The eternal quandary of documentary filmmaking is that it is inseparable from the (un)ethical line it toes. At what point is exposing the truth—often an ugly truth—exploitation, especially when that perceived truth is known to hold an inherent bias; when bits of that truth have been withheld to create a desired narrative? It’s a question dealt with during the first few minutes of director Yujiro Harumoto’s sophomore feature A Balance, where documentary filmmaker Yuko (Kumi Takiuchi) must compromise the truth for her upcoming film.
Yuko’s TV movie is set to detail the controversial case of a local teenager who had an affair with her teacher, and the successive reveal and bullying that caused the pair to commit suicide. The father of the deceased teenager blames the school and the media. But while screening the in-progress film for the executives who commissioned the film, it is requested that the father’s line of dialogue be altered. It’s not what was supposed to be in the script, and such a statement might end up creating enemies for them, Yuko and her crew. Yuko, in spite of herself, agrees to alter the dialogue so that it sounds as if the father places blame solely on the school.
Within Japan’s tightly held culture of shame, Harumoto explores the limits of truth when collective shame can be a fate worse than death. It’s interesting to think about in comparison to the West, especially in America, where an embarrassing or disgraceful scandal can—especially when it comes to prominent people—blow over, or even work towards someone’s benefit. But that isn’t always the case. “Cancel culture” is now officially defined by Merriam-Webster as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling, as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure,” which all happens primarily on social media. The functionality of cancel culture can be positive in terms of exposing and getting accountability for unwanted, degenerate behavior, but the breadth of perceived degeneracy is often unequally weighed from instance to instance. It all amounts to a similar excision from society that harkens to the kind depicted in A Balance.
While Yuko is filming and interviewing the people at the center of this tragedy, she discovers a shameful secret from her own life. Her father had sex with a teenage student at the test prep school that he and Yuko teach at together—and the student, Mei (Yumi Kawai), is pregnant. Mei, whose mother died some time ago and whose father is neglectful at best, implied to be abusive at worst, insists that the pregnancy be kept a secret. Yuko attempts to unearth the price of shame paid by everyone within the orbit of a scandal through her film, but must simultaneously retcon the scandal in her own life, attempting to go through the necessary steps to get Mei access to an abortion.
But it becomes clear that Yuko’s kindness towards Mei is less about altruism and more about saving herself from social suicide. Though Yuko’s father wishes to turn himself over to the police and accept justice out of guilt for what he did, Yuko intimately understands that a jail sentence for him solves nothing when everyone else involved faces the social consequences. Suddenly, her principles must change. As Yuko acquaints herself further with the family of the deceased teacher at the center of her film, she further understands that the cost of the truth is often unequal to the cost of societal suffering. Yuko interviews the mother and the ex-wife of the teacher, both of whom were forced to move multiple times. Each time, people in their new communities eventually figured out who they were and embarked upon their relentless campaigns of harassment. The effects of the truth ripple outward to anyone even loosely associated with the involved party.
A Balance depicts the way, in Japan, shame spreads through communities like a disease—even directed at people who were not involved. In this culture, a shameful act should not induce atonement, but complete and total excision; it is a stain that must have all traces disappeared. Takako McCrann wrote that, in Japan, “shame cannot be removed until a person does what society expects, which may include drastic measures such as committing suicide,” whereas “in Western culture, guilt can be relieved through confession, self-righteousness, or the justice system.” In America, the revelation of a negative past deed lays the groundwork for apology, reflection and very often redemption. We even see this desire for justice in the way we react to our films, as audiences increasingly look to fictional narratives to reflect our own views of morality.
Though, depending on the deed and on the person who committed it, and on the manner of the apology itself, society can choose whether or not to accept that confession. Sometimes it’s very much deserved, and sometimes it very much isn’t. It all plays into this idea of “cancel culture” and the endless debate as to whether such a thing is even real. There are few repercussions felt for celebrities like Dave Chappelle, who continues to see money from Netflix despite his hateful tangents against transgender people bolstered on their platform. Yet, Japan’s culture of shame is not as different from America’s as it might seem. Years-old missteps are often gleefully unearthed through extensive mining on social media. Dogpiles for otherwise minor transgressions spawn harassment campaigns, ostracization, job loss and, yes, even suicide. American shame culture is less about looking for reparations and more about winning perceived social justice points; like Japan, it’s about forcing someone into exile. Like Japan, our own culture of shame often lends no room for penance and change, only an interest in cutting out the cancer.
This thematic synthesis between the ethics of media and subject within A Balance forges an interesting conversation about cultural shaming and the often negative byproduct of honesty in cultures which view shame and expulsion as something of an integral part of creating better communities. Unsparing, distant and patiently paced, A Balance, like its protagonist, attempts to be an impartial onlooker in its filmmaking, while stealthily assuaging the shame culture shock. It’s true that in America, if Yuko’s father had indeed turned himself in, Yuko likely would have been offered sympathy; even perceived as something of a victim herself. It goes back to this idea that, in America, different circumstances offer different reactions from society at large. There’s nuance in who receives shame—even if, especially on social media, there is a dearth of nuance in the shaming itself.
A Balance leads to a shocking reveal involving bent truth and one of Yuko’s own subjects, and a bleak conclusion that questions whether withholding the truth can ever truly offer any peace. Likening the function of a camera to that of pointing fingers and taunting words, we see how both act in the name of justice and truth, but are more interested in creating a narrative. In the end, it’s easier to claim that a great evil must be defeated than contend that it could have been any one of us.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.