By Kathryn Ware
In 1977, while on her way home from school, 13-year-old Megumi Yokota disappeared, spirited away without a trace. Twenty years passed before her parents learned the shocking truth—Megumi, and at least 12 other young adults, had been abducted by North Korea as part of a systematic plan to train their spies to talk and be Japanese.
The Yokotas’ grief now had a focus—to locate their daughter and bring her home.
In 1997, it came to light that the Japanese government had knowledge of these abductions but was doing nothing to push what would become known as the “Abduction Issue.” Family members of the missing, led by Megumi’s parents, organized protests to demand Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi confront North Korea to return their loved ones. Getting North Korea to admit to the abductions at all was only the first step in the lengthy process. Not until 2002, during an historic summit concerning the normalizing of Japanese relations with North Korea, was an agreement reached for the return of the abductees. By then, eight of them had died.
In the “truth is stranger than fiction” arena of fascinating documentaries, Abduction comes preloaded with a powerful story. It’s almost unbelievable that something like this, the abduction of ordinary people by another country, could happen in modern times. The anguish and heartache experienced by their loved ones is inconceivable, and the details of the abductions, related by a North Korean spy, are disturbing to say the least.
Abduction’s power comes from its astonishing true story rather than from the cinematic presentation of it. Visually, the film seems better suited to the small screen. Other than oft-repeated shots of a beach, a boat, grass, and crowds moving in slow motion, there’s little visually that pulls you into the story. It’s a competent but stylistically undistinguished piece of documentary filmmaking.
Using photographs and interviews with family, friends, journalists and investigators, filmmakers Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim recount the day Megumi disappeared and from there follow the Yokotas on their grassroots campaign to bring the Abduction Issue to the public and political stage. Against an international backdrop, two anguished parents tirelessly fight for their daughter’s freedom. They hand out fliers and collect signatures; they make public speeches; they stand on street corners chanting with other protesters, shouting through a bullhorn at politicians to bring their children home.
Focusing Abduction on the Yokotas’ story is both the film’s strength and its weakness. Individualizing their struggle is personally compelling, but the bigger picture is lost. Certain aspects of the narrative seem lacking or glossed over, most blatantly, what came next for the five returned victims. Other than a few brief clips from a news conference where two survivors apologize for causing their families so much hardship, we learn nothing more, let alone anything about their abduction experience and life in North Korea. The five survivors exit from the film as soon as their plane touches down in Japan. While mention is made that they fear for the lives of those left behind in North Korea, surely there is more to tell.
All in all, Abduction is a fascinating, if incomplete, account of a painful episode in modern Japanese history and a moving testimony to one couple’s ongoing pursuit to learn the truth behind their daughter’s disappearance.