The recent 2-disc release from Facets entitled Tales of a Terror Cult: A/A2 is actually a bundled rerelease of two documentaries from Japanese director Tatsuya Mori made in cooperation with the Aum Shinrikyo cult in the wake of the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. The first of the two documentaries, A, began filming exactly one year after the attacks. Aum Shinrikyo is in utter disarray following the arrest the previous year of 150 members including nearly all the group's leadership. It's unclear how many of the estimated 9000 members in Japan and 40,000 worldwide abandoned Aum in the aftermath of the attacks, but it is clear that those remaining are much reduced in number and still in shock when filming commences.
Mori doesn't use his extraordinary access to Aum to probe the sect's history or theology or the motivations of those behind the attacks. Instead he delivers an eye-witness account of what it was like to be on the inside of the most despised group in Japan. The principal documentary figure for A is Hiroshi Araki, a young Aum member suddenly elevated to the role of public relations spokesperson after the arrest of his well-known and charismatic predecessor on a minor charge.
Araki is under extraordinary pressure throughout the two years of filming. Aum Shinrikyo's property and other assets are being liquidated by a bankruptcy court, the group is all but leaderless, and there's been no decision on whether the group should accept responsibility for the conduct of its former leadership and offer an apology or merely distance itself from the attacks. Meanwhile the group is the subject of an intense media frenzy, and is both suffering police harassment and beholding to the police for protection from ultra right-wing nationalists bent on vigilante retribution. Amidst this, the introverted and frail Araki muddles through fending off manipulative reporters, angry protesters, and abusive cops as best he can, though he is clearly in over his head.
Mori who begins as a disinterested observer becomes part of the story when his footage of a plainclothes policeman throwing a cultist to the ground and then claiming assault is used as evidence to exonerate the wrongly accused. As filming for A continued into a second year, Mori is more often seen on camera as a welcomed confidant of Araki and the other members. This camaraderie is even more pronounced in the follow-up documentary A2 which Mori began in October 2000 in the wake of a national anti-Aum law requiring the sect to submit a list of its members and assets to authorities.
A2 presents a much wider circle of cultists. The immediate shock is past, but the pressure on the group remains intense. Throughout Japan, residences operated by Aum Shinrikyo (renamed Aleph) are subject to protests. In some locales, the cultists give up and move, but in others they outlast their opponents, and in at least one instance turn hostile locals into grudging well-wishers.
Tatsuya Mori intended A and A2 for Japanese television, but to date no Japanese network has aired them, presumably because they expose the gross mischaracterizations and manipulations committed by the media, abuses by the police, and the ugly, threatening behavior of anti-Aum protesters, collectively showing the establishment in a bad light.
Tales of a Terror Cult: A/A2 from Facets consists of the individual DVD releases of A and A2 packaged together with a cardboard band at a reduced MSRP over purchasing the titles individually.
A and A2 were both shot on full-frame (1.33:1) analog video with A2 looking somewhat better than A, but neither looking especially good. Video noise and soft focus are the most pressing problems, but color and contrast are also less than ideal.
English subtitles are forced.
The 2.0 DD Japanese audio sounds acceptable given the circumstances of shooting a documentary of this kind. There's no dynamism and some distortion, but most of the dialogue is at least audible.
Each disc is accompanied by a cheap mimeographed booklet and both discs include identical original Japanese language trailers for A and A2 without English translation.
As insightful and engrossing as Mori's eyewitness account is at times, it's also frequently tedious and repetitious. With a collective runtime of 4.5 hours, Tales of a Terror Cult: A/A2 is exhausting. Mori's decision to leave in repetitious and trivial details like walking up stairs, eating, and silent introspection may have served to further the purpose of having the viewer identify with the ordinariness of his documentary subjects, but it can also severely tax the viewer's attention. The net result is that these documentaries are worth viewing once, but probably not a second time.