compares to the suffering you’ve endured,” he says, as he agrees to testify in court. It’s hard not to share in her tears at this simple demonstration of human conscience.
Without undue manipulation or sentimentality, “Black Box Diaries” pulls viewers’ emotions in sharp extremes that mirror the peaks and valleys of this hard-fought five-year case. In one diary-style video, Ito advises viewers that she will never die by suicide, and to investigate for foul play if she turns up dead; in another, filmed some time later but presented in parallel with the previous one, she attempts to overdose on camera after apologizing to her parents. Not just a compelling and sympathetic human subject but a genuinely artful and intuitive filmmaker, Ito crafts “Black Box Diaries” with a keen sense of temporal drift and distortion — we feel the days hazily lost to her lowest ebbs, as well as her surges in energy and motivation as the system turns in her favor. At her most relieved, she plays Gloria Gaynor’s all-purpose empowerment anthem “I Will Survive” on her phone — a cue that would feel glibly hackneyed from any docmaker other than the one filming her own truth. As it is, it’s an ecstatic release.
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