your statement about the film, you mentioned that your own family
history drew your attention to this story. Could you elaborate a little
more on this history?
I think my family background is only one of the reasons why I wanted
to do this story. During the Korean War, the North Korean side used
to kidnap civilians and use them as human couriers to transport
their artillery to secret locations and then kill them. My grandfather
happened to be one of the unlucky civilians who was captured in
the winter of 1951. A couple of days later he was lined up to be
shot, but he just collapsed because he was so frightened, and the
other men fell on top of him and he didn’t breath and didn’t
move and somehow lived to tell the tale.
But if I hadn’t
been Korean and that hadn’t happened to my grandfather, I
think I still would have made this film. What really drew me to
this story is that the families are not unlike my parents. The Arimotos
for example, they’re about the same age and they didn’t
really want their daughter Keiko to go overseas because they were
concerned [for her safety]. That’s exactly what my parents
were like! They would say what I thought were ridiculous things,
like you might get kidnapped, or robbed, or killed if you go overseas
and I used to think they’re very paranoid… I was really
emotionally drawn to the family stories, because they’re just
ordinary people who’ve been drawn together by these extraordinary
you first had the idea to make this documentary, it was before North
Korea admitted to the abductions in 2002. How did this and subsequent
events affect your concept for the film?
I think one of the biggest
challenges with this project is that there are many families, and
it’s a complex issue which is constantly evolving and developing,
so you’re trying to keep up with what’s happening, but
at the same time you’ve only got an hour to make the film. And
it’s a documentary, so you’re not necessarily wanting
to report on what’s just happened, you’re trying to tell
|Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi meets North
Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang 2002.
the time I first began researching the story, I had no idea how
fascinating it was. Even the little clues that begin to emerge,
they’re significant but they’re just little fragments,
we still don’t really know the truth. The whole thing is a
mystery, so we tried not to make the film say this is what happened,
and have a clean ending.
Why did you pick the particular
families focussed on in the film?
I met most of the families of the thirteen confirmed abduction
victims, but I think it was really those three families –
the Arimotos, Chimuras and Yokotas – who I felt most emotionally
connected to and passionate about their stories. What I found interesting
is that the families are similar in that they’re all ordinary
people, but then they’re also a little bit different. Mr Chimura
lives in the countryside, and the Yokotas are perhaps a little bit
more middle class, and the Arimotos are working class, but all with
the same ideals of bringing up a happy family.
I thought it was interesting how these individual families from
all different parts of Japan were brought together by these extraordinary
circumstances. And after Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to
North Korea [in 2002] and with the subsequent events, their journeys
end up in different places. So I wanted to explore that in the film.
|Megumi Yokota’s parents campaign to raise
awareness and pressure the government on the abduction
The families seem to have really
supported each other a lot, especially since they formed the Association
of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea. Is that something
Yes, for a couple of decades they were all struggling on their
own, and for a long time they didn’t realise there were all
these other families going through the same thing. I think when
they all finally met, they felt very close to one another because
of their shared experience.
Arimotos tried to form a families association back [in the early
1990s], but no one wanted to form one at that point, because they
were worried about going public. But by the late 1990s, they really
didn’t have many other options, it was either be silent, or
speak up and hope that something good will come of it.
did the families feel about sharing their stories?
By the time I got to film them, they were very media-savvy. They’re
highly experienced media personalities. And I think that all the
families were very keen for this story to be told to a non-Japanese
audience, because it’s a huge issue in Japan but they want
the world to know about it. Mostly they were very forthcoming and
welcoming, in a very formal Japanese way!
It was actually
really difficult to book in time with the families because they’re
all so busy. We were at the Yokota’s place one day, and the
phone continuously rings, faxes are continuously coming in, their
dining room table is piled with newspaper clippings. They work full
time on this issue. And of course we weren’t the only ones
who wanted to interview them.
me more about how the families have gone in different directions,
especially after the 2002 announcement...
In the events leading up
to Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to North Korea in 2002, I
think all the families were fighting with the belief that their children
were still alive in North Korea. I don’t think anyone really
anticipated the news [that eight abductees had died]. So once the
September 17 summit occurred, the families were still united as an
association, but their priorities were different. For the families
whose children were alive, their priority was to get their children
back to Japan, and once they returned to Japan, to get their grandchildren
back. And for the families whose children were allegedly dead, their
priority was to find out more information. They eventually came to
the conclusion, due to lack of information or suspicious information,
that their children may still be alive.
other thing that was interesting was the way that this issue had come
to be very political and is used by some political activists to call
for Japan’s remilitarisation and so on. Was this perspective
something you originally set out to include?
|Japanese abductee Yasushi Chimura is reunited
with his father in October 2002
I wanted to make a film
about these ordinary families in this really extraordinary situation.
I didn’t set out to make a film about North East Asian politics.
But I think the contextualisation of the story politically and historically
is important to make it something that Western audiences can relate
to and understand. It’s very difficult to make a film about
this story without somehow exploring the broader picture and what
it means for relations between Japan and North Korea.
there a sense that the families had been caught up, perhaps reluctantly,
in a wider political agenda?
For years the families
were ignored by the media, by the politicians, by the government,
because their claims just seemed too bizarre, that their children
have been abducted by North Korean spies. But it turned out to be
true. So I think the relationship between the political agitators
and the families has been a very important one, because without
them, the families might still be struggling on their own.
do you see as the main message you hope audiences will receive from
I’m always drawn
to stories about the underdog. I think that in all these big geopolitical
events it’s the little people that get forgotten, but I think
in this story there’s a twist. The abductees families have
got a lot of influence in Japan and so they’ve gone from ordinary
people suffering on their own to these big media personalities with
a bit of political pull.
To sum it up in a line,
I think the main message is ordinary people caught up in this amazing,
extraordinary circumstance and how people cope with that.
This is definitely one
of those ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ kind of stories.
But I hope it’s an interesting and coherent story that people
can follow. And people will definitely be left with more questions.