The Journalist (新聞記者, Michihito Fujii, 2019)

The Journalist poster 2In these days of “fake news” and misinformation, a robust press is more important than ever. In Japan, however, the news media institution has long been decried as toothless, if not actually in league with the ruling regime. A timely and appropriately exasperated conspiracy thriller, Michihito Fujii’s The Journalist (新聞記者, Shinbun kisha) is inspired by the non-fiction book by newspaper reporter Isoko Mochizuki who makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the film and has herself been singled out as “problematic” by politicians unused to being held to account and objecting to her intensive interview technique.

Mochizuki’s fictionalised stand in, Erika Yoshioka (Shim Eun-kyung), is a rookie reporter who grew up in America with her Japanese journalist father and Korean mother. Following her father’s “suicide” she returned to Japan and is currently working for Toto News where she receives a mysterious fax containing information about a suspicious government plan to found a new medical university.

Meanwhile, idealistic former international diplomat Sugihara is on temporary secondment to CIRO (Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office) – a secretive organisation set up under the occupation to mirror the US’ CIA but often criticised for acting like a secret police force and expending too much effort on spying on ordinary Japanese citizens on Japanese soil rather than gathering useful international intelligence. Sugihara (Tori Matsuzaka) finds himself conflicted in his new work, the first assignment of which is handling a smear campaign against a young woman (clearly inspired by the Shiori Ito case) who has accused a high ranking journalist close to the government of rape. A married man with a baby on the way, he fears rocking the boat but resents his complicity with such obvious government finagling and failure to counter the misogynistic narrative that passes for office banter.

When his former mentor, Kanzaki (Kazuya Takahashi), commits suicide, no longer able to live with his compromises, Sugihara begins to reconsider his decision not to go against his superiors but finds it difficult to countenance “betraying” his organisation even in the knowledge that they are no longer working in the best interests of the people. Yoshioka, with whom he eventually bonds after witnessing her sympathetic treatment of Kanzaki’s bereaved daughter, may in some senses be better placed to resist given her overseas upbringing. Where Sugihara and the news media at large struggle with the idea of standing up to authority, Yoshioka is keen to sell the ideals of journalistic integrity, insisting that a robust press is essential in holding power to account.

Meanwhile, she finds herself a lone voice adrift in the largely patriarchal world of Japanese news media. Leaving the press conference called by the woman accusing the government crony of rape, she stops to tell off a pair of journalists making sexist comments but receives only a brief eye roll before they walk away laughing. She also finds herself resented by her colleagues for pointing out that their hounding of Kanzaki’s bereaved wife and daughter at his funeral is insensitive and inappropriate, but refuses to back down in fierce determination to do what is right even if it is not popular.

Meanwhile, Sugihara’s odious boss Tada (Tetsushi Tanaka) is desperately trying to keep a grip on power from the shadows. He uses Sugihara’s conflicted loyalties against him, subtlety reminding him that he has a wife and newborn daughter to whom he has a greater responsibility, and insisting that there is no “shame” in complicity when it comes to maintaining “the illusion of democracy”. CIRO, it has to be said, does not come out of this well as it wilfully does the government’s dirty work – covering up the indiscretions of “valuable” politicians and their relatives in order to avoid the unpleasant chaos of unwelcome political scandals. Kanzaki’s compromises left him a broken and defeated man, Sugihara wonders what kind of man his daughter would think him to be if he too just went along with the government line and enabled their subversion of democracy solely for personal and economic security.

The press may be waking up, but The Journalist’s chief takeaway is that change comes when enough people find the courage to keep saying no. As the ending implies, the battle is far from over but it has perhaps begun thanks to the efforts of those like Mochizuki and her filmic counterpart Yoshioka as well as the courage of whistleblowers like Sugihara who risk personal ruin merely for speaking out. A timely, urgent defence of press freedom in the face of tightening authoritarianism, The Journalist is an all too plausible conspiracy thriller in which the last guardians of liberal democracy are the nails which refuse to be hammered down.


The Journalist screens in New York on July 27 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

April Fools (エイプリルフールズ, Junichi Ishikawa, 2015)

april-foolsIn this brand new, post truth world where spin rules all, it’s important to look on the bright side and recognise the enormous positive power of the lie. 2015’s April Fools (エイプリルフールズ) is suddenly seeming just as prophetic as the machinations of the weird old woman buried at its centre seeing as its central message is “who cares about the truth so long as everyone (pretends) to be happy in the end?”. A dangerous message to be sure though perhaps there is something to be said about forgiving those who’ve misled you after understanding their reasoning. Or, then again, maybe not.

Juggling seven stories April Fools is never as successful at weaving them into a coherent whole as other similarly structured efforts but begins with an intriguing Star Wars style scroll regarding alien sleeper agents who can apparently go home now because they’ve accomplished everything they came for. Changing track, pregnant snack addict Ayumi (Erika Toda) decides to ring the still unknowing father of her child after witnessing an improbable reunion on TV only he’s in bed with someone else and assumes her call is a weird practical joke. Overhearing that he’s just arrived at a restaurant for a lunch date, Ayumi takes matters into her own hands and marches over there, eventually taking the entire place hostage. Meanwhile an older couple are having a harmless holiday pretending to be royalty and a grizzled gangster has “kidnapped” a teenage girl only to give her a nice day out at the fun fair. Oh, and the hikkikomori from the beginning who’s fallen for the whole alien thing has made a total fool of himself at school by taking out his bully, kissing his crush goodbye and racing up to the roof to try and hitch a lift from the mothership.

Importing this weird European tradition to Japan, the creative team have only incorporated parts of it in that they don’t call time on jokes at noon and it’s less about practical shenanigans and elaborate set ups than it is about wholesale lying which is frustrated by this famous non-holiday apparently created in celebration of it. All of the protagonists are lying about something quite fundamental and usually to themselves more than anyone else but at least their April Fools adventures will help them to realise these basic inner truths.

Then again some of these revelations backfire, such as in the slightly misjudged minor segment concerning two college friends who are repeatedly kicked out of restaurants before they can get anything to eat. One decides to “prank” his friend with an April Fools confession of love, only to find that his friend really is gay and is in love with him. Awkward is not the word, but then an April Fools declaration of love is about the worst kind of cruel there is and is never funny anyway, nor is the casual homophobia involved in this entire skit but that’s another story.

In fact, most of the other people are aware they’re being lied to, but are going along with it for various reasons, some hoping that the liars will spontaneously reform and apologise or explain their actions. Ayumi, who is shy and isolated by nature, always knew her handsome doctor suitor was probably not all he seemed to be but is still disappointed to be proved right, only be perhaps be proved wrong again in the end. Convinced to take a chance on an unwise romance by an older colleague who explains to her that many miracles begin with lies, Ayumi is angry with herself as much as with her lying Casanova of a baby daddy, and also feels guilty about an incredibly sight deception of her own. As in many of the other stories, now that everyone has figured out the real, important, truths about themselves and about the situation, they can excuse all of the lying. Sensible or not? The choice is yours.

Despite coming from the team who created some very funny TV dramas including Legal High, the comedy of April Fools never quite hits its stride. Weak jokes backed up with slapstick humour giving way to sentimentality as the “good reasons” for the avoidance of truth are revealed don’t exactly whip up the farcical frenzy which the premiss implies. The point may very well be that we’re the April Fools going along with this, but even so its difficult to admire a film which pushes the “lying is good” mantra right to the end rather than neatly undercutting it. Still, there is enough zany humour to make April Fools not a complete waste of time, even if it doesn’t make as much of its original inspiration as might be hoped.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Erased (僕だけがいない街, Yuichiro Hirakawa, 2016)

erasedErased (僕だけがいない街, Boku Dake ga Inai Machi), a best selling manga by Kai Sanbe, has become this year’s big media spectacle with a 12 episode TV anime adaptation and spin-off novel series all preceding the release of this big budget blockbuster movie. Directed by TV drama stalwart Yuichiro Hirakawa, the live action iteration of the admittedly complicated yet ultimately affecting story of a man who decides to sacrifice himself to ensure his friends’ happiness, acquits itself well enough for the most part but changes two crucial details in its concluding section which unwisely undermine its internal logic and make for an unsatisfying conclusion to the ongoing puzzle.

Beginning in the “present” of 2006, Satoru Fujinuma (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is an aspiring mangaka making ends meet with a part-time job as a pizza delivery guy (a kind of “Hiro Protagonist”, if you will). Aloof and sullen, Satoru has no real friends but does possess an unusual supernatural ability – if a tragedy is about to occur in his general vicinity, he will enter a “Revival” loop in which he temporarily rewinds time, allowing him to figure out the problem and save everyone’s lives. Rescuing a child about to be hit by an out of control lorry, Satoru rides his pizza delivery bike into an oncoming car and winds up in hospital.

When he comes to he finds cheerful co-worker Airi (Kasumi Arimura), who witnessed the accident, waiting for him as well as his mother (Yuriko Ishida) coming in for visit. Reconnecting with his mother and getting closer to Airi (albeit reluctantly) Satoru’s life appears to be brightening up but the good times are short lived as Satoru’s mother is brutally murdered in his apartment leaving him looking like the prime suspect. This time when Revival kicks in it doesn’t just rewind a few minutes but 18 years, back to the winter of 1988 when Satoru’s small town was rocked by a series of child murders and abductions which resulted in the arrest of a local boy (Kento Hayashi) whom Satoru had always believed to be innocent.

Repossessing his childhood body but with a grown man’s mind, the “younger” Satoru is considerably less jaded than his 2006 counterpart, determined to change the future and save his mother’s life. The root causes of her death, he is sure, rest in this unresolved and traumatic period of his childhood. Swapping back and forth between 2006 and 1988 as Satoru makes the best of his opportunity to investigate from both sides, Erased is a tightly controlled time travel puzzle of trial and error in which Satoru must use all of the evidence he can gather to unmask the criminal in order to save both the lives of his friends in 1988 and that of his mother in 2006.

As in many similarly themed franchises, the plot turns on the bonds formed in childhood as the connections between Satoru and his friends become the binding glue in an otherwise fluid time travel dilemma. Older Satoru is better equipped to recognise the trouble one of his friends is in – Kayo, a sad and lonely girl who, in the original timeline, eventually became one of the victims attributed to the serial murders plaguing the town. Trapped in an abusive home environment, Kayo isolates herself for reasons of self preservation, both too afraid and too ashamed to let anyone know what’s going on at home. Managing to befriend her, Satoru does indeed help to change something for the better but only finds himself becoming more deeply entrenched in the central mystery.

It’s at this point that the film begins to diverge from its source material as Satoru is attacked by the murderer and “wakes up” back in 2006 but rather than having been in a coma for 18 years has apparently been leading a much more successful life than his previous incarnation. Within the peculiar laws of the franchise which don’t always match standard time travel logic, Satoru’s central timeline does not change – only his mind moves between bodies, he retains full knowledge of his original timeline as well as the changes he brings about. However, he now seems to magically receive memories of the life he never lived whilst also retaining his previous ones. Now knowing the identity of the real murderer and the probability that they are still out there, Satoru decides to re-team with his old friends but his showdown with the psychotic killer is entirely contrived to engineer a “tragic” ending, oddly more like something that might have befallen the 11yr old Satoru than his older counterpart, further undermining the already shaken sense of internal consistency.

The film’s Japanese title, Boku Dake ga Inai Machi (the town where only I am missing), takes inspiration from the short story which Kayo writes in school. Wishing that she alone could be transported to another life free of abuse and loneliness, Kayo writes herself into a better place. Satoru reimagines a similar scenario with himself in the lead as he makes the decision to sacrifice himself to save his friends. The ending of the original source material both undercuts and reinforces this idea as Satoru’s friends are both extremely proud and grateful for his efforts, but are also keen to point out that the world is a much better place with him in it than without. In removing the opportunity for Satoru’s friends to come to his rescue, the live action version of Erased also removes its most crucial message – that heroes are never “alone”, and Satoru’s salvation lies in that of his friends and family.

Yuichiro Hirakawa mostly opts for a lighter tone than the children investigating a serial killer whilst also trying to rescue their friend from her abusive mother narrative might indicate. There are some nice visual ideas including a switch to POV during the first time skip to 1988, the repeated hero of justice hand gestures, and thoughtful use of manga, but given the obvious problems with internal consistency, the high quality of the performances and cinematography can’t reconcile the various cracks within the film’s structure. Uneven, but strong until its contrived and illogical end point, Erased is a slightly disappointing live action adaptation of its source material in which it might have been (ironically enough) better to have more faith rather than pushing for the predictably melodramatic conclusion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)