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A (1998)

 |  Documentary
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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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Hiroshi Araki ...


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 <>

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A compelling but sometimes discomforting documentary.
1 April 2002 | by (London, U.K.) – See all my reviews

"A" refers to the name of the cult or religious group which is the subject of this film. It follows the day-to-day activities of members of the Augm Shinrikyo sect and in particular the group's "press officer", a somewhat awkward but totally sincere young man. Augm (as they were commonly referred to) was found to be responsible for attacks on commuters using the Tokyo subway system. Sarin, a biological agent, was used and the events were widely covered by the world media. Japan as a society was greatly shocked by the event and the Augm members were portrayed as mindless automata, blindly obeying the charismatic leader of the cult's destructive wishes.

As the film proper gets underway (after a quick-fire barrage of images which attempts to communicate the sensationalistic coverage of the attacks and the ensuing disbelief and outrage in Japan), we are confronted by the very gritty reality of the actual cult members. The fact that they've agreed to be followed and filmed in the (literally) months covered by the film seems utterly remarkable considering their very apparent and wide-ranging suspicion of the media and the outside world generally. We meet several of the cult members and witness a few of the quite daunting aspects of their communal existence. Although it is entirely possible that they were at least aware of the plans to use sarin, it seems highly unlikely from what we learn of them and their attitude to the taking of life. Their devotion to the group is seemingly undimmed by the attacks and subsequent jailing of their leader, Asahara, although they later decide to publicly "demote" him from his former divine status amongst the Augm faithful when that becomes unsupportable.

Despite the obvious abnormalities of the lives depicted, it becomes very clear that these are relatively ordinary people who have been thrust into an utterly extraordinary situation. They are publicly scrutinised, demonised and accused by the acutely conservative society in which they live and adopt a siege mentality as a result. Although it's certainly true that their group used classic brainwashing techniques on their members (sleep and food deprivation, psychedelic drugs etc...), it also becomes clear that much of the murderous intent in Augm's activities springs directly from the incarcerated Asahara. As with other cults in recent decades, the leader's wishes and desires became megalomaniacal. Sex with Asahara became more and more of a requisite for female members to achieve a state of grace and apocalyptic events became objectives to be achieved rather than pre-ordained inevitabilities.

Essentially, the cult is reeling in the aftermath (and the vacuum) created by the loss of Asahara rather than the sarin attacks. They had already dropped out of Japanese society and probably viewed the attacks as something happening in another country. For the individuals within Augm, dogged and resolute as they were despite the end of life as they knew it, this film is a document of their decline as a community and how they - and their young press officer in particular - adapt to this. In that way, they are victims themselves - in as far as someone who voluntarily puts themselves in a situation which subsequently goes wrong is - but not nearly as much as the unwitting victims of the barbaric sarin attacks. In the end, the film shows that you simply have to recognize the humanity of those depicted which many Japanese simply do not. This gives away practically none of the real "narrative" (if there is one) and tells nothing of the many tragicomic scenes in the film which make it as compelling as it is. Please see it if you can.

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