The Journalist review – is this Japanese drama’s government more corrupt than ours? | Drama


Foreign dramas can be like a little holiday, allowing you to dream of living in a country where the weather, the people or just the interiors are a bracing contrast to what you are used to. Yet it is hard not to look for the ways in which things are the same wherever you go.

Good news! Netflix’s new Japanese drama The Journalist is about a corrupt government siphoning off public money. I immediately feel at home.

Land around a school has been sold off cheaply in a deal involving the prime minister and his wife, while another politician is under investigation for his involvement in a startup that has received inordinate government subsidies. The first of these scandals is picked up by our titular hero, Anna Matsuda (Ryôko Yonekura), a maverick broadsheet reporter who is famous for battering government spokespeople in televised press conferences.

The more jaded, news-saturated types tuning in may say Matsuda’s interrogations are just wordy showboating – the sort of heavily editorialised haranguing that pleases people who agree with the point, but doesn’t move the story on. At least she is trying to bring the bad guys down, though – and it has made her a star. “She’s incredible!” says one media-savvy young fan, devouring the latest Matsuda clip via smartphone at a cafe table.

The Journalist is to some extent a fantasy of fearless, truth-telling reporting. If that were all it was, it would be a straight-up dud. Episode one presents childish views of newspaper journalism – apparently a noble discipline quite separate from the fake news pumped out online – and government malfeasance. The latter manifests as junior civil servants being ordered by senior colleagues to open incriminating documents on their computers, edit out all references to the PM and hit save. Intense closeups of computer screens show us text being typed over.

The political analysis is equally basic, with the idea of capitalism as the root cause of the characters’ various miseries hovering constantly in the show’s peripheral vision, but never identified. Rather than being self-serving corporate entities whose interests coincide with the people they are meant to hold to account, media organisations are forever fighting against interference from unseen government “high-ups”. Similarly, the police repeatedly abandon investigations into official wrongdoing – another motif for which you don’t need to be familiar with Japanese politics to appreciate.

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 is an open-hearted melodrama about good, ordinary people, whose health and happiness ought to matter, being crushed by injustice. Once the corruption scandal progresses to a life lost, rather than just money misappropriated, the focus is on men in suits whose career aspirations have, over time, inured them to the moral consequences of their work.

Slowly, The Journalist breaks down its characters into those who can cope with suppressing their own humanity and those who can’t. As the series wears on and Matsuda keeps the controversy alive, the apologetic bows get deeper as granite professional facades finally crack. “I am truly sorry,” is the most common line of dialogue and, if you can ignore the shameless sad piano in the background, it gets more moving each time you hear it.

This is wish fulfilment, based on the question that nags us most when we read about corruption and cover-ups: how can the people who did this sleep at night? We would 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 what is at stake. Shinobu Terajima gives a controlled, dignified performance as a widow whose bewildered vulnerability gives way to determination, while there is a heartbreaking subplot about an ambiguous bromance between political colleagues, one of whom deeply regrets the way their bond failed to hold when his friend’s idealism cost him dearly.

Finally saying the thing that has long being unsaid – whether it’s “I love you” or “I did this and I apologise” – is at the heart of all The Journalist’s dramatic payoffs. In the end, it turns that responsibility towards us. In its later episodes, it is explicit about Japan being a country that has slid into a swamp of dishonesty because its citizens’ apathy has allowed it to do so. If you want something better, the programme says, you – as an individual – have to speak up. Naive and sentimental though The Journalist may be, it is not wrong about that.


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Originally posted 2022-01-14 00:48:06.


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