Photo by Tsutomo Harigaya, Courtesy of Sundance Institute
◎ Director Shiori Ito talks about her debut feature film, “Black Box Diaries,” which she directs and investigates her own sexual assault case.
Marking Sundance Film Festival’s 40th anniversary, it received 17,435 submissions from 153 countries; of the 4,410 features 1,679 were from the United States and 2,741 were from abroad. Despite its difficult selection process, the festival ended up presenting 82 features, eight episodic films, and one in the Frontier category to both the public and cinematic industry as well.
One film that really caught my attention was “Black Box Diaries,” which was slotted in the festival’s World Documentary Competition. In this film, director Shiori Ito, a journalist, investigates her own sexual assault case. The film highlights the Japanese justice system and general social conditions while she provides insight into her case.
This exclusive interview was conducted with Ms. Ito, who made her first film as a director. The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
Q: According to your film, only 4% of sexually assaulted women in Japan report their cases to law enforcement. It’s common for sexual assault victims to struggle with filing a police report right away because of the trauma. If the report is delayed for a few days, it can be difficult to uncover the physical evidence that they were assaulted. Knowing that, it’s difficult for sexual assault victims to prove it. In your case, little time may have passed from the day you filed the assault report to the law enforcement. By informing the police about the assault, you’ve foreseen being slandered by people, not just yourself but also family members. What level of conflict did you anticipate before filing a sexual assault report with the law enforcement?
Shiori Ito: In retrospect, I think it was a combination of factors. I was aware that the person I was talking about was highly influential, and I was concerned that if I disclosed this information, I wouldn’t be able to work in the journalism industry in the future. In the event that I suppressed my own facts when pondering pursuing a career in journalism, I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to tackle this profession on my own.
In reality, I think there are many different cases of sexual survival. Not reporting it to the police, and keeping it inside yourself and not talking about it, is one approach to surviving, but in my case, I believed that facing the truth and the facts was crucial to my survival.
I also met my sister a few hours after the attack. I was supposed to take her to a Hawaiian pancake shop in Harajuku that day. I was in no shape to get up, but she came over and I had to fool her that I wasn’t feeling well, so we went to the pancake shop. My sister is nine years younger than me. I glanced at her and contemplated the consequences of the same event happening to her. What if she had an experience similar to mine because I didn’t face what was happening to me now? Considering that possibility, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. I now think, in retrospect, that those factors were present. As a journalist, I had to tell the truth about my own sexual victimization.
Q: In this film, you investigated your own case, recorded the interview, and captured it on camera. It’s understandable that one might be afraid of reliving their sexual assault experiences, but you chose to tell the truth about it as a journalist. What mental support did you rely on when making that decision?
Shiori Ito: I think it was because there was an element of journalism in me. The first time the switch was flipped was when I was told by the police that they couldn’t conduct an investigation because cases like this were common. I was surprised at how little I knew about the social and legal systems in Japan.
I would have been unable to handle the situation if I had faced it as if it were happening to me. However, as a journalist, I was able to approach the case as if I were investigating a lawsuit different from me. It was important to me to view myself from a third-party perspective. If I was always experiencing it as a victim, I don’t think I would have lasted this long. The element of journalism which was present in me, and my ability to face the situation without thinking about it from only my perspective was what made me capable of doing this at that time. Confronted with slander, I was determined to “speak up” no matter how painful it is.
Q: In this cyber world that we live in, slanderous words — which aren’t the same as criticism which expresses an opposing opinion — can be like arrows piercing deeply into a person’s heart. Those who don’t identify themselves and take responsibility for those whom they slander are complicit in everything, as well as in the slander committed by others. Not speaking out when there is slander can be perceived as accepting the slander. On the other hand, speaking out may increase the slander. How did you manage to overcome such slander after holding a press conference?
Shiori Ito: At the time, my sincere wish was to make our society speak more freely about sexual assault and to create a space where we could express ourselves. Even though I raised my voice, talking about it prompted slanderous comments and prevented me from speaking out. I didn’t want to be that kind of role model, so I decided that no matter how painful it was, I spoke up and was firm in public. During those times, I had a friend there to be supportive of me during press conferences and interviews. While I was out in public, I was concerned that this would become a standard for people who have been sexually assaulted — to be slandered. I didn’t feel mentally prepared for it. At the time, what I really wanted was for society to become a little freer to talk about [sexual assault] and create a space where we could talk about
︎Q: You’ve been involved in television productions such as “Under Asia: Lonely Deaths,” a documentary program that addressed solitary deaths in Japan and “Witness-Racing in Cocaine Valley,” a TV documentary that focused on cocaine and Peruvian soldiers passionate about motorcycle racing. Now, you’re directing your own film, “Black Box Diaries.” When did producer Eric Nyari (“Cut,” “Odayaka,” “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda”) and editor Ema Yamazaki (”Monkey Business: The Adventure of Curious George’s Creators” and “Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams”) get involved in this project?
Shiori Ito: Eric and Ema came to us when we were starting post-production. Finding an editor who we knew by heart, particularly for Japanese documentaries, was a challenge. Ema has been involved in editing her own films, but it wasn’t often that she was solely responsible for the editing. I believe she put a lot of effort into this project. Before this work, we had known each other, partly because she was easy to communicate with as a woman. The majority of my documentation on my own sexual assault was traumatic for me. Although I had forgotten much of it, seeing the images and hearing the audio made me realize that it had happened to me. We started our work at the end of 2019. Looking back at the footage was a lot of work, and I think Ema played a crucial part in getting us to this point. For this work, it was not something that could be entrusted to someone who knew absolutely nothing about it. Having Ema as an editor, who knew many things about Japanese society and also had a grasp of the outside landscape [such as the social conditions overseas], was a major key to this work.
Q: In 2015, you were sexually assaulted.Then the criminal case was dropped in July 2016 due to insufficient evidence. Around that time, the #MeToo movement arose in the U.S. and altered the way the entertainment industry and companies in general dealt with sexual assault. How did the #MeToo movement affect your life?
Shiori Ito: It was in May 2015 when I spoke publicly. The #MeToo movement* took place in October of 2017. When I spoke, the reaction in Japan was, “Why is a sexual victim speaking out?” This has been scandalously covered by the media, and people asked, “Isn’t it a political conspiracy behind the scenes?” “Could this be a honey trap?” In the midst of all this, an event in Hollywood — Harvey Weinstein’s case — was published as an article in the New York Times. With that, I felt that I was not the only one. Of course, there have been many voices in the media in the past, but I felt as if they had been layered and were on the surface. Now, I felt that it was precisely that the “voiceless voices” had to come out. It gave me strength. On the other hand, it was not yet a movement in Japan, and it also made me realize how difficult it is to talk about sexual assault in Japan.
Q: This film was selected for the World Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival. Surely there will be some overseas distributors looking to purchase this film, but I believe that this will be an opportunity for this important trial to be seen not only in Japan, but also around the world. How do you feel about your film’s participation in this Sundance Film Festival?
Shiori Ito: I just arrived at the Sundance Film Festival, and regret very much that I did not bring my snow boots in the deep snow (laughs). I still don’t have a real sense of what this place is like – I wasn’t very familiar with film festivals, so I don’t even know what it’s like. But I used to make documentaries, and this is my first film. I had heard from people around me that this was a “big deal.” I have been informed by publicists that this is how it’s being reported, and I feel emotionally overwhelmed when I see the articles. I’m very excited, but also a little intimidated by the idea of publicly showing this film.
In my view, many of the Sundance Film Festival attendees are filmmakers and artists who are creating films while contemplating social issues, which causes me to feel both tense and inspired. I already had an online meeting and thought, “I wish I had known about this kind of world earlier.” Ten to 14 of us will be gathering at the Sundance Film Festival, some of whom I have yet to meet face-to-face. I am glad that we can finally meet together and say, “Good job.” If even one person had been missing, this documentary would have never been made. It’s a personal film, but that’s why it needed the help of many different people. I am happy that we can all celebrate it together.