On March 20, 1995, amidst the morning rush hour of the busiest underground commuter system in the world, ten men carrying small bags and umbrellas boarded trains across Tokyo. Suddenly, they dropped the bags, stabbed them multiple times with their umbrellas, and jumped off the trains in flight. Within minutes, passengers began to suffer nose bleeds, vomiting, nausea, convulsions, and shortness of breath. As trains continued to stop at each station, victims staggered out gasping for air, crumpling at the foot of stairwells before they could even escape the underground. Witnesses reported a scene reminiscent of a battlefield, with the injured collapsing atop one another as they succumbed to the lethal effects of sarin gas. As the most deadly terrorist incident of post-war Japan came to a close, more than six thousand injured individuals swelled Tokyo hospitals. Twelve lay dead.
A, Tatsuya Mori's documentary of the religious group Aum Shinrikyo, whose top figures were behind the Tokyo sarin gas attack in 1995, relegates this incident to the background in favor of examining the daily lives of members who were left behind to continue their devotions. His frank and honest camerawork chronicles both Aum's internal dynamics in the wake of the terrorist attack and their outward responses to belligerent media figures and hostile neighbors. In the process, his film raises questions about the state of the modern Japanese society from which Aum arose and which endeavors to suppress it. Rife with contradictions, the behavior of the cult members and of those they encounter reveals a tendency among all parties to avoid responsibility for their actions, exerting pressure or shirking blame from beneath a fragile facade of consensus. As the documentary closes, it becomes apparent that the Japanese, whether within or without Aum Shinrikyo, find it profoundly difficult to openly discuss or debate the implications of the sarin gas terrorist attack.
Tracking the experiences of Aum's soft-spoken and seemingly overwhelmed public representative Hiroshi Araki, Mori uncovers numerous examples of Aum members' inability to accept the responsibility of their group for the suffering of sarin attack victims. A key point of contention throughout the film emerges in Aum's refusal to apologize for the attack, an act of submission with great significance in Japanese society. Yet rather than making any direct refusal, Aum members tip-toe around the subject with incredible timidity, even fleeing press conferences to escape the pressure of apology.
When figures on the street challenge Araki, the individual in the organization who should perhaps be most prepared to answer such questions, he cannot provide an explanation for the lack of apology. Instead, under the barrage of accusations he seems to visibly wilt. Pointedly asked by Mori from multiple different angles about the attack and what it implies about his esteem for Aum's leading figures, Araki repeatedly falls silent, trailing off with a “Well...” or “That is...” and letting his eyes drift away from the camera. The lack of apology paired with subtle evidence of members' distress with their leaders' actions suggests that they are unable to undergo the self-examination that would either open them to making an apology, or give them the determination to actively refuse doing so.
Not only Aum members, however, find it difficult to reflect critically about their behavior in the wake of the attack. Outside figures interacting with Aum, frequently belligerent, exhibit likewise a disturbing tendency to avoid taking responsibility for their hostility. The neighborhood figures demanding an apology from Aum exert all manner of pressure against Araki, urging him to leave the cult, get a job, get a wife, and become a normal 'upstanding member of society' indistinguishable from those around him. Their criticisms frequently turn personal and sometimes particularly vicious, especially when they speak about Aum through media interviews or across posterboards without having to directly face cult members, but they deliver the hostile words with stubbornly fixed smiles and language affirming shared consensus, as though discussing a matter of no personal relevance to either party.
An especially vivid example of this behavior emerges during a confrontation with a plain-clothes policeman just outside one of Aum's communal homes, as the man stands with his arms crossed and his body blocking a member's path while other officers encircle the two to prevent the other members from coming to aid. He will not physically restrain the cult member, nor will he issue a warrant or give a reason for questioning, but instead he repeatedly demands the man's name, chanting like a schoolchild over the man's protests hanashitekudasai hanashitekudasai hanashitekudasai, “tell me please tell me please tell me please.” The Japanese surrounding Aum clearly fear and hate the cult's presence, but they show a stunning lack of ability to recognize and acknowledge their own hostility. Instead, they express it through vicious, almost violent passive-aggressive behavior.
With both sides clearly and deeply affected by the vicious attack of that morning on March 20, 1995, it is distressing that neither can enter into a process of understanding or reconciliation with their own responses to the incident, much less recognize the responses of the opposite party. Mori's documentary depicts a social mechanism for maintaining consensus gone into overdrive, ruthlessly oppressing emotional or critical reactions to a clearly devastating event. The Japanese society of A, in its desperate attempts to maintain an image of placidity, seems destined to only further stir the rapids coursing just beneath the surface tension.