There are documentaries in which the skill and technique of the filmmakers overshadows the subject matter. I think of When We Were Kings, the Mohammed Ali documentary, as one of these, as I loved the story even though I have no interest in boxing. But there are other documentaries in which the subject is so overpowering that it overshadows the art of the film itself. Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story falls into this category.
It is the unbelievable but true story of a normal Japanese family that was torn apart when their 13-year-old daughter Megumi didn’t come home from after-school badminton practice. Her parents never gave up searching for her and hoping for her return, until they learned a grave truth 20 years later: their daughter was abducted by North Korean spies, spirited away to the closed countries, and forced to teach Japanese language to North Korean spies. The story takes one unexpected turn after another, but the Yokotas never give up their fight to meet their daughter again, standing on street corners and collecting signatures. Megumi’s mother transforms from an average housewife into a tireless political activist, meeting with top leaders in Japan and the US.
The story is close to me, as I was living in Japan in 2002, which Kim Jong-il made the surprising announcement that North Korea had in fact abducted Japanese citizens, including Megumi Yokota, and the story was in the news constantly. Today, Megumi Yokota’s name is still very much in the news, as a South Korean newspaper has just published a report of woman living Pyongyang with Megumi’s birthdate, and daughter of the same age. Her parents, who are now approaching their 80s, have just appeared at a rally to repeat their belief that their daughter is still alive. As I watching, I realized that tomorrow is the 34th anniversary of Megumi’s abduction, which only served to make watching the documentary all the more sad.
As a film, Abduction is powerful and emotional, but also uneven. The filmmakers make a wise decision to tell everything from the eyes of Megumi’s parents, as all they have of Megumi are some still photographs. But a times the narrative structure is a bit sloppy. Much of the film is put together through archival footage taken from Japanese TV, which makes the shakily shot new footage shot cheaply by the directors. And I found the soundtrack music a bit, well, cheesy at times. But it is still a very powerful documentary. It does not offer anything in terms of closure for the viewer, or for Megumi’s parents, who at the close of the film, and earlier this week in the news, believe their daughter is alive. This is what makes the film so haunting, despite some of its technical shortcomings..