By Bryan Newbury
January 2, 2008
Near the end of January 2002, President Bush delivered a speech, and within it a line, that would shape the American psyche for some years to come. By declaring an “Axis of Evil,” the groundwork was laid for a public to be motivated by fear and hyperbole. Were it not for a number of brave people, make no mistake that the United States would be bombing Iran as this is written. Of course, the Iranians haven’t the capability – likely, they don’t have the desire – to manufacture a nuclear weapon. Even if they did, they would be unable to detonate the device anywhere near American soil, unless one counts the colony of Iraq. That hasn’t stopped us before.
As with most of the foreign policy posturing in the last six years, the exaggerations and bad faith declarations serve to obscure tangible threats to our republic and the world. One of the Axis members who has spent the last five years under the radar (insert physicality pun here) is the nation led by esteemed filmmaker, librettist and cargo jacket model Kim Jong Il.
North Korea is about as poor as it gets. One can imagine a joke going around Pyongyang that provides a punch line like “It’s all for the best, we haven’t the power to cook it.” It is a nation shrouded in mystery, one that seems to get weirder with every bit of information about it. Those who have seen Team America: World Police might have scoffed at the diminutive arch villain, scurrying about and screaming about his “pran.” As it turns out, Kim is stranger than fiction, and if anything, Messrs. Parker and Stone did intensive research. In a world that has largely left the Cold War behind, North Korea, it could be argued, exists primarily so John le Carré never runs the risk of running out of plots. Collusion with the Taliban is less of a stretch when one considers the story of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese schoolgirl abducted some thirty years ago by a North Korean spy.
On 15 November, 1977, Sakie Yokota experienced every parent’s worst nightmare. It was near dinnertime, and her thirteen year old daughter had not made it home. Possibly she was at badminton. One can still see the sinking feeling on Sakie’s face when she retells the moment that she entered the empty gymnasium.
Niigata, Japan doesn’t strike a person as a hotbed for crime. Even in the midst of an abduction outbreak, a parent of a young girl would be quite paranoid to fear this fate. There was a pattern of abductions in Japan during the time, but the missing were all young adult couples. As the story unravels, in all of its heart shattering detail, we find out that Megumi’s nabbing was a mistake by an overzealous spy. Even while a Sankei newspaper reporter was connecting the dots within the abduction outbreak, it was doubted whether Megumi was a part of the pattern. Possibly she was a runaway.
Throughout Abduction, the theme of international intrigue is punctuated with that of the grieving parents, none of whom are more distressed than the Yokotas. While the other parents profiled all embody a personal tragedy worthy of Greek drama, Megumi’s parents have the added injury of being unsure, for a time, about just what has happened. In one unforgettable scene, Sakie appears on television, pleading with her missing daughter. Whatever she has done to wrong her, the mother exclaims through her wails and tears, she will endeavor to make it up. The ambiguity of Megumi’s fate, and the struggle of her family to come to grips with it, provides a counterpoint that makes the film engrossing and harrowing to the point of despair.
As we navigate the personal travails of Shigeru and Sakie Yokota, who are undaunted after thirty years, Abduction profiles other victims of North Korea’s plot. We learn that the purpose of the kidnappings was to prepare North Korean operatives to pose as Japanese citizens while they engage in all manner of intrigue. An, a North Korean defector and former spy, provides testimony about Megumi’s condition from that day in 1977 onward (the resolution of Megumi’s disappearance is little comfort to her family – there are things a person would rather not know) as well as a glimpse into the bizarre workings of the North Korean state.
The condition of Japan itself interweaves within the narrative. Once the tales of abduction and internment change from suspicions to concrete fact, Japan finds itself in a tough spot. What is a country to do, considering there are no military options available and the party they must deal with is not exactly known for diplomacy? The parents of the missing push their leaders, even run for office when their voice goes unheard. In another unforgettable scene (it is difficult to avoid repeating that phrase, as Abduction is replete with them) we see the families protesting in front of a building housing their representatives. What transpires is either a stereotype destroyer par excellence or a singular vision of the anger only love can inspire. As the families speak through megaphones and chant to their leaders, the monologues are littered with profanities that belie the representation of the Japanese as orderly and demurring.
Eventually, the Japanese government is forced into action, largely as a result of the efforts of the parents. Prime Minister Koizumi visits in 2002, holding the carrot of food relief. The visit is relatively successful.
To elaborate here would do a disservice to the skillful way in which Sheridan and Kim lace Abduction with palpable suspense. In a story filled with every element a viewer could desire, the twist that occurs following Koizumi’s return is worthy of Sophocles. A mystery begins to unravel, and the work continues for many of the families, the Yokotas included.
If Abduction were a work of fiction, it would doubtless be a feature film that, in capable hands, reached towards a labyrinthine epic. As a documentary, it satisfies the same needs of the audience, though the medium doesn’t allow for the kind of climax a playwright might include. This climax, and its eventual denouement, might not ever be revealed. While the film is profoundly satisfying, this reviewer hopes for another installment. If Megumi Yokota ever returns to Japan… which, at the end of the film, seems the biggest of “ifs”… the details she could provide would be nothing short of astonishing. The type of resolution which the viewer desires and the Yokotas yearn for may never come to pass, but it is a safe bet that anyone who has seen Abduction will keep an eye on the story until a satisfactory conclusion arises.
Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story
Written, Produced & Directed by Chris Sheridan & Patty Kim
Color, 86 minutes, 2007