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Japan has long enjoyed one of the lowest crime rates in the world. In the midst of such peace, the terrorist attacks by the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo shocked the nation. On the morning of March 20, 1995, five members of Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 people and injuring more than a thousand others. The incident has reverberated throughout Japanese pop culture; it was the subject of Tatsuya Mori’s acclaimed 1998 documentary A and its 2001 follow-up A2, as well as Haruki Murakami’s nonfiction book Underground. The new film Me and the Cult Leader takes a different perspective on the event. First-time director Atsushi Sakahara is a survivor of the subway attack, and he embarks on a journey ambivalently seeking answers and offering redemption. With him is Hiroshi Araki, Aum Shinrikyo’s chief spokesperson (he previously appeared in A as an interviewee).
Araki attended a lecture by Aum founder Shoko Asahara while he was a student at Kyoto University in the early ’90s, and decided to join the organization soon after. Aum Shinrikyo — today calling itself Aleph — has a syncretic doctrine, incorporating various aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism, urging people to renounce the material world and separate themselves from their families. In one revealing scene, Araki remembers coveting an aluminum pencil case as a kid, only to lose interest one week after purchasing it. That example of disillusionment with material possessions helps make the allure of the movement more understandable. But after Asahara and other members campaigned for seats in the Japanese Diet (parliament) and were soundly defeated, the group ramped up its rhetoric of Armageddon and eventually rejected society. This led to a series of chemical attacks throughout the country from 1993 through 1995, culminating in the Tokyo subway incident.
Not much of Aum Shinrikyo’s history is mentioned in Me and the Cult Leader. Opening on some archival photographs and recordings from the day of the Tokyo attack, it briefly looks at one of Aum’s quarters to demonstrate the devotees’ frugal lives. Sakahara is not interested in the cult’s tenets, or their images of Asahara pinned on every wall. Rather, he cares for the individuals, and wishes to hear their stories. Driven by a combination of objective curiosity and a personal desire to understand the motives behind the attack, he often presses Araki into moral corners, questioning his position and beliefs.
In a Q&A facilitated by Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sakahara likened the film’s structure to the three-part process of traditional Japanese pilgrimage to Buddhist temples. A pilgrim must leave proof of their visit at the site, perform a devotional act, and acquire evidence of their visit to take with them. Sakahara and Araki travel to the Kyoto area to visit their respective hometowns, developing a friendly rapport along the way. Sakahara talks about the suffering he endured after the attack (for years he battled fatigue, paralysis, and PTSD), while Araki opens up about the family he renounced, revealing himself to be more human and worldly than he pretends. (Sakahara even meets his parents.) Eventually, their trip takes them to Kasumigaseki Station, one of the sites of the attack, where Sakahara leaves flowers at an altar and signs a guest book.
Although history would prefer to pit these two men against one another, one as victim and the other as perpetrator, Sakahara and Araki occasionally find common ground. Still, such connection is fleeting. A simple question from Sakahara echoes throughout the film: “Do you hear me?” Araki is ultimately unable to shoulder his group’s sins. Me and the Cult Leader proves to be a study not just in the possibilities of interpersonal understanding over mass tragedies, but also its limits.