PARK CITY, Utah—At the conclusion of Black Box Diaries, influential Japanese TV journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi—having been found responsible for the rape of reporter Shiori Itō by a civil court—denies being criminally liable for anything that transpired during their 2015 encounter. As he speaks, the film’s camera turns to the throngs of media members working furiously at their computers, and among them it locates Itō, her head down, her eyes focused, and her fingers typing. Even in triumph, Itō has chosen to prioritize her role as a journalist above her status as a victim. In doing so, she proves why she became a #MeToo forerunner, one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People of 2020, and an inspiration for her country’s legally and socially marginalized female population.
A remarkably intimate non-fiction exposé about the ordeals women suffer after being sexually assaulted—and the strength, courage and togetherness required to change that status quo—Black Box Diaries concerns Itō, an intrepid crusader who used her professional position and skills to attain justice for herself. Given that she was effectively the main character on both sides of her own story, it’s only fitting that she’s also the director of her documentary (which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), which allows her to relay her experiences from a different, more personal angle. Driven by cell phone footage and audio recordings that she made throughout the course of her tribulations, as well as brief diary entries that appear as on-screen text (set against images of empty rooms, streams and skies that capture the lonely nature of her quest), it concludes with Itō playing “I Will Survive” even though a more apt title track for the film might be, “Fight the Power.”
Black Box Diaries waits until its final passages to reveal the specifics of Itō’s assault—not to create suspense, but because the doc’s real subject is a system that ignores and denigrates women, blaming them for their own suffering, throwing up legal roadblocks at every turn, and refusing to protect them because, in all cases, men come first. In an early scene, Itō interviews the cab driver who transported her and Yamaguchi to the Sheraton where, she claims, he raped her. This older gentleman recalls the evening in detail and admits that she was intoxicated and repeatedly asked to be taken to the train station so she could go home. Instead, he followed Yamaguchi’s orders to drop them off at the hotel, and then stood by as the man (as seen in security camera footage) literally lifted her out of the car and half-dragged her inside.
What’s so striking about this dereliction of moral duty is that the cabbie is rather blasé about it. Unfortunately, it’s not the last time Itō comes face-to-face with cultural attitudes that expect her to accept her own violation and subjugation. In a country where rape victims never show their faces (due to the shame and attendant consequences), Itō’s decision to go public on-camera is met with objections from her family, who fear that it’ll forever stain her reputation and ruin her chances at having a normal, happy life. Itō understands this viewpoint but her more pressing concern is that, by making herself scandalous headline news, she’ll court a backlash that will put her clan in danger. As it turns out, she’s the one in the crosshairs, as she learns when—following the commencement of her campaign—she’s advised to move out of her apartment, starts noticing strange vans parked outside her window, and begins receiving hate mail that blames her for her situation.
Equally depressing are her covertly recorded chats with the police, who initially dismiss her allegations with a coldness that highlights why so many women choose to stay silent about their abuse. Amazingly, after decrying her lack of evidence, the lead officer on the case (who’s referred to as Investigator A) comes around and begins doing what he can to aid her cause. That turns out to be a lengthy and onerous process, considering that Yamaguchi has friends in high places—including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Their relationship becomes central to the tale once an arrest warrant is issued for Yamaguchi and yet, on the day of his apprehension, with Investigator A and his colleagues in position to put him in handcuffs, the Tokyo Police chief calls it off for no valid reason.
After attempting to hurdle the numerous obstacles in her path, Itō receives word that her case is “non-prosecutable.” Refusing to be deterred, she transitions to civil court, all as she puts the finishing touches on her book Black Box—a tome that castigates Japan’s archaic and misogynistic sexual assault laws via the prism of her own saga—and prepares for the firestorm it’s expected to ignite. Sticking closely to Itō, Black Box Diaries’ traditional and self-shot material engenders empathy through proximity. Balancing happy, anxious, and heartbroken moments, it conveys the depth and breadth of Itō’s hardship. So successfully does it create a connection between viewer and Itō that, upon hearing her civil trial decision, one is less excited to hear what she has to say to the media than to her iPhone.
Toward the end of that courtroom showdown, Itō hears that the Sheraton doorman from that fateful night has testified that Itō attempted to flee Yamaguchi but was so intoxicated that she was “barely conscious.” When she calls to ask him if she can submit his statement into the record (which will include his identity), his response in the affirmative—“I am willing to do anything to help you. You can disclose my name. Nothing compares to the suffering you’ve endured…The charges for sex crimes are too lenient. I’ve always thought it was wrong. I never imagined I would be in this position. I would like you to feel glad I was on duty that night. I’m glad I was”—naturally brings her to tears. In that moment, Black Box Diaries again demonstrates that bravery, resilience and selflessness still exist, and that even if the good fight is never completely won, it’s nonetheless worth fighting.