“I’m not obliged to answer you” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga irritably tells a journalist part way through a press briefing. It begs the question, if you’re not willing to be interrogated then what are the briefings really for? Something which unflappable reporter Isoko Mochizuki, subject of Tatsuya Mori’s documentary i -Documentary of the Journalist- (i－新聞記者ドキュメント－, i -Shimbun Kisha Document-) makes a point of asking but of course receives no reply. Reporting for Tokyo Shimbun, Mochizuki has earned a reputation for being “troublesome”, refusing to let politicians off the hook without getting a proper answer. This is of course what a reporter is supposed to do, she’s only doing her job in holding those in power to account in the name of the people, but Japanese politicians are used to deference from journalists who pull in their punches in fear of losing access. She is also the author of the book which inspired last year’s box office smash political thriller The Journalist in which a dogged reporter finds herself an unlikely ally of a conflicted bureaucrat who is minded to blow the whistle on a governmental land scandal.
As we see, Mochizuki’s everyday life is nowhere near as glamorous or sensational. In fact, Mori struggles to keep up with her as she finds herself constantly on the move dragging a small suitcase and large tote bag all around town while displaying an ironic tendency to get lost trying to exit official buildings. Meanwhile, none of the people she attempts to visit for comment on the relocation of an SDF facility in Okinawa is in when she calls and, again, she has trouble gaining access to the building in order to leave them a note.
Access, as we soon realise, is the pressing issue. Mochizuki is a well known reporter for a major paper so it would not be politically expedient to have her removed from the room, but even so the powers that be do their best to obstruct her ability to gain answers, firstly by having an usher loudly instruct her to get to the question while she patiently tries to make her point. It amounts to a kind of game. Mochizuki knows Suga will issue a non-reply, insist that the government is acting in accordance with regulations while refusing further comment, and so is using the question to raise awareness of the issue which necessarily takes time in providing context. They then introduce an unofficial policy restricting Mochizuki, but no other reporter, to two questions only to prevent her pressing her point, before escalating matters by crudely issuing an open directive to journalists to avoid basing their comments on “fake” information, attempting to invalidate her line of questioning by implying it is partisan and offered in bad faith.
The problem is partly that, as Mori is keen to suggest, the system is rigged because of press complicity with government. We learn that the Abe administration, which has long been beset by scandal, has been keeping a stranglehold on the official press club since it took office in 2012. Mori himself tries to get access to briefings to film Mochizuki but is told that it is almost impossible for freelance journalists to gain approval, while a visit to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club reveals that it is no easier for international journalists who may gain access but are not generally given the opportunity to ask questions nor can they speak directly to members of government whom, it is said, are not terribly interested in Japan’s overseas reputation. Papers afraid of losing their spot in the room avoid directly criticising the government, while the rightwing press is content to do the government’s bidding such as in its vilification of the Kagoikes, the couple at the centre of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal in which Prime Minister Abe’s wife was herself implicated, or its attempt to smear a whistleblower on a possibly corrupt sale of land for a veterinary school to an old friend of Abe’s.
For those reasons while other journalists and politicians may be sympathetic to Mochizuki’s cause in private she receives little support in the room. An increased profile and persistent harassment campaign also brings out the cranks including a death threat from a man who uses a word many would regard as a racial slur to brand her a North Korean spy. The people, however, approve organising a demo in support outside the Diet building insisting on press freedom and government accountability. The title may take things too far in its emphatic “I”, the reporter is not the story, but advocates for an end to the conformist culture of deference to power in which journalists willing to ask difficult questions will no longer be a “troublesome” aberration but the welcomed norm.
i -Documentary of the Journalist- streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. Viewers in America will also have the opportunity to catch the film when it streams as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.
Original trailer (no subtitles)