“It’s unbelievable.” The first words spoken in Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story pretty much sum up the coming drama. In 1977, 13-year-old Megumi was walking home from school in Nigata, Japan, and disappeared. Her mother, Sakie, recalls worrying. Her younger brother Tetsuya says, “Even though I was just a kid, I knew something big was happening.” The camera hovers over the sidewalk where Megumi walked, looks up at tree branches that likely cast shadows over her. The sun sinks into a distant horizon, and a percussive soundtrack pulses, pushing forward, ever faster. The sea laps the shore, ominously.
Even if the markers in these opening moments of Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim’s 2006 documentary seem crude — more like America’s Most Wanted than a conventionally sober assembly of facts and events — the portentous point is also effective. Megumi’s story is unbelievable, from the instant of her vanishing to the long years of searching by family and authorities to the eventual revelations of what happened.
The bulk of the film is comprised of archival news footage and interviews (then and now) with individuals who knew Megumi or followed her story. Her father Shigeru remembers that for many days and months, “We heard nothing.” A TV news clip shows a reporter standing on a corner near the last sighting of Megumi, holding in his hand a photo as he announces the child is “missing.” After some investigation, it appears that officials informed Megumi’s parents she “ran away,” but, as the film notes almost in passing, they refused to accept this non-explanation. Even as they appear on television back in 1978, under the general and plainly sensational rubric of “Why young people run away,” Sakie speaks to Megumi through tears, “It’s hard to believe you just ran away.”
“Two years later,” Abe, a newspaper crime reporter, stumbles on a story that only seems unrelated: a young Japanese couple was attacked on a beach facing North Korea, apparently nearly kidnapped until the crime was interrupted by a passerby with a dog. Though Sakie asserts that reports of multiple missing people from the area, on top of this couple’s report, moved her (“I had a strong feeling about it”), the outline of what happened doesn’t come into focus, until some 20 years later. Here the film deploys flipping decade numbers over the image and sound of a rushing train — yet another tabloidy effect that both underscores and undercuts the real-life trauma unfolding. As the film presses forward to 1997, journalist Ishidaka reveals the results of his investigation: during the 1970s, North Korean spies were kidnapping Japanese citizens.
This piece of the puzzle is more or less confirmed by An, a former spy now defected. His account is framed by his nervous behaviors, close-ups of his cigarette and darting eyes, footage of Kim Jong Il and goose-stepping soldiers, and a photo of a youthful An in uniform. He says he saw Megumi in North Korea, and that he knows the man, a Mr. Chung,” who took her. “We learned everything,” he remembers, “how to kill people, how to steal, how to break into a house. I could blow up this hotel right now if I wanted to, it’s not that hard to kill someone.” Prompted by his off-screen interviewer, An notes, “Your conscience is the problem,” a point underlined when he denies kidnapping Megumi but, after meeting with her parents concerning Mr. Chung, says, “I was ashamed that I was the same kind of person who would abduct someone.”
As a witness for the case and for the film, An is appropriately hard to read, alternately self-aggrandizing and strangely credible. His own story appears supported when Pyongyang officially admits to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens (including Megumi, the youngest). According to Abe, “They took Japanese people to teach their spies the Japanese language. Then the spies could carry out their missions around the world, pretending to be Japanese.”
Preposterous as it sounds (the scheme ranks with the U.S. plot to assassinate Castro with lethal cigars), its effects on multiple families are real and lasting. Sakie and Shigeru, along with other parents and siblings of abductees, become political activists, protesting Japan’s food aid for North Korea and demonstrating in front of LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) Headquarters (Sakie yells through a bullhorn to members of Japan’s ruling party, “It’s been 23 years since my daughter was taken to North Korea”). Years of demonstrations lead at last to Prime Minister Koizumi’s 2002 with Kim Jong Il, which includes a declaration from the former that no aid programs will be discussed until the “abduction issue” is addressed.
Though Pyongyang does give up information and even surviving kidnap victims, Abduction doesn’t end happily, or even provide much in the way of evident “closure” for the Yokotas. As the film ends, Shigeru and Sakie prepare to go before yet another set of television cameras, to make visible their loss once again. She applies lipstick, he smoothes his hair in the mirror, and then reveals a detail more telling than all the film’s lurid image blurring or odious water lapping. He pulls out a small plastic comb, a present, he says, from Megumi on the day before she disappeared, his birthday. “I carry it everywhere,” he says.