In the middle of Black Box Diaries, journalist Shiori Ito’s debut documentary, Ito grins at the camera as she strolls through downtown Tokyo on the day of her book launch. It’s October 18, 2017. The New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein news two weeks ago. Alyssa Milano popularized the hashtag #MeToo two days ago. Ito, fresh-faced and 28, happily recounts these events to the camera. The world may finally be ready to listen to her. 

It’s hard to imagine a time before the #MeToo genie was let out of its bottle, but that’s what Ito asks of viewers as they journey back with her to 2015, when she says she was raped by a senior journalist with connections to then-president Shinzo Abe. Through an incredible amount of personal documentation––primarily videos, audio recordings, and journal entries––she grants viewers unprecedented access into her experience as a woman seeking justice for sex crimes in Japan. Some omissions in this narrative rankle, but Black Box Diaries is a powerfully intimate account of Ito’s ordeal.

It starts as recordings from Ito’s initial conversations with police play over footage of a long, dark tunnel. The police insist there’s insufficient evidence to prosecute her case. Ito disproves this immediately by interviewing the cab driver who delivered her and her alleged rapist, senior journalist Noriyuki Yamaguchi, to the hotel where she says the assault took place. CCTV footage from the hotel shows Yamaguchi pulling a clearly indisposed Ito out of the cab and leading her inside. If there’s insufficient evidence, Ito seems to ask, then how did I get all this?

Thus begins a journey marrying professional ethics and personal experience as Ito investigates her own alleged rape. After she goes public with the incident in May 2017––a rare move for victims of sex crimes in Japan––she faces intense backlash. In response she prepares to publish a book about the experience, Black Box, its title an ironic homage to a metaphor employed by police investigators. She says they told her the alleged crime happened in a black box––there’s no way to see in and know what actually occurred.

Her reporting is thorough and hard-won. Editor Ema Ryan Yamazaki (The Making of a Japanese) has assembled a compendium of personal and professionally shot footage into a narrative that flows like a dramatic thriller, date-stamped by entries from Ito’s journals. Ito wrestles with a source at the police department who runs cold then hot, recording their in-person conversations in secret. (Her final phone call from him is especially arresting, as he unwittingly gives a masterclass in sexual harassment.) As she struggles through the justice system, attempting to assemble corroborating witnesses for her own case, she tries staying vigilant. In one unexpectedly funny scene, she uses a wiretap director in the apartment she’s sharing with a friend.

It’s impossible not to empathize with Ito through this process’ occasional highs and harrowing lows, but there’s important stuff left on the cutting room floor. Most notably, Ito sued two public figures for defamation when they tweeted cruel opinions about her case, yet this pursuit is never mentioned therein. Free-speech standards in Japan undoubtedly differ from those in the U.S., but it’s still vexing to learn that this woman––who talks about the importance of journalism and not being silenced with fellow media members in multiple scenes––actively worked to suppress the speech of others. That the film is endlessly sympathetic towards her but resists such complicating factors––including the fact that Yamaguchi won a civil suit for defamation against her––makes the whole enterprise feel less honest.

Yet, the rest of Ito’s work taken in good faith, it’s undeniable she’s a skilled and passionate storyteller. She allowed footage of her own video suicide note, which she said in a post-screening Q&A she did not remember filming, into the movie despite personal qualms. She runs gallantly to try chasing down the police official who says he barred Yamaguchi’s arrest. She revels in Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and dances wildly to relieve stress.

Ito is undeniably brave, but this autobiographical doc could stand to be a bit less shiny. Certainly she must have been ungracious or callous at times during this eight-year ordeal, and it would behoove her to show us that. As is, Black Box Diaries rings just slightly hollow, a technically gorgeous depiction of a nearly flawless subject.

Black Box Diaries premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B

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