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Wednesday, March 27, 2002

You just have to ask

A documentarian refocuses on Aum Shinrikyo

Special to The Japan Times

By rights, Tatsuya Mori's video documentary "A2" should be shown on television, preferably on NHK, without commercial interruptions. But like its predecessor, "A," it will only be screened theatrically. The positive response it received when it was shown at last September's Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (where it won the Audience Prize) showed that "A2" works perfectly well on the big screen, but theatrical release severely limits the potential audience for a work whose main purpose is revelatory.

News photo
In his documentaries, fimmaker Tatsuya Mori goes deep inside Aum Shinrikyo. Below, Aum PR spokesman Hiroshi Araki (center) and Fumihiro Joyu (right) strategize.
News photo

Sitting in the restaurant of the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) in Akasaka, Mori explains that before he started shooting "A," Fuji TV agreed to air the finished product, but that two days into production "they started making a lot of conditions that I couldn't accept, so that was off." Nevertheless, he completed it and then shopped it around to all the networks, including NHK, but no one would air it. Consequently, it has only been shown at festivals and in movie theaters. "For 'A2' I didn't even think about television."

Considering the subject of the two documentaries -- the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo -- it's perhaps easy to understand the TV industry's hesitation. Aum, the group that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system in March 1995, killing 12 people and sickening scores of others, remains a very difficult topic for many Japanese. The cult's founder and leader, Shoko Asahara, and most of the group's high-ranking members were indicted for murder and other crimes. The trials are expected to continue for years, but the cult, which has changed its name to Aleph, carries on, despite efforts by both the authorities and private citizens to make it go away.

In 1996, Mori received permission from the cult to tape its day-to-day activities. His methodology is of the classic fly-on-the-wall type, punctuated by occasional pointed questions. The result is a startlingly frank and disarmingly relaxed look at a group many people believe is the Devil's Own.

"Actually, the networks were interested," he explains, "because no one [in the film industry] had ever looked inside Aum before. But I thought it was important to air it as a complete documentary, and all they wanted was to use isolated footage for news purposes."

As he explained to the audience in Yamagata, Mori had not planned a sequel, since he says he was "quite satisfied" with "A." However, following the government's passage of surveillance laws aimed at group activities, specifically Aum's, and in light of the realization that no community in Japan will allow the cult to reside within its borders, he paid a visit to the headquarters of the group, and "things just seemed to happen, so I started taping again."

"A" focused mainly on Aum's new PR spokesman, Hiroshi Araki, who essentially became the interface between the world and the cult during its most embattled period, after the previous spokesman, the charismatic Fumihiro Joyu, went to jail for a minor property-related crime that had nothing to do with the sarin attack (he has since completed his sentence and returned to the cult). The quiet, thoughtful Araki seemed ill-suited to the task of standing up to the often belligerent media, and it was this aspect that first drew Mori to him as a subject. Much of the documentary consists of one-to-one conversations between Mori and Araki, who turns out to be articulate and even philosophical about his position.

"A2" is, in many ways, an even more extraordinary work than "A." It is certainly more accomplished and wide-ranging, covering a handful of Aleph members in depth and chronicling the group's struggle to survive.

"My purpose with 'A2' was different," he says. "Rather than explain Aum, I wanted to show how Japanese society has deteriorated. If I focused on Araki, it would have been 'A' all over again. But in the end, I do return to him, because he's the one person in whom I can invest my emotions. He understands me."

"A2" is also much more revealing about the specific dynamics that inform the general attitude toward the cult. These dynamics, it turns out, go beyond the crimes committed in the cult's name. If the centerpiece of "A" was the shocking footage of plainclothes policemen provoking Aum members outside their offices ("When I screened it in Berlin, the audience was convinced I had staged that; they couldn't believe it was real"), the most significant episode in "A2" is of a visit by Aleph officials to Yoshiyuki Kono, who had been the prime suspect of both the media and the police in the poisoned-gas incident that killed six people in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994.

Following the Tokyo sarin attack a year later, it became apparent that Aum was responsible for the Matsumoto poisoning, but Kono's life had already been ruined by then. The Aleph members go to Kono's house to offer an official, though long overdue, apology. A TBS crew shows up at Kono's invitation and the various parties fall into disagreement on how best to proceed for the sake of the cameras. As with the extreme behavior of the police dustup in "A," the amazing thing about the apology contretemps isn't the pettiness and petulance on display (from every side), but the fact that Mori recorded it all.

Even scenes that do not involve the media point up how one-sided Aum coverage has been. Mori spent a lot of time at an Aleph training facility in Gunma Prefecture that was surrounded by local "observers" who were there to make sure the cult wasn't up to any funny business. Over several months, the followers and the observers became friends. When the observers left, the cult helped them dismantle their tents. One of the local leaders, with tears in his eyes, tells a departing Aleph member that he will miss him.

The segment is more absurd than it is touching, and the large audience that watched it in Yamagata laughed during many scenes, especially those involving rightwing nationalists, who both abhor the cult and identify with them as fellow social outcasts. "A2" shows how inconsequential Aleph really is and how irrational most people's fears of the group are.

In one skillfully edited sequence, Mori shifts back-and-forth between a parade of Chiba residents as they make their way to a house that Aleph is renting, and the handful of Aleph members inside the house. The demonstrators are thrown into confusion when the cultists invite them into the house to discuss their protest.

"We prefer to stay out here," the leader says after discussing the matter with his comrades. He then uses a bullhorn to demand that Aleph leave their neighborhood, and the demonstrators disperse, their little adventure finished.

In "A2," Aleph members are less notable for their devotion than for their awkwardness and lack of social skills. "We seem to attract a lot of depressives," one follower admits during an unguarded moment.

Fundamentally, the group promotes a complete separation from the material world, which means, ultimately, that followers must break all ties with family and friends. This aspect of the group's faith, the one that most disturbs the average Japanese, is at the center of the most powerful scene.

Araki agrees to meet an old high school friend who has become a newspaper reporter. They meet alone, on neutral ground, so to speak, and the ill feelings are palpable. Araki complains politely about the media's obsession with Aleph and asks point-blank how his friend could be a part of it. The reporter asks Araki how he could turn his back on his old friends. The reunion becomes a standoff rather than a reconciliation, a perfect reduction of the antagonism that exists between Aleph and the public at large.

Of course, the cult's infamous "training" is completely centered on this goal of transcending the material world, but most of the cultists seem clearly incapable of achieving it. Mori continually pesters them about their food, which is supposed to be bland. "This isn't that bad," one follower says hopefully, handing Mori a bowl of instant mashed potatoes. The director takes a spoonful and says, "It's absolutely revolting." The other followers giggle.

"I wanted people to see their everyday life," he says. "Most people don't realize that Aum members have everyday lives. When people see them eating, they are surprised: 'You mean, they actually eat food?' "

Nevertheless, Mori still thinks Aleph "is a potentially dangerous organization, since they are so pure and virtuous. But society in general has the same potential, especially right now, and I think we have to face up to that. The Japanese have a strong tendency to allow the group to think for them. I mean, more people died from AIDS as a result of callous official policies in the 1980s than those who died at the hands of Aum, which doesn't diminish what Asahara did, but it's something we need to think about."

"A2" is also a very personal document. Mori uses the filmmaking process to work out his own feelings, not only about Aleph but about the changes that have affected Japanese society since the sarin attack. In the final scene, the one in which he returns to Araki, Mori tells the young cultist that he believes Japan changed for the worse that day, its famous sense of well-being destroyed forever in one act of megalomania. Araki doesn't disagree.

In the light of Sept. 11, this idea, and the documentary as a whole, becomes more pertinent. "A2" was shown at a film festival in Damascus in November. "I wanted to screen it in an Islamic country. It's impossible to watch it and not think about the global situation right now. Some people at the festival said they believed that Americans might rethink their options if they saw it."

Perhaps, but most people are not comfortable with the kind of contradictions that "A2" presents so matter of factly, which is probably the main reason the TV networks have passed on it. As in all of his work, Mori wants to present his audience with as many different viewpoints as possible so that they are forced to draw their own conclusions.

Having carved out an exclusive niche as a documentarian of taboo subjects -- in addition to Aum, Mori has made videos and written books about songs banned for broadcast and the Buraku Liberation group -- he is viewed as a stubborn iconoclast, a reputation that he says misses the point.

"People ask me, 'How do you get permission to film these groups?' They think I pull strings or make threats, but all I do is ask, and they usually say yes. Most media people don't even ask, because they think they shouldn't cover them in the first place."

"A2" is currently showing at Box Higashi Nakano, (03) 5389-6780. Dialogue in Japanese. A retrospective of Mori's work is also playing as the late show.

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