The Aum Shinrikyo cult, responsible for a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 that injured over a thousand people including mortally wounding and killing several, has been a bit of a fascination of mine. Cults like Waco, Heavens Gate, and Jim Jones became notorious for their self destruction, their mass suicide due to outside pressure and internal beliefs. Aum Shinrikyo though, staged an attack, one that was a small part political and a very large part spiritual.
Aum Shinrikyo was created in the mid-80's by a guru called Asahara. He was the wellspring of their beliefs, a maligned mix of Buddhist philosophies combined with some new age mysticism. The blind former yoga instructor established himself as a divine figure, something beyond a man. He claimed to have received enlightenment in the Himalayas and lied about undergoing DNA tests that revealed he had unique DNA. At the time of the gas attacks, the cult's number was roughly estimated at around 10,000 members of various degrees- a select number actually close to Asahara, scattered groups of those ‟in training‟, and a majority in a sort of satellite state, including residence outside Japan in the US and Europe. Because of this disparate tiered system of membership, many Aum Shinriku flowers were left puzzled and hesitant to fully believe that they and their guru perpetuated the attacks. There were enough of them who didnt ask any questions and did as they were told, some who knew the doomsday plot, but the majority were clueless about the manufacture of chemical weapons and Asahara's plot.
Following teh attacks, the Japanese public was obviously in a panic, feeling like Aum Shinrikyo was a wolf within their midst. The group had courted controversy before, from public protests, to members trying to get political seats, to reports of members holding other members hostage and the disappearance of the lawyer who handled cases filed by family members who felt their sons daughters, etc were being held against their will. To understand the secretive nature of the group, why outsiders knew so little and why many cult members were unaware of the groups doomsday activities, lies in Aum's belief that suffering is connected to desires. Therefore, the members were encouraged to lead lives separated from ego, family, significant others and the opposite sex in general, so they lead very basic existence, meditating, in little to large group compounds, eating rudimentary meals of vegetable protein paste and rice and not much more.
Originally started as a tv project then gone indie when he disagreed with producers, director Tatsuya Mori filmed A (1998) from March to December 1996 with a April of 1997 coda. With the key Sarin gas attack perpetrator's trails starting up, these were days when the cult was under intense scrutiny by the media. Mori was granted access inside the cult's main base of operation and the man who would be come the focus of the doc, Aum spokesperson Hiroshi Araki.
Araki is a slight young man (I think the doc said he was 28?), bespeckled, thin, and as we learn later still a virgin (which means if adheres to Aum's beliefs of suppressing sexual desire and keeping the sexes apart, he may never have sex). Though he appears to be a mouse of a man, he is clearly a careful, considerate thinker and well-suited to the job as Aum deputy spokesperson, a job that at the time had been held by a few members who quit because they couldn't deal with the pressure.
Film maker Mori found himself in a situation not uncommon with documentary film makers in the modern era, actually becoming a part of his study. Like Berlinger and Sinofsky in Paradise Lost, or Broomfield in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Mori captured footage that took him out of an objective viewpoint and made him a part of the film beyond an anonymous interview voice. The scene in question was on a city street where a handful of cult members, including Araki, have been stopped by the police. The cops huff and puff and make a scene over the cult members refusing to be searched or give over their names. One cult member dealing with the most blustery cop just tries to keep walking and as a result he and the policeman tumble onto the ground.
The cult member was arrested, charged with some vague resisting arrest or possible assault charge because the cop who fell instantly and, to my eyes, overacted like he was hurt. Mori's tape of course, is a key to getting the cult member aquitted. It shows the police report of their behavior being suspicious or forceful as false and also shows the police making several bald face lies, including illegally searching through the downed cult members pockets trying to get at his ID.
Rather than surmize the film here, I'll do so in my review for the scond film which is pretty much a continuation of this film. A link to that review is at the bottom of this review.
The DVD: Facets
Picture: Full-screen, standard. Really not much to critique. The doc was made on video. Not particularly high definition video either, pretty basic tape, probably just a notch or two above your families old camcorder home vids.
Sound: 2-channel Japanese language with English subtitles. Like the video, pretty simple stuff. Transfer gets the job done and the subs are excellent.
Extras: Trailers for A and A2. -- Liner Notes.
Conclusion: A very interesting documentary with a peculiar, and singularly humanizing point of view of a multi-faceted, controversial subject. I recommend it for doc film lovers and those interested in the subject matter. The sequel A2 is also essential viewing.