Aum Shinrikyo, the Buddhist sect led by Shoko Asahara and responsible for the 1995 Sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway, becomes the subject of this documentary.

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Roughly chronological, from 3/96 to 11/96, with a coda in spring of 1997: inside compounds of Aum Shinrikyo, a new religious movement led by Shoko Asahara. (Members confessed to a murderous sarin attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995.) We see what they eat, where they sleep, and how they respond to media scrutiny, on-going trials, the shrinking of their fortunes, and the criticism of society. Central focus is on Hiroshi Araki, deputy spokesperson, 28, slight, mild, diffident. He and others speak of erasing desire - for food, for love, for sex, for family. The filmmaker becomes a participant when police harass and arrest a sect member. What is it to be different in a conformist society? Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

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insight into a society's malaise
29 April 2008 | by (Japan) – See all my reviews

The Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway was an epochal event. It ended the myth of Japan as a 'safe' society, and as the catalogue of atrocities that had preceded the subway attack came to light, the Japanese were forced to face up to some home truths - namely that this particular cancer was home-grown and not a result of corrupt outside influences.

Anyone coming to this documentary looking for insight into why the cult chose to indulge in indiscriminate slaughter will be disappointed. By the time this documentary begins, the perpetrators are incarcerated, on the run, or murdered. The main players here are the new generation of leaders who were apparently (perhaps willfully) unaware of their seniors' machinations. Asked to explain such events, they are baffled and tongue-tied, torn between filial loyalty and overwhelming evidence of guilt. Ironically, they are just like many present-day citizens of Japan contemplating the war atrocities such as Nanjing and sex slaves carried out by previous generations.

There is, however, insight to be had from A. The camera stays with Araki, the new head of PR, as he navigates through a hostile terrain of police, public and press during the trials of senior Aum figures. An affable, articulate, self-effacing young man, he offers no explanation for why Aum attacked Japanese society. But through his eyes, it becomes abundantly clear why Araki chose to reject that society in favour of Aum. The press pack come across as morons, condescending and ingenuous in their approaches to Araki. The police are goons who simply take the law into their own hands, at one point carrying out an assault on camera with impunity. If the victims were anyone other than Aum members, this footage would be material akin to the Rodney King tape. The public, admirably restrained, nonetheless urge the cultists to find a job, get married, settle down - and are met with bemused stares, and the audience realises that brainwashing is not the exclusive reserve of the cult.

Mori paces this documentary expertly. He is compassionate towards the cultists without being in thrall to them. Just when we think they might be decent sorts after all, Mori tries to have them answer serious questions about guru Asahara, and they suddenly talk nonsense about levitation or how people don't need food, and they are revealed as zealots. These moments are judiciously spaced and remind us that the Aum members are at best lost, at worst seriously disturbed.

'A' is uncomfortable viewing, especially for those of us who live in Japan. There are no good guys here, just a series of social archetypes, each tarnished to varying degrees. For an introduction to Aum that leads nicely into this documentary, read The Cult at the End of the World. Like the documentary, it makes clear that Aum is not the antithesis of Japanese society, but very much a child spawned by it.


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