TOKYO — Marine 1st Lt. Cole Johns’ dreams of reuniting with his children were dashed after he met filmmakers David Hearn and Matt Antell last year.

He last saw his two young sons, Tetsuaki and Takeshi, in March 2007 before he deployed to Iraq. A few months later, Johns said, his Japanese ex-wife took them to Japan and cut off communication.

He clung to hope that the court order he was granted would resolve the issue.

"I kept saying, ‘I’m an American with a U.S. court order, I’ll be able to get them back,’ " said Johns, 29, an infantry officer stationed in Hawaii.

That prospect faded after Hearn and Antell interviewed him for their documentary "From the Shadows." The film chronicles parents who have been cut off from their children living in Japan by the country’s family court system, which does not recognize foreign custody orders and favors sole-custody divorce customs that typically grant guardianship to mothers.

Johns said that after the filmmakers interviewed him and he connected with others facing similar custody issues in Japan, it became clear he was powerless.

"That’s when it hit me," said Johns, who met his wife in 1999 while stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. The realization was like "a slow poison drip."

Johns is one of about 25 left-behind parents whom Hearn and Antell interviewed. The documentary also chronicles Japanese parents fighting to change family law in Japan, which is equally dysfunctional in domestic and foreign cases.

"There’s a growing number of Japanese unhappy with the system," Antell said. "I don’t think it represents the modern view of marriage now."

The arrest last month of Tennessee resident Christopher Savoie by Japanese police catapulted the issue into the mainstream media. After spending 18 days in jail, Savoie, who was charged with abducting his two children after his Japanese ex-wife allegedly took them from their U.S. home to Japan, was released Thursday.

"From the Shadows" could end on a dramatic note depending on how the Savoie story plays out in Japanese courts over the next few weeks. The film wraps in December and will then be submitted to film festivals.

Either way, Hearn, who lives in Tokyo, and Antell, a Los Angeles resident, are counting on the wave of recent media attention to help generate interest in the film, which they began making in 2006.

The news coverage "proves we’ve chosen well and that there’s good reason to be making this," he said.

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