On March 20, 1995 members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult unleashed sarin gas inside five different subway cars in the Tokyo subway system, making headlines around the world, injuring thousands of people, and killing twelve others. This was big news all over the world and the normally peaceful Japanese society was shocked to see this happen. This put the spotlight on the cult and it's leader, Asahara Shoko, who was brought in on charges and subsequently convicted and sentenced to death (he appealed but his appeal was rejected).
While the trial was going on, Japanese documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori secured permission from cult's public relations/media contact, Araki Hiroshi, to film the cult members inside the commune where they lived. With almost completely unrestricted access to the followers, the resulting film, simply titled A, manages to provide a very unusual and very private look at some of the people involved in the cult as it was all hitting the fan, so to speak.
Through interviews and day to day footage of the cult members going about their business peacefully and contently it almost seems wrong to associate them with the other members who were responsible for the sarin attack, but it is the same group and their beliefs are twisted enough to be able to justify what happened, stating that the 'master' has been incarcerated on purpose, he did it to test their faith – not because he was a lunatic or essentially involved in a terrorist plot. At times a few cult members are able to logically explain their theology, other times it seems that they're just spouting rhetoric, almost as if they've been brain washed or are under the influence of drugs.
There's some truly unsettling footage contained in here, they kind you likely wouldn't have seen on the news while all of this was a hot international item in papers and on television. A press conference in which Shoko's daughter announces that her two younger brothers, both of whom are still children, have been appointed as the new leaders of Aum. From there we cut to a member watching video taped footage of the two boys playing and praying and chanting, a look of complete awe on his face as he tells the camera how completely spiritual the footage is and that it's so much more than simple a video of two kids in strange outfits doing what kids are apt to do.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there's also some startling footage where the cult members find themselves the victims of some underhanded tactics from the police and some pressure from local residents. In one scene a cult member is stopped by the cops for no apparent reason and when he doesn't give them his name, he's tackled to the ground and his head slaps against the pavement. Of course, the police say he was running from them but the footage certainly makes a case against their position. From there, we see Araki talking with some of the people who live near him, they tell him to get a real job, to grow up, work hard and try to become a manager. It's interesting to watch him passively dismiss her remarks and almost appear apologetic for his stance, and contrast it to how he appears while dealing with the press. Here he's very firm, he stands his ground and doesn't back down regardless of how much pressure TV Asahi or any of the other news organizations put on him. He screens everyone who asks for an interview and has others collaborate on whether or not their requests are to be approved or not, and he's quite rigid, showing an interesting duality to his personality.
Unfortunately, there are scenes in the movie that just go on way too long or that don't seem to serve much purpose such as when Araki shows up to speak at a press conference with sandals on. These could have been left as deleted scenes or taken out entirely to give the film a tighter structure, and the fact that there is no narrative context or background information given on the cult or the events leading up to this documentary might make it a little inaccessible to some western viewers not familiar with the details of the case or of the Aum cult.
Thankfully, the good out weighs the bad here. Tatsuya Mori has created an interesting movie that doesn't point fingers or really judge anyone, it simply lets us see inside their lives. At times the cult members are completely sympathetic – there didn't appear to be a reason for the cops to take that member down, but they did and he was arrested – other times, they're flat out scary. Most of us live within the confines of what we would consider 'normal' society, whereas the Aum cultists do not, they've removed themselves as much as they can from the world, from financial woes, from simple earthly pleasures such as fancy food or sex. If this works for them, and it doesn't harm anyone, is it really wrong? Ultimately this is the question that the movie asks and it's one worth pondering. Obviously the sarin gas attacks were a horrible event but Tatsuya Mori shows us that not all affiliated with the Aum cult are monsters, they may not even be as misguided as we think.
The documentary was shot over a prolonged period on video and so it doesn't look as good as something shot on film would, but all things considered the quality isn't bad. There are a few spots where the lighting isn't so hot or the picture gets a bit soft but overall everything is at least perfectly watchable – this looks like the type of material you'd see on the evening news, it's shot fast and as the events are happening which doesn't leave a lot of time to prepare or to create ideal conditions. Given that, A looks good enough.
The material was all shot in Japanese which is how it is presented on this solitary Dolby Digital Stereo track, and non-removable English subtitles are supplied. There are a couple of typos here and there and there are also a few things that the subs don't translate (book covers, newscasts, and chanting) which is slightly annoying but at least the core dialogue and the core discussions are covered well enough to ensure that we know what's going on.
The disc includes chapter selection and trailers for the feature and it's sequel, A2. Inside the keepcase are a few pages of liner notes and a brief biography of the director that explain the basic origins of the Aum Shinrikyo organization which lends some much needed context to the documentary.
While the presentation is a little on the disjointed side, A is a pretty interesting fly-on-the-wall look at a genuinely strange group that exists in Japan to this day. Light on extras and hardly an Earth shattering presentation, the material looks and sounds about as good as you'd expect it to given the circumstances. Recommended for enthusiasts of oddball documentaries, a strong rental for the rest of us.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.