The Journalist (2020) review

Introduction

In 2019, Michihito Fujii, a young Japanese filmmaker, had the chance to take the helm of two projects, Day And Night (2019) and The Journalist (2019). Besides being made in the same year, both narratives deal with the perverting effect of power. But while the first narrative was based on a script by Fujii himself and some other writers, the second was based on the bestselling autobiography by audacious Tokyo Shinbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki.

Review

One day, young journalist Erika Yoshioka (Shim Eun-Kyung), working at Toto Shinbun, receives an anonymous fax that contains highly confidential information about the plans to build a new university. While some of her colleague thing this fax might be a prank, her boss Mr. Jinya (-) instructs her to investigate the matter.

Takumi Sugihara (Tori Matsuzaka) is a bureaucrat in the Cabinet Intelligence Investigation Office. While he wants to help the society with his job, his job is all about controlling the media and making sure that no unfavorable coverage of the government reached the public. Then one day, due to Erika Yoshioka’s investigations in the university matter, Sugihara ex-boss Mr. Kanzaki (Kazuya Takahashi) commits suicide.

The Journalist (2019) by Masaharu Take

The Journalist is a political thriller that explores the dark side of Japanese politics and the self-serving tendency of the system that rules the country under the name of democracy. In this narrative, the dark side of the governmental system is exposed by giving the spectator a look into the functioning of the Cabinet Intelligence Investigation Office.

This office, where Sugihara and his colleagues work, is not only tasked with keeping information out of the hand of the media and the ‘people’, guiding the way in which the media covers certain cases, and manipulating the public opinion by posting on social media, but also with fabricating and leaking information to ensure that high-positioned others, who have abused their position of power in a ‘criminal’ way, do not become victim of their transgression.

The Journalist (2019) by Masaharu Take

What is truly at stake in this media manipulation is the image of the government as such and that of the men in power. Whenever the pristine image of a certain man of power is in danger, the function of the machinery of manipulation is to ensure that no unremovable scandalous filth sticks to his governmental or ministerial suit and that others who are considered ‘disposable’ or, if possible, others who form a threat are smeared with some damaging dirt instead (Society-note 1). By exposing this, The Journalist reveals that behind the façade of democracy lies a system of power that only wants to protect itself, a system that, under the banner of peace, is only focused on maintaining the structure of power.

But let us also note in passing that the attempts of the Cabinet Intelligence Investigation Office to manipulate the media and the public are never 100 percent successful. As the meddling of the office with the rape-case illustrates, the attempts to tear down the truthfulness of the raped female other leaves an irreducible rest – i.e. some people of the public refuse to believe the orchestrated and mediatized attacks on the victim and the underhanded and almost criminal nature of the manipulation confronts certain bureaucrats (i.e. Takumi Sugihara) with the a-moral dimension of their work (Society-note 2, Narra-note 1). Besides creating such irreducible rest, the Cabinet Intelligence Investigation Office is also not able to prevent that some voices in the media remain critical and suspicious of the (self-serving) state-system. 

Other elements that The Journalist touches upon are the implicit and explicit sexism that still marks Japanese society (e.g. victim-blaming, sexual harassment), the system of forced responsibility, i.e. the system that forces lower-ranked officials to take on responsibility for the wrongdoings of a higher-ranked official to save the face of said official and avoid a truly problematic (governmental) scandal.

The composition of The Journalist is marked by a fluid dynamism and compositionally strong static moments – both elements instrumental in making The Journalist such a pleasant visual experience. The use of movement gives the overall composition a pleasing flow that succeeds in engaging the spectator from the very beginning of the narrative, while the artful static moments provide some surprising moments of visual delight (Cine-note 1, Cine-note 2). 

The use of cinematographical movement is, beyond giving the unfolding of the narrative its pleasing rhythm, also instrumental in making the tension/pressure that marks the atmosphere of a newspaper company sensible for the spectator. That Fujii succeeds in evoking this tensive atmosphere is function of the swerving and somewhat shaky camera work – camera work reminiscent of documentary-cinema – and the rather fast editing pace of these scenes.

The Journalist (2019) by Masaharu Take

Yet, the same compositional style is only sparsely applied to evoke the stressful nature of conducting investigative journalism. To evoke this nature and the psychological impact the forces that attempt to thwart the investigation have on the subject, Fujii mainly relies on subtle emotional musical accompaniment and on shots that bring the ‘pressured’ facial expressions of our two protagonists into focus. It is only in the final half hour of the film that the dangerous side of the game our protagonists are playing is emphasized by a sudden change in the rhythm and dynamism of the cinematographical composition.

The Journalist ‘s greatest weakness is function of the structure of the narrative. While it poses as a conventional thriller, as evident from the cinematographical aesthetics, the narrative is not a thriller at the level of its structure. Yet, The Journalist is also not a full-on psychological study of the destructive impact of the government on subject either. The narrative tries to be a psychological thriller but does not find the balance to make both sides work. As a result, The Journalist ultimately fails to fully satisfies the spectator, because it is neither thrilling nor focused enough on the inner psychology of its characters.

The Journalist (2019) by Masaharu Take

The Journalist is a great and highly relevant narrative that succeeds, by showing that behind the façade of democracy lies a system of power that only wants to protect itself, in underlining the importance of fighting against a-moral system of media manipulation. Yet, while the message of the narrative is clear, the narrative structure, in its unsuccessful attempt to be both a thriller and a psychological study, fails to give the message the power it truly deserves.

Notes

Society-note 1: To further refine this statement, we should add that what the machinery of manipulation attempts to do is hide the object(ive) elements that would give the scandalous dirt that smears the image of the politician its truth and to procure fictive object(ive) elements to put the truthfulness of the dangerous other into doubt.

Whether the public thinks the politician is guilty or not is, strange as it may be, not that important, what is important is that the perceived image of being guilty cannot be proven.  

Society-note 2: The fact that a vocal minority of people refuse to believe the fabricated rumours produced by the office is, in truth, not that problematic and not that dangerous to those in power. The most important aim of the office is, in our view, to evacuate the question of the truth and quell the search for evidence by fueling violent fights and discussions on social media.

Narra-note 1: Whenever the media uses objective elements in its ‘anti-governmental’ reports, the governmental machine of manipulation tries to raise doubts about the objective nature of these elements of proof. This also proves that the office is, first and foremost, focused on making things unable to proof.

Cine-note 1: The visual beauty of certain shot-compositions is either function of a play with geometry, a compositional use of lightning, or a combination of geometry and lightning.

Cine-note 2: Of course, there are more straightforward static shots, shots that do not stand out due to their shot-composition, present within the cinematographical composition.

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