The Journalist Review – Is the government of this Japanese drama more corrupt than ours? | Drama
FForeign dramas can be like a little vacation, allowing you to dream of living in a country where the weather, people, or simply interiors are an invigorating contrast to what you’re used to. Still, it’s hard not to look for the ways things are the same everywhere you go.
Good news! Netflix’s new Japanese drama The Journalist is about a corrupt government that embezzles public money. I immediately feel at home.
Land around a school has been sold at a low price in a deal involving the Prime Minister and his wife, while another politician is under investigation for his involvement in a startup which has received excessive government subsidies. The first of these scandals is taken up by our titular hero, Anna Matsuda (Ryôko Yonekura), a maverick journalist famous for beating up government spokespersons at televised press conferences.
The most jaded, news-saturated types may say that Matsuda’s interrogations are just wordy showboating — the kind of heavily editorialized harangue that appeals to people who agree with the point, but doesn’t advance the story. At least she’s trying to bring down the bad guys – and that made her a star. “She is incredible !” says a young, media-savvy fan, devouring Matsuda’s latest clip via smartphone at a coffee table.
The reporter is to some extent a fearless, truth-telling reporting fantasy. If that was all it was, it would be a downright dud. The first episode features childlike visions of news journalism – seemingly a noble discipline quite distinct from the fake news spread online – and government malfeasance. The latter manifests itself when junior officials are ordered by their senior colleagues to open incriminating documents on their computers, delete all references to the Prime Minister and press save. Intense close-ups of computer screens show us text being typed.
The political analysis is equally basic, with the idea of capitalism as the root cause of the characters’ various miseries constantly hovering in the series’ peripheral vision, but never identified. Rather than being self-serving corporations whose interests coincide with the people they are supposed to hold accountable, media organizations continually struggle with interference from invisible government “top officials”. Likewise, the police repeatedly drop official wrongdoing investigations – another reason you don’t need to be familiar with Japanese politics to appreciate it.
But then the second episode brings tragedy and it becomes clear that The Journalist isn’t trying to be a complex drama about power dynamics. It’s an open-hearted melodrama about good, ordinary people, whose health and happiness should matter, crushed by injustice. Once the corruption scandal progresses to a life lost, rather than just embezzled money, the focus is on the men in suits whose career aspirations have, over time, hardened them to the moral consequences of their work.
Slowly, The Journalist breaks down its characters into those who can deal with the suppression of their own humanity and those who cannot. As the series continues and Matsuda fuels the controversy, the apology arcs deepen as the professional granite facades finally crack. “I’m so sorry” is the most common line of dialogue, and if you can ignore the sad, shameless piano in the background, it gets more emotional every time you hear it.
It’s a wish-fulfillment, based on the question that nags the most when we read about corruption and cover-up: how can the people who did this sleep at night? We’d love to see them unable to do so – and The Journalist indulges that desire. But it does so effectively, setting up simple stories about the emotional fallout of institutional cruelty to remind us of what’s at stake. Shinobu Terajima delivers a controlled, dignified performance as a widow whose disconcerting vulnerability gives way to determination, while there’s a harrowing subplot about an ambiguous bromance between fellow politicians, one of whom deeply regrets how their bond didn’t hold when his friend’s idealism cost him dearly.
Finally saying the thing that hasn’t been said in a long time — whether it’s “I love you” or “I did this and I apologize” — is at the heart of all The Journalist drama awards. Ultimately, he returns that responsibility to us. In its later episodes, it’s made explicit that Japan is a country that has slipped into a swamp of dishonesty because the apathy of its citizens has allowed it to do so. If you want something better, the program says, you – as an individual – have to speak up. As naive and sentimental as The Journalist is, he’s not wrong.