Journalist and director Ito Shiori in profile, with shoulder-length hair, pearl earring and a dark top, with a blurred-out person in the foreground.

A survivor controls the narrative in ‘Black Box Diaries’

In a new DIY Sundance documentary, a Japanese journalist investigates her own sexual assault

Ito Shiori in "Black Box Diaries."

Tsutomu Harigaya

Through a patchwork of audio clips, surveillance videos, selfie vlogs and other covert recordings, the young journalist-turned-filmmaker Ito Shiori relays a harrowing and intimate account of a real life-case: her 2015 sexual assault at the hands of an influential political figure in Japan. To call Black Box Diaries a work of cinematic bravery is at once true and potentially patronizing, thanks to the multifaceted counter-narrative Ito crafts about what it means to be a survivor (and, implicitly, what terms like “bravery” and “resilience” actually entail). At the same time, she creates a vivid, firsthand account of draconian laws and social attitudes, and in the process, wades through the paradoxical bad-faith arguments that compel women to come forward about their experiences despite the immense backlash they often receive for speaking out at all.

Black Box Diaries evolves stylistically across its 103 minutes. While it eventually takes the form of something familiar—a collage of news clips and behind-the-scenes footage as Ito makes her case in private and in public—its initial allure verges on mysterious. It is, as the title suggests, a diary of sorts, with poetic recollections standing in for evidence, and impressionistic shots of buildings and other objects replacing more concrete, factual narratives. It is, at first, a film of feeling and of instinct, orienting us within Ito’s headspace. When it tries to take on a more traditional documentarian form, its interviews are covert by nature—so secretive that the camera can’t even be pointed at its subjects.

The further the movie gets into its runtime, the more Ito emerges from her shell and from the shadows, allowing her to speak and live more freely, and thus allowing the documentary and its making to exist in the open. But before this can happen, the film must first traverse its director’s harrowing journey from despondency to determination. Audio snippets play over shots of skyscraper at night from the vantage of a moving car, as though the camera were being whisked away, completely powerless—an image made all the more haunting when it cuts to real surveillance footage of Ito, nearly passed out, being carried into a hotel room by her assailant Yamaguchi Noriyuki, biographer to then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

Ito’s presentation is remarkably candid, affording us intimate access to her innermost thoughts (often via vertical selfie video snippets) as she navigates an emotional and legal labyrinth after her attack. The policeman assigned to her case appears to us only as a disembodied voice, with the designation “Investigator A,” an anonymity he’s afforded out of courtesy in the film (and in Ito’s book on the subject, Black Box). From his initial reluctance to help or even respect Ito, to his eventual frankness and forthrightness when he’s suddenly taken off the case, Investigator A forms a vital piece of a political puzzle, a thread on which Ito begins to pull until it reveals unsavory government connections attempting to either cover up her assault or discredit her.

Investigator A forms a vital piece of a political puzzle, a thread on which Ito begins to pull until it reveals unsavory government connections attempting to either cover up her assault or discredit her.

The numerous phone conversations she records not only function as evidence—a documentation of the ongoing investigation, and the many hurdles placed in her path—but they serve the dual purpose of recording Ito’s own relationship to the case, and the toll it takes on her. In gracefully affording most other witnesses the room to come forward themselves, she keeps the camera trained on herself during nearly all her conversations. In the process, this constant documentation mirrors the ever-present limelight shone upon her; the film is a victory not only of defiant courage, but of defiant cinematic form. The political attention has ramifications for her family and safety, but by refusing to hide from cameras—the media’s, and her own—Ito turns the film into a living document through her own evolving expressions in close up, capturing not only the indignities she’s forced to suffer, but the multitudinous nature of her experience over the years. When friends come by to support her, she’s playful and mischievous with them, despite the wider expectations of some mythical dour disposition with which a survivor of sexual assault “ought to” behave. There’s no perfect victim in the eyes of her detractors, so why pretend?

However, the simultaneous work of exposing a rancid system while rebuilding her own self-confidence also takes its toll. Some of her interviews are scheduled sit-downs with middle-aged men at various levels of government (including the Office for Violence Against Women, which she hopes to hold to account for its failure to protect victims during legal proceedings). Other interviews are either sting operations with hidden cameras, or even ambushes on officials responsible for attempts to throw out her case, making the film uniquely thrilling in its portrait of a system contorting itself to protect powerful leaders.

A black in white headshot of journalist and director Ito Shiori in a black top and hair pulled back, with her chin resting in her left hand.

Ito Shiori, director of "Black Box Diaries," an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Oliver Abraham

The “black box” of the movie title has a double meaning, between the use of the term in aeronautics—a flight recorder which captures all vital information for post-hoc investigations—as well as its colloquial use in Japanese sexual assault cases such as Ito’s. It refers, often derisively, to the unknowable, unseen nature of the alleged incidents, for which the burden of proof placed upon accusers is often humongously high. In reclaiming the phrase for her book and film, Ito opens up the black box and shines a light inside it from all angles, providing not only the factual proof necessary to prosecute, but the compelling emotional evidence that holds an entire system to account.

Friends, young politicians, and eventually bystanders are shown to support Ito’s efforts, but that she becomes a public figure at all is perhaps one of the movie’s biggest tragedies. Her search for justice forces her into the limelight whether she wants it or not, which, ironically but inevitably, causes people to cast aspersions on her intentions, furthering the exhaustion she feels both as a survivor, and as a journalist turning herself into a subject in the third person. The aphorism “the personal is political” (and vice versa) has never been more true than it is in Black Box Diaries, an intrinsic entwinement Ito reveals and scrutinizes with the limited filmmaking tools at her disposal. The result, however, feels limitless in its empowerment, forging a roadmap for justice alongside an honest and difficult portrayal of what it means to live under a microscope as a woman speaking out—not just against an individual, but an entire patriarchal structure.

Published on January 31, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter