Before 9/11, before the 2004 Madrid train attacks and the '05 London Underground bombings, there was March 20, 1995, when members of a Japanese cult calling itself Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing a dozen people and injuring hundreds more. A year later, filmmaker Tatsuya Mori began work on A
, his study of the cult and its adherents. The result is not what one might expect. For one thing, Aum leader Shoko Asahara was already in custody, so while there are constant references to "the Master" and his teachings, he's never actually seen. You can also disregard the cover hype, which breathlessly describes the film as "a shocking profile of the demonic cult that held an entire nation in terror!" There's no denying the horror of the subway incidents, but the Aum members we meet are not demons; they are mostly timid, idealistic folks whose desire to escape the evils and earthly distractions of day to day society transcends their worship of Asahara, whom they realize will not be coming back (in fact, we witness a "leadership transfer" from the blind guru to two of his sons). Nor do they speak much about the sarin attack. For the most part, they spend their time trying to ward off bankruptcy, as well as the police (one of whom feigns injury in an attempt to put a member in jail), the angry, suspicious locals, and the relentless intrusions of the media. Much of this is left up to Aum spokesman Hiroshi Araki, a decent young man who's a little out of his depth but skilled in the art of Japanese negotiation, where "yes" and "maybe" are usually tantamount to "no." Mori shot his documentary in cinema verite
style--it's just him and a single hand-held camera--and while he's adept at asking provocative questions, A
is quite long (136 minutes) and often uneventful. Still, Mori's access to Aum (now known as Aleph) was unlimited, which makes for some fascinating moments. Here's hoping for further insights from his sequel, A2
. --Sam Graham
From the Studio
Shot over a period of two years, and with unprecedented access to the Aum sect accused of mass killing with poison gas in the Tokyo subway, this astonishing documentary by Tatsuya Mori offers a complex view of subjects as diverse as personal responsibility, public responses to terrorism, surveillance, andindividual rights. "A startlingly frank and disarmingly relaxed look at a group many people believe is the Devil's Own" (Japan Times). In Japanese with English subtitles. Tatsuya Mori---Japan---1998---136 mins.