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It’s easy to understand why true-crime documentaries about cults have become so popular in a streaming age that depends on a constant stream of new (but reliable) content: Every one of these stories is different, and every one of these stories is also the same.
That double reality has seldom been more dramatic than it is in Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto’s chilling but self-divided “Aum: The Cult at the End of the World.” An American-Japanese collaboration that refracts the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway through local and global lenses at the same time, this well-sourced look back at the conditions that allowed for such a terrible act of bio-terrorism is flattened into an infinite hall of mirrors that shines a brighter light on the film’s own sub-genre than it does on the legacy of the Aum Shinrikyo cult itself.
Then again, it’s possible to see two things as one and the same. The process by which a partially blind child named Chizuo Matsumoto rebranded himself as the messianic guru Shoko Asahara — transforming his new age yoga group into Japan’s most notorious doomsday cult, and his adherents into religious zealots along the way — is nothing if not crushingly familiar. A bullied child from a poor family who bore him into a toxic bog post-war resentment, Asahara preyed on the most vulnerable people he could find.
In his early twenties, Asahara sold “miracle cures” to old people who wanted to believe that eating tangerine rinds would cure their arthritis. By his late twenties, he began selling the false promise of his own spiritual power to a generation that had become disillusioned by their country’s economic boom; that had turned to the occult in search of the purpose that money couldn’t buy, and of an antidote to the individualism that it cost in return.
Asahara made absurd, seemingly “Akira”-inspired claims about the psychic abilities that his teachings could unlock, his evidence amounting to some cut-rate anime propaganda — the style of which is cleverly repurposed during the animated segments of this documentary — and a single photograph of the “guru” sitting cross-legged a foot above the ground with a constipated look of (physical) exertion scrunched across his lifelong babyface. But Aum Shinrikyo quickly sank its fangs into anyone who responded to the bait with even the slightest nibble, encouraging them to cut off contact with their families, forfeit their money to the group, and reject the behaviors that it made it possible for them to interface with the outside world. Little sleep. Less food. No bathing.
When Asahara’s 1990 campaign for seats in Japan’s House of Representatives ended in public humiliation, he pivoted his cult in a more violent direction, eventually seizing on the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union to establish a foothold in Russia and gain access to their wildly unregulated weapons supply. His only real superpowers were the ability to recognize the voids created by an unstable world, the shamelessness required to exploit them, and the cartoon-sized charisma that allowed him to do both of those things in plain sight. On TV. Where most of the country saw him as more of a clown than an existential threat, and the media couldn’t bear to confront the monster that it had helped to create (pour one out for talk-show-host-turned-auteur Takeshi Kitano, who this doc paints as the Jimmy Fallon to Asahara’s Donald Trump).
Loosely based on David. E Kaplan and Andrew Marshall’s book “The Cult at the End of the World,” and featuring both of those authors among its small but authoritative roster of talking heads, “Aum” tells a depressingly familiar story along depressingly familiar lines. The studied confidence with which first-time directors Braun and Yanagimoto arrange their film reflects the former’s experience as Senior Vice President at Submarine Deluxe (where he executive produced the likes of “Crip Camp” and “Fire of Love”), but such a clean assembly of archival footage, retrospective interviews, and ominous suggestion can’t help but make “Aum” seem a bit overdetermined to prove this story’s most self-evident point, which is that history repeats itself by disguising itself as something new.
Part of the problem stems from one of the film’s biggest strengths: Its decision to lean on Marshall as its primary source, to the point that the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist nearly assumes the role of a narrator. A gaijin whose foreign POV may have allowed him to recognize some of the blind spots that the Japanese press overlooked (and the Japanese police ignored) in the build-up to the subway attack, Marshall was actively investigating a sarin leak in Matsumoto during the first months of 1995, and his invaluable perspective on the events that followed allows this film to look back at its central tragedy from underground and 30,000 feet at the same time.
But the film struggles to reconcile that split-view into a single vision, as Marshall’s journalistic ethos naturally emphasizes the facts of the matter over the emotional fallout that it left behind. Privileging him as the film’s most frequent voice points “Aum” towards a Western audience to the point that it begins to obfuscate the specifics of Aum Shinrikyo’s appeal, and muddle our understanding of how Japanese society enabled (and responded to) the attack.
Which isn’t to suggest that “Aum” skimps on Japanese voices, or that it sidesteps an expected fascination with the morbid details of Asahara’s cult. Former members of Aum Shinrikyo are on hand to provide their own personal testimony, as are parents whose children were indoctrinated into the group, in addition to journalists who were attacked with sarin gas around the time of the subway incident and lawyers whose colleague was abducted — along with his wife and infant son — when the public first identified Aum as a problem in the late 1980s.
Braun and Yanagimoto’s film makes frighteningly clear that Aum was a local threat long before they became infamous on the world stage, and all of the documentary’s most painful episodes center on the semi-forgotten people who died before the police were forced to take the cult seriously; not a millisecond of this movie is focused on the specific victims of the subway attack, but there’s a heartbreaking chapter about Yoshiyuki Kono, who was falsely blamed for the test run that killed seven people (including his wife and two dogs) in Matsumoto the previous year.
Braun and Yanagimoto’s greatest coup, however, should have been the participation of the cult’s former spokesman — and Asahara’s favorite “son” — Fumihiro Joyu, who seems perfectly willing to discuss his memories of Aum, and does so without any discernible trace of shame or remorse. Or, for that matter, any sincere belief in his guru’s “teachings.” The confessional nature of his interview footage promises a mea culpa that never comes (a realization that arrives with a hint of the testimony that Joshua Oppenheimer inspired from Anwar Congo in “The Act of Killing”), but Joyu’s evasively boastful declaration that he’s the most-hated man in Japan falls flat because the film around him offers so little context for that statement.
Is that an accurate claim, or an Asahara-like instance of messianic self-inflation? And what does it reveal about the current state of cults in Japan that Joyu continues to lead a less resourceful version of the group that Asahara left behind? For all of the impeccable research behind it — and the wealth of disquieting footage that brings its most upsetting discoveries to light — Braun and Yanagimoto’s film is frustratingly shortsighted about the societal conditions that allowed Aum to thrive in public for so long. Plenty of fingers are pointed, but most of them only in passing.
Maybe the directors suspect that we’ve all come to understand them on some level, or maybe they were just a bit too seduced by the spine-tingling specifics that have made us addicted to stories like this, even if it’s really just one story told a thousand different ways. It’s true enough that the differences between modern history’s deadliest pyramid schemes largely boil down to scale, but “Aum: The Cult at the End of the World” only hints at the unique emptiness that swells inside each and every one of them, the film vaguely alluding to the same ominous voids that all of the world’s most dangerous people are somewhere out there doing their best to fill.
“Aum: The Cult at the End of the World” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.