Production Company: Seiyu, Ace Pictures
Release: 12 October 1996
Length: 73 min.
Format: 35 mm; 1:1.33
Director: Isaka Satoshi
Executive Producers: Hara Masato, Kuroi Kazuo
Producers: Akai Junji, Tsubomi Nobotsugu
Screenplay: Shin Kazuo
Photography: Sano Tetsuo
Music: Mizuide Hiroshi
Art Director: Maruo Tomoyuki
Editor: Isaka Satoshi
Kanemura: Asano Tadanobu
Yoko: Unno Keiko
Iwai: Shirai Akira
Television Out of Focus
Recent cases of TV trickery are disturbingly numerous. TBS showed an interview with lawyer Sakamoto Tsutsumi to the deadly Aum Supreme Truth, purportedly to get good footage of the Aum Kamikuishiki compound. Even the elite NHK faked footage in a documentary on the Himalayas to heighten its impact.
One wonders if televisual culture does not habitually violate journalistic ethics and step over the boundaries between reality and fiction in order to sell good entertainment. The TV wide-shows, in particular, appear willing to invade anyone’s privacy and run roughshod over personal lives to rake in the almighty ratings.
Satoshi Isaka’s debut film, [Focus], dares to tackle this enormous issue, but in the end bites off more than it can chew. In some ways, you can say it becomes part of the very problem it seeks to criticize.
The narrative focuses on a TV reporter Iwai (Shirai Akira), his assistant (Unno Keiko), and cameraman doing a story on a shy, slightly asocial young man named Kanemura (Asano Tadanobu) who is into electronic eavesdropping.
They begin by recording the de riguer interviews, but when they overhear a cellular phone conversation about a yakuza handgun over Kanemura’s listening device, events take a completely different turn. Over Kanemura and his assistant’s opposition, Iwai insists on pursuing that story, a decision that offers tragic results for everyone involved.
The film’s distinction lies in its choice of point of view. Beginning with a shot into a camcorder viewfinder, [Focus] is entirely composed of footage taken by the TV crew’s camera, from test shots to moments when the battery runs low. Our view is the camera’s and no one else’s.
Isaka’s strategy is certainly effective on one level. By locating the “eye” of [Focus] in a recognized object in the fiction itself, not in some omniscient observer, he creates a sense of immediacy that is the film’s strong point. He also formulates a unique position from which to criticize media practice. If it was shot in the form of a regular fiction film, [Focus] would look as made-up as one of those teenage moral-lesson films they used to show in school. It would be an expose from without, a critique by another medium too distanced to understand TV’s unique characteristics. By presenting his film as uncut video footage, Isaka offers it as untouched reality and tries to get the media to speak for and thus damn itself.
However, it is rather [Focus] that falls victim to itself in the end. The plot takes excessive turns that, beyond being unnecessary to establish it’s argument, align the film too closely to the kind of wide-show sensationalism it intends to condemn.
Then, with the slick dissolves and mood music inserted at the end, Isaka effectively abandons his first-person, from-the-camera style for the sake of emotional impact. After spending the entire film criticizing the media for fabricating reality to heighten its entertainment value, Isaka does the exact same thing himself. It makes his in-the-camera style look no different than reality TV.
While showing how TV journalism stages events, [Focus] never turns the camera on itself to ask how it has been fooling with our perception of this incident. True, this is not a documentary, but when Isaka casts his own director of photography, Sano Tetsuro, as the TV cameraman (who is never seen in the film, only heard off-screen), he is equating his film with the TV report, and must necessarily ask the same questions of it as he does of the media.
The main fault of Isaka’s interpretation and Shin Kazuo’s script is in emphasizing media sensationalism as mainly a question of ethics, when it is more fundamentally an issue of how TV creates reality. In an age when seemingly nothing is real until it has been shown on TV, the question is not how to be faithful to reality, but what our media reality itself means.
Never asking these questions, [Focus] ends up as shallow as TBS’s own self-criticism after the Sakamoto affair, and can’t seem to bring it’s own version of sex, lies, and videotape into focus.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 17 October 1996, p. 11.
Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow