On the surface, the story of Atsumi Yoshikubo’s disappearance is quite compelling. It’s set in remote and beautiful locales. There’s an inherent mystery to it. And when I took it up, I didn’t know how it was going to end as some of the key facts of the case hadn’t been adequately substantiated. I knew there was a beginning. I knew there was a bizarre twist. But had little idea of what happened next or what initially led this Japanese tourist to come to Yellowknife with a plan to disappear — as the RCMP determined.
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As I got deeper into my research through talking to people close to the story, or who covered it in the media, or encountered Atsumi while she was in Yellowknife, I realized there was much more to the ‘story’ than what had been reported. But what intrigued me wasn’t just the unusual circumstances of the case or that so many questions remained unanswered, I was struck by the nature of the story itself.
"Even if we never truly know what happened to Atsumi Yoshikubo, maybe we can better understand her journey and where she came from, and find a more settling conclusion."
When the RCMP announced that Atsumi Yoshikubo had “arrived in Yellowknife with a plan to go into the wilderness alone and become a missing person,” and that she took steps towards not being found, it left many people in Yellowknife scratching their heads. I remember my own reaction when I read that news on November 4, 2014. My jaw hit the floor. People don’t go missing on purpose. And especially in North. It was something that neither I, nor the people of Yellowknife could make sense of. But the RCMP offered no further comment. Nothing to dispel the rumours or give comfort to the small town of 20,000 who were gripped and devastated by Atsumi’s disappearance. Maybe there was nothing else the RCMP could say, but still. How do you get closure when there’s seemingly none to be had and the authorities refuse to answer any further questions?
It made me think about the ways in which we experience missing person stories, and the critical role the news media plays in interpreting these stories and relaying information to the public. No matter how we consume the news – TV, radio, newspapers, social media – the media is our connection to these stories, and through that filter we often develop genuine concern and attachments to the missing. Of course, the media’s primary source of information for these stories is typically the authorities, herein the RCMP. I started thinking more about how Atsumi’s disappearance played out in the media and wondering, what happens in a story like this when there’s an absence of information? Few concrete conclusions and many questions unanswered. The answer is simple: it breeds speculation, and it makes it very difficult to find closure. And that’s what’s exactly what happened here.
Out of that observation came the driving force and central theme of the film. Even if we never truly know what happened to Atsumi Yoshikubo, maybe we can better understand her journey and where she came from, and find a more settling conclusion. What I discovered in the end was much more than I anticipated.
Before I started filming, a conscious decision was made to situate the viewer in the position of someone experiencing the story as it unfolded, and tell it in a purely linear fashion, revealing facts from the missing person investigation only as they were available at the time. It felt disingenuous to cloud that part of the story with new details about the search that weren’t related to the bigger theme in the film. And I didn’t question the sincerity or quality of the RCMP’s search anyway. I focused on the areas where I could add context – in Japan where I interviewed Atsumi’s brother, a childhood friend, a pair of former colleagues, a patient, and a few others not included in the film – and back in Yellowknife, where I was granted the first and only interview with the lead investigator from the RCMP.
Through it all, the hours of interviews and days shooting in Yellowknife, Tokyo, Kumamoto, and elsewhere in Canada, a path to closure emerged. My hope is that those who cared for Atsumi and followed her story in Yellowknife, Japan and around the world can find comfort in the remembrances in the film, and further closure through the new light that the documentary casts on this tragic story.