Sundance 2023 Review: “Aum: The Cult at the End of the World” Compelllingly Chronicles a Cultural Catastrophe

In 1990 when 25 seats in the Japanese Parliament were up for grabs, Shoko Asahara saw an opportunity to extend the reach of his religious cult Aum Shinrikyo into mainstream politics, believing there were enough members who could vote and had enough passion to convince others. As “Aum: The Cult at the End of the World” recounts, a charm offensive was launched with his disciples dispatched into the streets wearing giant paper mache heads bearing Asahara’s face, a somewhat familiar image in Japan when talk shows would routinely welcome him on as a self-help guru, and as the journalist Shoko Egawa recalls, the media was excited to cover it as an “odd and eccentric” campaign story, neglecting the potential link between Aum and the murder of Tsutumi Sakamoto, a lawyer specializing in child abuse who dared to publicly question the organization. Filmmakers Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto do not make that mistake in their engrossing look back at the group, which grabbed international attention for staging a 1995 nerve gas attack on a subway system, taking a solemn rather than sensationalistic approach that yields an all-too-rare depiction of a cult in which there are few questions left about the motivations of its members or why they gained traction.

Having just the right number of interview subjects, all introduced at precisely the right moment, the film is meticulously structured to match the intricate strategizing of Asahara, who began with little more than an acupuncture clinic that flouted Japanese public health rules with homemade remedies that grew into a haven for those feeling alienated from a culture that was having great international success as a tech titan with innovative companies such as Sony and Casio, ushering in a faster pace of life that some still wanted to hold onto. Braun and Yanagimoto find an unexpected tale of heroism when the group could almost hide in plain sight, with when the usual watchdogs from the police to the local news either dismissing Aum completely or too amused by them to take them seriously, yet a collection of unconnected individuals following their curiosity about peculiar behavior took notice, from a Mt. Fuji local who bought a camera to take pictures of wild orchids and began documenting the even wilder construction of Aum’s base of operations, to Andrew Marshall, a journalist whose book with David E. Kaplan provided the basis for the film, who discovered a Russian helicopter hiding in the hills once he was tipped off to the group’s whereabouts.

There may be mass delusion among the members of Aum Shinrikyo, but the film impressively doesn’t spare the general public from such scrutiny when Asahara kept his plans secret but maintained a robust public profile that few in positions of power thought to question, in spite of mounting evidence that he and his following had a capacity for violence. Asahara doesn’t come across as some wacky Svengali to be mocked, but a thoughtful strategist and master manipulator who gave his disciples comfort in his quickness to answer their questions when they felt at a loss and weaponized their belief in him to help build an actual arsenal of deadly munitions, recruiting scientists and chemists that could assist in large-scale attacks on a society he felt had gone awry. (As a former member says coldly, after trying democracy to gain power with Asahara’s failed bid for parliament seats, the other option was military force, a deeply discomfiting reminder of a playbook run by tyrants time and again.)

Removing any mystique around Asahara by outlining in detail the societal conditions that led to his rise and his personal story that made him feel such antipathy towards public institutions, “Aum: The Cult at the End of the World” impressively avoids lionizing him and provides a sobering account of the damage done long before the deadly nerve gas attack when families could no longer connect with loved ones in the cult and perceived enemies were poisoned without investigation. Usually in this kind of history, one wonders how anyone could fall for such a thing, but in “Aum,” a far less obvious and far more interesting line of inquiry emerges about what makes so many look the other way when something seems amiss, with Braun and Yanagimoto unblinking in their pursuit of an answer.

“Aum: The Cult at the End of the World” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21st at 6:30 pm at the Megaplex Theatres at the Gateway in Salt Lake City, January 23rd at 6:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City, January 24th at 11:55 pm at the Ray Theatre in Park City and January 26th at 11:25 am at the Holiday Village Cinemas in Park City. It will be available virtually from January 24th through 29th.

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