Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan’s documentary (co-produced by Jane Campion) covers one of the strangest aspects of North Korea’s attempts to keep secret tabs on their neighbours: the abduction of Japanese citizens for the sole purpose of teaching native spies how to mimic Japanese language, customs and behaviour for perfect assimilation.
It’s something straight out of a best-selling spy novel set in the Cold War era, and yet even if one knows the premise, the events that trace a family’s efforts to find their daughter and the eventual truth of a truly despicable cover-up is incredibly gripping.
The narrative is literally propelled by breaks in the case, as separate investigative streams – a journalist, a detective, and the parents of Megumi Yokota – eventually converge and come to the conclusion that Yokota was among several men and women snatched by North Korean spies at night, usually while walking along a wide open beach. Were it not for the Yokatas pleading for further information – on the street to often indifferent passersby, on TV, and to journalists – the government would never have bothered to push the North Korean regime for answers.
Japan’s Prime Minister flew to Pyongyang to meet with leader / despot Kim Jong-il – a first after years of icy relations – and one senses a bargain was set up: if genuine efforts weren’t made to provide answers, Japan’s generous food donations might be reduced. What stemmed from the visit were some answers, in addition to a Japanese fact-finding mission, but for the Yokotas and other affected families, the truth was partial: while some families benefitted from reunions, others had to confront more grievous situations.
Woven into this complex story are extraordinary revelations which affected the families not once, but multiple times: for the Yokotas, their marriage remained intact, but threatening their sanity was the cruel journey of losing their daughter, discovering she was kidnapped by a foreign power, then told she had committed suicide, then the existence of a granddaughter, and the realization that Megumi may well be alive after the North Korean government sent trophy ashes to end one family’s persistent demands for answers.
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Through these horrible events the cameras – both from the documentarians and period news cameras – were present, and what emerges is a rich, deeply affecting tale of human trauma; deliberate, insidious, and incipient. Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan’s documentary hovers carefully around its subjects, capturing the pain of the various parents and siblings whose lives are a chunk emptier; even when there are selective reunions, the joy is overshadowed by outrage, and the impunity of North Korea’s spy agency.
Amazingly, the directors managed to interview a former spy who knew the man that snatched Megumi, and his recount of her transport, and difficulty in accepting her new life is sickening. The coldness of the events is contrasted by the vestiges of the abducted victims - from their untouched rooms, hobbies, memories from surviving family members, pictures, and in Megumi’s case, a tape recording of her solo performance in a school choir - performed shortly before her disappearance. For viewers, when the extract is played near the end of the documentary, it hits with the weight of sledgehammer.
Abducted: The Megumi Yokota Story deeply affecting film that simultaneously documents the ongoing emotional trauma of loss, and in Japan’s case, the conflict of providing humanitarian aide to an odious regime.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan