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Thursday, Nov. 23, 2006

'ABDUCTION: THE MEGUMI YOKOTA STORY'

Testimony to an unwavering love


Special to The Japan Times

My own stepbrother, a journalist and filmmaker, was kidnapped by militants in Iraq in August 2004. Within hours, friends and family sprang into action, mobilizing all possible forces -- government, journalists, NGOs and religious organizations -- to push for his release. We were lucky: He was released unharmed later that month.

News photo
Patty Kim (right), one of the directors of "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story," speaks with Sakie and Shigeru Yokota during the making of the documentary. (c)SAFARI MEDIA LLC 2006

Admittedly, the world is a more interconnected place now than it was in the 1970s, and Iraq is far more of a media circus than the frigid coasts of sleepy Niigata. But the fact that it took 25 years for the Japanese government to step up and try to resolve the kidnapping of 13-year-old Megumi Yokota -- taken by North Korean agents in 1977 -- remains hard to believe.

"Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story" is an excellent documentary on what has been the biggest news story in Japan these past few years, the rachi mondai (hostage problem) concerning the 13 young Japanese kidnapped by North Korea to teach Japanese language and customs to their spies (two of whom would go on to bomb a KAL airliner in 1987). Contrary to what you'd expect, the filmmakers are not Japanese, but NYC-based journalists and filmmakers Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim.

In an interview with The Japan Times, 37-year-old Sheridan explained how, not unlike Truman Capote with "In Cold Blood," it was a newspaper report that piqued their interest.

"Patty read a news article on it; it was right after Prime Minister Koizumi had gone to North Korea in 2002 for the first time, and that's when Kim Jong Il admitted that his spies had taken 13 people. Patty just turned to me and said 'read this.' We were totally shocked, because we knew nothing about this. Then when we did a little research, we found that one of the victims was a 13-year-old girl, and we were even more shocked by that. As we found out more about the story, it just kind of sucked us in even more. We just felt compelled to do a film on this story, because it had a huge political backdrop, but also this incredible human drama at the forefront, this little banker and a housewife who were caught up in espionage, international relations and historic tensions."

Sheridan is referring to the Yokotas, Megumi's parents Shigeru and Sakie, whose long, lonely battle to discover their daughter's fate lies at the center of the film. Anyone who's ever seen the Yokotas in any of the press conferences on Japanese TV dealing with the kidnapping issue could not help but be struck by their humility, warmth and obvious love for their daughter.

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News photo
Shooting footage of Shigeru and Sakie at the location where their daughter Megumi was abducted by North Korean agents in November 1977 (top); Megumi dressed for New Year celebrations in January 1977 (above); Megumi, Sakie and Megumi's two younger brothers at the Niigata coast in 1976 (below). (c)SAFARI MEDIA LLC 2006
News photo

Sheridan recalls that when he and Kim first met the Yokotas in July, 2004, "we really felt something for them in a very deep way. These really were just decent, honest, genuine people who were not looking for publicity or trying to score political points, but just get their daughter back. Patty and I knew from the moment we met them that this was the story."

Unlike media figures in the United States, the Yokotas, Sheridan notes with a laugh, had no entourage of public relations experts, makeup artists and handlers. Filming was often done in their apartment, and one of Sheridan's goals was to move beyond the formality of press conferences: "For Western audiences to get it, they had to see this family as humans, not political activists. We had to show them as regular people, doing normal things in private." The film does manage to capture a disarmingly intimate relationship with its subjects.

"Abduction" offers a concise, compelling look at the kidnapping story so far. It moves more or less chronologically, using soft-focus, faux-faded film to re-create Megumi's fateful walk home from school on that November day in 1977. It then employs old photographs and recollections of Megumi's school friends and family to build up a picture of the lost girl whose life was stolen from her. Sheridan points out that "the main character is not actually in the film, which presented its own unique challenges," but the viewer generally can get a sense of who she was. In the pre-home video '70s, the best direct documentation the directors have dug up is a cassette, a haunting recording of Megumi singing at a school recital.

The film has picked up awards and praise overseas, and it's clear that non-Japanese viewers are amazed by the twists and turns of the abduction story, which Sheridan and Kim suspensefully spool out. Sheridan admits that "the film is made for people who've never heard this story before. So, when you get to [the 2002 press conference] where the fate of the 13 is being revealed, people are sitting on the edge of their seats. When Megumi's face comes up and it says she's dead, you can hear a collective gasp in the audience. People are shocked. And I know it sounds funny to say, but we're really pleased with that reaction, because what it shows to us is that people are actually going through the experience that the Yokotas and the other abductees' families went through. They didn't know what was going to happen. They were told that Kim Jong Il was probably going to admit to (the kidnappings), but they didn't know the kicker, the fate of the 13 people. And they really didn't have any idea they'd be told some of them were dead."

Japan residents who remember the drama from 2002 as it unfolded on live TV, will be less drawn in to the "mystery" aspect of the doc. Nevertheless, it's interesting in other ways, namely the determination of the Yokotas and other abductee families to prod the country into action over the issue. Japan so often feels so politically apathetic and crushed by fatalistic shikata ga nai ("it can't be helped") attitudes, that it's truly a shock to see the Yokotas pushing petitions on pedestrians, or a gathering of the Kazoku-kai (Abductee Family Association) demonstrating outside the LDP headquarters, angrily shouting "baka yaro! (you're so stupid!)" -- surely something that should happen more frequently.

When asked what the Japanese reaction to the film has been so far, Sheridan describes a public screening where "people came out and they wanted to talk to us, and they were really angry. I don't mean that in a bad way, I mean, it was an anger like 'I can't believe I've never done anything about this, I've never said anything, I've never paid attention. But I'm definitely going to now.' We can only hope that it will help the families, but in a good way, because we don't want to stir up bad feelings."

But the bad feelings stirred up by the kidnappings, and the cynical use of this issue by certain nationalist politicians in Japan, is a point the film ignores at its peril. At one point in "Abduction," we see the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, standing next to his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi; the fact that Abe, the point man in demanding that North Korea return the abductees, is also the same guy who wants to erase all mention of "comfort women" -- the hundreds of thousands of women, many Korean, impressed into forced prostitution by the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II -- is an outrageous example of hypocrisy that "Abduction" fails to note.

Sheridan met Abe at a screening earlier this year and calls him "a really nice guy," while noting that his wife has become "a big supporter of the film. She actually came to see it in Los Angeles." When asked about Abe's position vis-a-vis Japan's history of kidnapping, Sheridan seems political, saying, "Obviously, there's an issue there that needs to be dealt with. But it's not really my place to wade into that."

Certainly there are those -- especially in South Korea -- who feel that nationalists in the Japanese government are deliberately prolonging the issue; that is, they are privately convinced that Yokota and the remaining hostages are dead, but publicly express doubt, to whip up national anger at a traditional enemy.

Sheridan doesn't discount this view, saying "what's sad about the whole thing are the families (of the kidnappees) who are caught in between, in this game being played by these two governments." He's quick to add, though, that "if North Korea wanted to, they could end this now." Referring to the altered death certificates and unidentifiable remains of the missing hostages that Kim Jong Il's government has provided to date, Sheridan says, "They say they've revealed the truth, but it's pretty hard to go on, because [the victims'] loved ones haven't been given any proof, except a card saying they're dead. There's no person, no family on this planet who would accept that as proof. It seems pretty sketchy to me. I think the families have good reasons to believe that their loved ones are still alive."

"Abduction," however, never solves the mystery of whether Megumi and the other missing abductees are dead or alive. Megumi's daughter, who she raised with her South Korean abductee husband in the North, states that her mother is dead. But who can know what pressures are brought to bear on her? And other defectors claim to have seen Megumi alive after her reported death. The truth is still unknown, but Sheridan points out that, "Certainly, there are five people in Japan right now (the abductees who were repatriated in 2002) who could definitely reveal more information, and the question is, why aren't they?" The fear of reprisals against friends and family still in Kim Jong Il's grasp is the unspoken answer.

Fortunately, the film's lasting impression is not that of the fluffy-haired "Dear Leader," but of the love and determination of the Yokotas to find their missing daughter. "It's a beautiful story," says Sheridan. "These two parents will not give up, and their affection for their children will go right to the grave with them. That's something the politicians and diplomats -- and even the general public -- often forget, that this is a personal thing for them. The film is not so much about the politics, as the victims of politics. It's about the everyday people who get caught in these disputes."

"Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story" opens November 25 at Cinema Gaga in Shibuya.


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