AUM: The Cult at the End of the World, 2023.
Directed by Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto.
On March 20, 1995, a deadly gas attack in the Tokyo subway sent the nation and its people into chaos. This exploration of Aum Shinrikyo, who were responsible for the attack, involves the participation of those who lived through the horror as it unfolded.
It perhaps speaks to Netflix’s industrious proliferation of True Crime Content that a 106-minute documentary about a terrorist doomsday cult can somehow seem so stock. But in our landscape of painfully distended six-part true crime docuseries, there is something refreshing about the restraint of mere feature-length, so let’s give Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto’s AUM: The Cult at the End of the World a little credit where it’s due.
Braun and Yanagimoto’s film details the rise and fall of the cult Aum Shinrikyo, as founded by Shoko Asahara in 1987 and carried out the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack which killed 14 people and injured over 5,000. Again and again, the documentary returns to the depressing notion that enough simply wasn’t done to stem the cult in their earlier phases. Even as families formed advocacy groups to rescue their loved ones from the group, the authorities granted Aum enormous leeway, due to embarrassing historic legislation which previously demonised religious groups. All the while, the mass media further enabled the cult’s presence, painting them as harmlessly quirky hippies and failing to adequately investigate their increasingly troubling acts.
Through interviews with journalists, former cult members, and even local citizens affected by the cult’s actions, the filmmakers paint an unsettling portrait of a group which shrewdly exploited an epochal moment in Japanese history, as the nation’s socio-economic dominance began its decline, to recruit the spiritually lost, break them down, and grow their numbers. And for while the broad particulars of this story might seem overly familiar in the pantheon of cult documentaries, it’s that cultural specificity which helps distinguish it.
There’s also a sensible focus placed on Asahara himself; a garden variety charlatan who deigned to fear-based apocalyptic messaging after his more genuine political aspirations fell embarrassingly flat on the public stage. This failed legitimacy catalysed Asahara to amass a worrying arsenal of weaponry, while also taking his organisation international, venturing to Russia following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and quickly building a large following there.
It isn’t until the doc’s third act that it circles around to the Tokyo attack that made global headlines in 1995, hauntingly recounted here through horrific footage of the aftermath, as finally caused the authorities to take Aum seriously and, indeed, bring about their downfall. But for many of those victimised by Aum, the resolution was bittersweet at best; lives were lost which could’ve been saved had the initial police investigation not been so inept nor the media coddled them so thoroughly. Journalist Andrew Marshall – who wrote the book on which this doc is based – leaves us with one sobering, closing thought, that in our own current era of political polarisation, what are our new blind spots?
Editorially-speaking, Braun and Yanagimoto’s film is a little rough around the edges; most frustratingly, several of the story’s more urgent, fascinating revelations are confined to a mere sentence each at the very end. There’s an overall scattered feeling to the storytelling which robs it of the necessary propulsion, and occasional use of animated recreations come off as tacky – especially when reimagining resoundingly bleak scenarios.
The inherent fascination of the Aum story can’t help but win out, even if this conventional-to-a-fault doc too often makes a horrifying slice of true crime feel oddly routine.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.