i: Documentary of the Journalist (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]
Impassioned subjects and approaches tie the two people that propel the energy and vision of i: Documentary of the Journalist. Behind the camera is Tatsuya Mori, who is not only a documentary filmmaker but also an incredibly prolific author known for tackling unpleasant or uncomfortable issues related to Japanese culture in both formats. On the film front more specifically, Mori has demonstrated his proclivity of quietly but adamantly pushing his way through the crowd, so to speak, with his camera to address scandals and fiascos in the wake of their intense mainstream media coverage, despite or because of the brevity of his filmography. A (1998) and A2 (2001) focus on members of the infamous Aum Shinrikyo religious cult responseible for the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Tokyo subways, while Fake (2016) confronts “deaf composer” Mamoru Samuragochi following the revelation that he is neither completely deaf nor the full author of his compositions. In this regard, though Mori’s concerns are arguably about unearthing truths overlooked or flattened by the media juggernaut, they are also about the increasingly unsettling, rabid nature of media coverage. He continues to explore these concerns with the highly absorbing i: Documentary of the Journalist in contrasting fashion with a steely calm that complements the film’s protagonist own spirited resistance.
In front of the camera is the “i” to which the title refers: journalist (of Tokyo Shimbun) and author Isoko Mochizuki, who has become quite the household name in the last few years due to her drive to get at truths of news and scandals tied to the Shinzo Abe administration. Her questions to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga during the daily press briefings have become legendary, and even more so when she was singled out by the staff for her supposed inaccuracy in her choice of questions and thereby restricted to two and often purposely interrupted by press briefing staff member Hideki Uemura when posing her questions. For journalists and average citizens alike, Mochizuki has thus become a bit of a hero on top of being nationally (and internationally) recognised for her work against sontaku journalism. (In short, sontaku refers to the practice of [media] anticipating the needs/desires of someone [in this case, Abe cronies et. al.] and acting accordingly.) That the year 2017 saw the publication of Mochizuki’s book The Journalist and sontaku ended up being the buzzword of the year is no coincidence. This connection speaks volumes about the thorny relationship between journalists and the Abe administration and the likes of Mochizuki and Mori working to combat against it.
On the surface, Mochizuki’s fight is to get at facts and truths skewered and/or obscured by the Abe administration as well as the media outlets that conspire with it. The majority of footage clearly exemplify this fight, as the conceit is Mori accompanying Mochizuki on her endlessly busy schedule of attending the daily press briefings, appearing on TV news panels, going to her Tokyo Shimbun office, interviewing subjects (most notably the Kagoikes, post-scandal), giving talks, and conferring with journalist colleagues. Notably, Mori makes no attempt to “organise” the context of his film. Absent are any timelines about Mochizuki’s activities and rise to national prominence or about the major events that have plagued the Abe administration during his current term (2017-present) that are the main foci of Mochizuki’s research: the construction of the U.S. military base in Henoko, Okinawa; journalist Shiori Ito’s rape case involving TV journalist and Abe associate Noriyuki Yamaguchi; and the Moritomo Gakuen cronyism scandal with the Kagoikes, among others. The film’s seeming lack of organisation in fact better reflects how these separate stories overlap in time, are all interrelated, and ultimately circle back to Mochizuki and Mori’s shared concerns about peeling back the layers of sontaku media coverage. The film even begins abruptly in medias res, with Mochizuki tirelessly on the move from one spot to another in Tokyo, which is only belatedly “explained” that it is connected to her research on the construction of the Henoko base when the film suddenly cuts to her on a boat in Okinawa.
Yet Mori is not one to simply melt into the observational shadows while accompanying Mochizuki. In the process, Mori becomes faced with the task of trying to get clearance to attend some of the events for which Mochizuki as a journalist has access. As such, a strand of Mori talking to police guards and video journalists about obtaining permission develops. Once again, though, this strand feeds back into Mochizuki and Mori’s concerns about the twinning of media coverage and political machinations in that it helps to further expose the hierarchical and favouritist elements at work in them, arguably the core elements of what sontaku means. And Mori is not one to remain quiet either. He also poses his own questions to the people whom Mochizuki interviews apart from filming them, including the Kagoikes.
On closer inspection and reading between the images, as it were, Mochizuki’s fight is also very much about women’s rights and gender equality, given the kind of vilification and shaming that female journalists have experienced if they are (deemed) too “vocal” or “persistent.” Mori (and thus the viewer) witnesses firsthand Mochizuki’s unending commitment to research and wading through layers of media coverage to get at the kind of coverage that people are not getting as well as the sea of latent misogyny that laces criticisms of her. An exemplary, cringing moment in this regard is the press conference with Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. After listening to her questions, he utters rather disparaging comments about her instead of answering the questions; Aso’s comments are then met with snickers from the predominantly male-filled room. Also reinforcing this fight is how the film addresses Ito’s rape case against Yamaguchi, which is credited with igniting the #MeToo movement in Japan. Mori’s choice to edit the film in a way that returns intermittently to developments in Ito’s case cannot be solely attributed to the fact that Ito and Mochizuki are friends/colleagues, though it is the impetus for the first sequence in the film that features the two women.
i: Documentary of the Journalist is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.