Between 1977 and 1983, the North Korean government kidnapped dozens of Japanese citizens and brought them back to North Korea, allegedly to train their spies to "act Japanese." For almost two decades, until an investigative journalist broke the story in 1997, most of the abductees' families were told that their loved ones were likely runaways or random murder victims. After the truth came out, they were told that little could be done without jeopardizing the normalization of relations between the two countries. In fact, when North Korea allowed five of the abductees to return to Japan in 2002, it was with the understanding that they'd be coming right back. (To its credit, the Japanese government voided this agreement almost as soon as the abductees' plane touched down.)
This is a fascinating, underreported piece of recent world history, but Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan's documentary Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story doesn't do it full justice. By focusing almost exclusively on the youngest (and one of the earliest) of the abductees, Kim and Sheridan have the advantage of starting with a small-scaled mystery, then ranging into a sprawling political story. But along the way, their obvious sympathy for the Yokota family costs them the objectivity needed to analyze what this story might mean. Kim and Sheridan begin with some ill-advised crime-scene re-enactments—complete with tasteless J-horror-style music and effects—and while they later observe how some ordinarily staid people can be emotionally wrecked by a horrible crime, they mostly stay in the realm of righteous anger, playing on the audience's enlightened sense of justice.Abduction is best when its subjects get more specific about how they're feeling, beyond "outraged." Early on, Mrs. Yokota says she feels like "we live in a movie," and after advocating for their daughter in the media for years and years, it's clear she's begun to lose touch with the actual 13-year-old girl who disappeared in 1977, as opposed to the simplified stories she keeps repeating. At one point, Mrs. Yokota admits she can't even remember whether Megumi had dimples. But Kim and Sheridan don't probe that disconnect, nor do they ask any of the returned abductees if they ever felt like their families and government had forgotten them. Instead, Abduction relies on evocative but incomplete excerpts from the abductees' press conferences, where, with typical Japanese reserve, they bow their heads and apologize to the nation for "making you worry for so long." This movie shouldn't have been about the worry, but about the apology.