It’s easy to see why true-crime documentaries about cults have become so popular in a streaming age that depends on a constant flow of new (but reliable) content: each of these stories is different, and each of them is the same.
This dual reality has rarely been more dramatic than in Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto’s chilling but self-splitting “Aum: The Cult at the End of the World.” A US-Japan collaboration that breaks down the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway through both local and global lenses, this is a well-sourced look back at the circumstances that made such a horrific act of bioterror possible. an endless hall of mirrors that illuminates the film’s own subgenre more brightly than the legacy of the Aum Shinrikyo cult itself.
At the same time, it is possible to see two things as one and the same. The process by which a partially blind child named Chizuo Matsumoto rebranded himself as messianic guru Shoko Asahara—turning his new-age yoga group into Japan’s most notorious doomsday cult and his followers into religious zealots—is familiar, if not overwhelming. Asahara is a troubled child from a poor family, who led him into the toxic swamp after the war, preying on the most vulnerable people.
Asahara, who was in his early twenties, sold “miracle drugs” to elderly people who wanted to believe that eating tangerine peels would cure their arthritis. In his late twenties, he began selling the false promise of his own intellectual power to a generation disillusioned with their country’s economic recovery; which turned to occultism in search of the purpose that money cannot buy and the antidote to the individualism that it is exchanged for.
Asahara made absurd, seemingly “Akira”-inspired claims about the psychic abilities his teachings could unleash, his evidence amounting to some kind of clipped anime propaganda — the style of which is cleverly recycled throughout the documentary’s animated segments — and a single photo of the “guru” crossing himself he sits cross-legged, one foot off the ground, with a look constipated from (physical) exertion across his life-long baby face. But Aum Shinrikyo quickly pounced on anyone who responded to the bait with even the slightest nibble, encouraging them to cut ties with their families, leave their money to the group, and reject the behaviors that allowed them to have contact. . with the outside world. Not enough sleep. Less food. No bathing.
When Asahara’s 1990 campaign for seats in Japan’s House of Representatives ended in public humiliation, he turned his cult in a more violent direction, eventually seizing the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union to gain a foothold in Russia and gain access to parliament. wildly unregulated arms supply. His only real superpowers were his ability to recognize the gaps created by an unstable world, the shamelessness needed to exploit them, and his caricature-sized charisma, which allowed him to visibly do both. On TV. Where much of the country saw him as a clown rather than an existential threat, and the media couldn’t bear to confront the monster he helped create (give one to talk show host-turned-author Takeshi Kitano). , whom this doc paints as Jimmy Fallon to Asahara’s Donald Trump).
Loosely based on David. E Kaplan and Andrew Marshall’s “The Cult at the End of the World,” with both authors on a small but respectable 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 direct their film reflects the former’s experience as senior VP at Submarine Deluxe (where he exec produced films like “Crip Camp” and “Fire of Love”), but it’s so pure The a compilation of archival footage, retrospective interviews and ominous suggestions can’t help but make ‘Aum’ seem a little too determined to prove the story’s most self-evident point, that history repeats itself by masquerading as something new.
Part of the problem stems from one of the film’s greatest strengths: its reliance on Marshall as a primary source, to the point where the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist almost assumes the role of narrator. A gaijin whose foreign POV may have allowed him to recognize some of the blind spots that were overlooked by the Japanese press (and ignored by the Japanese police) in the build-up to the subway attack, Marshall actively investigated the Matsumoto sarin leak in the first period. His invaluable perspective on the months of 1995 and its aftermath allows this film to look back at its central tragedy at once from underground and from 30,000 feet.
However, the film struggles to reconcile this divided view into a single vision, as Marshall’s journalistic ethos naturally emphasizes the facts over the emotional fallout he left behind. Its privileging as the film’s most frequent voice points to “Aum” for Western audiences, to the point where it begins to obscure the specifics of Aum Shinrikyo’s appeal and confuses understanding of how Japanese society enabled (and responded to) the attack.
Which isn’t to suggest that “Aum” skimps on the Japanese sounds, or that it eschews the expected fascination with the morbid details of Asahara’s cult. Former members of Aum Shinrikyo are set to give personal testimony, as are parents whose children were inducted into the group, journalists who were attacked with sarin gas during the subway incident, and lawyers whose colleague was kidnapped – along with his wife and infant son together—when the public first identified Aum as a problem in the late 1980s.
Braun and Yanagimoto’s film makes it chillingly clear that Aum were a local threat long before they gained notoriety on the world stage, and the documentary’s most poignant episodes are about the half-forgotten people who died before the police were forced to take the cult seriously. ; not one millisecond of this film focuses on the specific victims of the subway attack, but there is a heartbreaking chapter about Yoshiyuki Kono, who was falsely accused of taking seven people (including his wife and two dogs) for a test run in Matsumoto. year.
Braun and Yanagimoto’s biggest coup, however, would have to be the inclusion of former cult 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 embarrassment. guilt. Or, for that matter, any sincere faith in your guru’s “teachings”. The confessional nature of his interview footage promises that culpa will never come (a realization that comes with a hint of testimony inspired by Joshua Oppenheimer from Anwar Congo in “The Act of Killing”), but Joyu’s evasive boasting that he’s the best. -The Hated Man collapses in Japan because the film around him offers little context for this statement.
Is this an accurate statement or an Asahara-esque example of messianic self-inflation? And what does it say about the current state of cults in Japan that Joyu continues to lead a less resourceful version of the group Asahara left behind? Despite the impeccable research behind it—and the wealth of disturbing footage that revealed its most disturbing discoveries—Braun and Yanagimoto’s film is frustratingly myopic about the social conditions that allowed Aum to thrive in the public eye for so long. Lots of fingers are pointed, but most are only passing.
Maybe the filmmakers suspect we’ve all got them on some level, or maybe they’re just a little too seduced by the macabre idiosyncrasies that have made us addicted to stories like this, even if it’s really just a story. a thousand different ways. It’s true that the differences between the deadliest pyramid schemes in modern history are largely a matter of scale, but “Aum: The Cult at the End of the World” only hints at the unique void that swells within each of them, the film blurs. referring to the same sinister voids that the world’s most dangerous men are 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 distributed in the United States.
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