The success of long-format cult-exposé documentaries like HBO’s “The Vow” and Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” has given the cult-curious an appetite for the kind of chain-link explosion rhythms that only serials can supply. We’re primed, one might even say programmed, to expect the smallest new kink on even the oddest tangent to get ample screentime, and broader thematic arcs and major personalities to have multiple episodes over which to develop. Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto’s “Aum: The Cult At The End of The World” certainly acknowledges that there is a whole season’s worth of material in the story of the infamous cult, fully named Aum Shinrikyo, that murdered 14 people and injured 6,000 when they released sarin gas into the Tokyo subway in 1995. In trying to cram it all into one 106-minute package, however, the directors deliver a far-ranging but only fitfully revealing investigation into how Aum came into being and, chillingly, whether or not it ever really went away.
Its presentation is as multifaceted as the story it tells, employing vintage footage, TV news reports, animated sequences and a huge number of bite-sized talking head interviews, most often with journalists Andrew Marshall and David E. Kaplan, who together wrote the book on which the doc is based. Marshall, who won a Pulitzer in 2014 for his reporting on persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, is particularly adept at scene-setting, placing the evolution of the cult against the wider socio-economic context of suddenly stagnating Japan in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
It was around then that Marshall first lived there, noting that the tatty reality of post-bubble Tokyo was a far cry from the image of gleaming futurism he’d expected. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, Kaplan then suggests, many Japanese people, especially the younger cohort, started searching for spiritual guidance. Some of them, perhaps those attracted to more punitive and restrictive practices as a kind of metaphysical atonement for the materialist excesses of the boom times, found it in the unlikely figure of Aum leader Shoko Asahara. A disgraced unlicensed pharmacist and former yoga teacher, Asahara founded his group in 1984, and rapidly expanded its influence until it was somehow granted official recognition as a legitimate religious enterprise in 1989 — the first of many governmental and policing failures that the film alleges enabled the group to operate with impunity as long, and as lethally, as it did.
The media complex saw good copy in Asahara’s outlandish claims and antics — an obviously staged photo of the guru “levitating” is shown numerous times — without ever taking him seriously (which, apart from the levitation, may sound a little familiar to anyone who lived through the 2016 US Presidential election). He was pictured with the Dalai Lama and appeared on Takeshi Kitano’s immensely popular TV chat show. But even the bigger pictures of media complicity, governmental inaction and the doggedness of journalists like Marshall, who followed a breadcrumb trail from a small village on the slopes of Mt Fuji right up to a prediction of a gas attack published mere days before the subway incident, all get much shorter shrift than they deserve.
2020 brought a terrific doc on Aum called “Me and the Cult Leader,” which was as narrowly focused as this film is scattered, and found deep, touching insights in the relationship between a victim of the attacks, and one of the cult’s still-loyal members. By contrast, Braun and Yanagimoto go for comprehensiveness over comprehension, bringing in many more commentators — writers, lawyers, reporters, eyewitnesses — each to peel back one further, fascinating fold in the infinite origami of the Aum story.
There’s the older couple — him breathing with the help of an oxygen tank following an attempt on his life by the cult — who formed a whole organisation dedicated to exposing Aum when their son was sucked into the sect. There are friends and colleagues telling the horribly tragic story of the crusading lawyer who went missing, along with his wife and infant son, when he tried to bring proceedings against the cult. The fate of that young family provides film’s most moving moments: Here again, it’s easy to see how their story alone could power a whole documentary. As could the quick, tantalizing references made to the group’s expansion into Russia. Or the facility near Fuji where they manufactured not just sarin and other poisons, but Kalashnikov rifles. Or the man who was wrongly accused of carrying out an earlier Aum attack which killed his wife, his dogs and six other people in his village. Or the torture and drugging, with LSD and mescaline, that became part of the cult’s brainwashing procedure.
Most dubiously of all, there are the interviews with Fumihiro Joyu, a calm, telegenic presence whom we only gradually realize was not merely a member of the cult during the period in question, but its most visible spokesman and advocate. He evaded the death penalty that was enacted on Asahara and 12 of his followers because he was heading the Russian operation at the time of the attacks. Braun and Yanagimoto return to him quite frequently, but not once does he admit any personal culpability or any actual remorse, a bitter pill all the harder to swallow when you learn he is now the leader of Aleph, the name Aum Shinrikyo rebranded to after Asahara’s execution.
At worst, Joyu’s soft-spoken, disingenuously open appearance in a doc ostensibly so hostile to his organization could serve as pro-Aleph propaganda, or simply as further whitewashing of his exceedingly murky history. At best, it makes for a jarring sense of incompletion, which forces us to consider what else is hidden, omitted or ignored by a skipping-around approach that packs in so much incident, it leaves little room for insight.