To chart the unusual case of a 13-year-old Japanese girl who went missing in 1977, filmmakers Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim take a slightly different approach to the typical talking-heads documentary. Segueing at about the halfway mark from exotic expose to human interest story, the careful construction plays as something of a televisual mash-up (perhaps unsurprising given the husband-and-wife filmmakers’ lengthy histories working in the field), engaging and fraught with both the perils and potential such a juxtaposition would suggest.
The film begins with immediate, heart-grabbing empathy as an elderly man opines from a hospital bed, direct to camera: “I can no longer come and get you.” From the powerful background silence of this declaration, a near wall-to-wall soundtrack, heavily composed of propulsive taiko drumbeats, moves in to heighten the suspense; a long 20 years after her disappearance it’s discovered that Megumi was kidnapped by North Korean spies. Her story stands out among others (the Pyongyang government admits to taking a total of 13 Japanese citizens) because of her young age; interested in learning the language and culture so that they might pass for Japanese when on missions around the world, the North Korean agents targeted adults. Fascinating facts by themselves, these revelations are undercut by the occasional “America’s Most Wanted” moment of swishy camera movements meant to convey an abstract recreation of the abduction. But, strangely, the occasional returns to the same few photos of Megumi – also par for the course – grow more affecting than generic, poignantly showing so little evidence of her short existence prior to her disappearance.
Details divulged, the doc settles down from headline-blaring thriller to humanist exploration as the filmmakers elucidate the transformation of Sakie and Shigeru Yokota from devoted parents to activists. Along with other relatives of kidnapped loved ones, they mobilize and inspire the Japanese government to take action in their negotiations with North Korea, and the sensationalistic nature of the story falls away to reveal the core: a portrait of unswerving parental love. The unembellished moments evoke the most emotion, as when Sakie and Shigeru attempt to hand out flyers about “the abduction issue” to passersby on the street, only to be ignored like any average hawker in any other big city in the world; or when Sakie looks back on her early fear that Megumi might have run away and offers the plaintive assessment, “I’m not perfect. I wondered if I failed her. Or there was something I didn’t know about her.” Spanning material from 30 years, the passage of time evident in the increasingly weathered and flagging but unfaltering countenances of Megumi’s parents says more than they can.
Ultimately, the Yokotas remain symbols of suffering and endurance: Beyond the stoic selves they present at press conferences and rallies, or to Sheridan and Kim’s camera in interviews, how do these amazing human beings function day-to-day under the stress of such loss? A brief parenthetical moment beckons: As they get ready for a public appearance, Shigeru combs his hair and adjusts his tie while Sakie puts on lipstick, and they bicker over a comment she makes to a reporter on the phone. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, yet this is the only true crack we see in their armor – and it may be the most enlightening inclusion.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]