Aum: The Cult at the End of the World Review: A Chilling Doomsday Doc

Sundance: This well-reasoned look at the group behind the Tokyo subway attack sheds more light on cult tropes than Aum himself.

It’s easy to see why true crime documentaries about cults have become so popular in a streaming age that relies on a constant stream of new (but reliable) content: each of these stories is different, and each of these stories is too the same.

Rarely has this dual reality been more dramatic than in Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto’s chilling but self-dividing Aum: The Cult at the End of the World. A US-Japan collaboration breaking the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway through local and global lenses simultaneously. This well-informed review of the conditions that made possible such a horrific act of bioterrorism is flattened into a never-ending hall of mirrors that casts the film’s own subgenre in a brighter light than the legacy of the Aum Shinrikyo cult itself.

On the other hand, 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—turned his New Age yoga group into Japan’s most notorious doomsday cult and turned his followers into religious zealots along the way—is nothing if not scathingly familiar. Asahara, a bullied child from a poor family that drove him into a toxic swamp of post-war resentment, preyed on the most vulnerable people he could find.

In his early 20s, Asahara sold “miracle cures” to old people who believed that eating tangerine peel would cure their arthritis. In his late twenties, he began selling the false promise of his own spiritual power to a generation disillusioned with their country’s booming economy; who had turned to the occult in search of a purpose that money could not buy and an antidote to individualism that it cost in return.

Asahara has made absurd, seemingly “Akira”-inspired claims about the psychic abilities his teachings could unleash, his evidence amounting to cheap anime propaganda – the style of which is cleverly repurposed in the animated segments of this documentary – and a single photo of the “Guru” sitting cross-legged a foot off the ground, drawing a stuffy expression of exertion across his lifelong baby face. But Aum Shinrikyo quickly sank his fangs into anyone who responded to the bait with even the slightest nibble, encouraging them to cut ties with their families, lose their money to the group, and reject the behavior that enabled them to to connect with the outside world. Little sleep. Eat less. No bathing.

When Asahara’s 1990 campaign for seats in Japan’s House of Representatives ended in public humiliation, he steered his cult in a more violent direction, eventually using the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union to gain a foothold in Russia and gain access to the wildly unregulated weapon supply. His only real superpowers were the ability to spot the voids created by an unstable world, the shamelessness required to exploit them, and the cartoon-sized charismatic charisma that allowed him to do both in front of everyone. On TV. Where most of the country viewed him as a clown rather than an existential threat, and the media couldn’t bear to face the monster they helped create (pour one for the talk show host-turned-author Takeshi Kitano (whom this document portrays as Jimmy Fallon of Asahara’s Donald Trump).

Loosely based on David. E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall’s book The Cult at the End of the World and Aum, which lists both authors in its small but authoritative list of talking heads, tells a depressingly familiar story along depressingly familiar lines. The studied confidence with which first-time directors Braun and Yanagimoto arrange their film mirrors the former’s experience as senior vice president at Submarine Deluxe (where he served as executive producer on “Crip Camp” and “Fire of Love”), but so The clean compilation of archive footage, retrospective interviews, and ominous hints can’t help but make “Aum” seem a little over-determined in proving this story’s most obvious point, which is that history repeats itself by masquerading as something new.

Part of the problem stems from one of the film’s greatest strengths: its decision to lean on Marshall as the primary source, to the point where the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist almost takes on the role of narrator. As a gaijin, whose foreign POV may have allowed him to see some of the blind spots that the Japanese press missed (and ignored the Japanese police) in the run-up to the subway attack, Marshall actively examined a sarin during the first attack Leak in Matsumoto months of 1995 and his invaluable perspective on the events that followed allow this film to look back at its central tragedy simultaneously from underground and from 30,000 feet.

But the film strives to reconcile this divided perspective into a single vision, as Marshall’s journalistic ethos naturally emphasizes the facts of the matter over the emotional fallout it left in its wake. Privileging him as the film’s most common voice points “Aum” towards a Western audience until it begins to obscure the details of Aum Shinrikyo’s appeal and our understanding of how Japanese society facilitated (and responded to) the attack to confuse.

That’s not to say that “Aum” skimps on Japanese voices, or shy away from an expected fascination with the morbid details of Asahara’s cult. Former members of Aum Shinrikyo are on hand to give their own personal testimony, as are parents whose children were indoctrinated into the group, as well as journalists who were attacked with sarin gas around the time of the subway incident, and lawyers who whose colleague was kidnapped – along with his wife and young son – when the public first identified Aum as a problem in the late 1980s.

Braun and Yanagimoto’s film makes chillingly clear that Aum was a local menace long before they became notorious on the world stage, and all of the documentary’s most painful episodes revolve around the half-forgotten people who died before police were forced to shut down the cult to take seriously Not a millisecond of this film focuses on the actual victims of the subway attack, but there is a heartbreaking chapter about Yoshiyuki Kono, who was wrongly blamed for the test run that killed seven people (including his wife and two dogs) in Matsumoto were killed year.

Braun and Yanagimoto’s biggest coup, however, should have been the participation of the cult’s former spokesman – and Asahara’s favorite “son” – Fumihiro Joyu, who seems perfectly willing to talk about his memories of Aum, and without any discernible Trace of shame or remorse. Or, for that matter, any sincere belief in his guru’s “teachings.” The sectarian nature of his interview material promises a mea culpa that never materializes (a realization that comes with hints of the testimony that inspired Joshua Oppenheimer of Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing), but Joyu’s evasively boastful declaration that he was the Best is -Hated Man in Japan falls flat because the film around him provides so little context for that statement.

Is this an accurate claim or an Asahara-like example of messianic self-inflation? And what does it reveal about the current state of cults in Japan that Joyu continues to lead a less imaginative version of the group that Asahara left behind? For all the impeccable research behind it — and the wealth of disturbing footage that brings to light his most disturbing discoveries — Braun and Yanagimoto’s film is frustratingly short-sighted about the societal conditions that allowed Aum to thrive in the public eye for so long . Many fingers are shown, but most only marginally.

Maybe the directors suspect we all understood them to some extent, or maybe they were just a little too seduced by the creepy oddities that got us hooked on stories like this, even if it’s really just a story told a thousand different ways. It’s true enough that the differences between modern history’s deadliest pyramid schemes mostly boil down to scale, but Aum: The Cult at World’s End only vaguely hints at the unique void that swells within each and every one of the allusions the same ominous gaps that all of the world’s most dangerous people are out there somewhere, doing their best to fill them.

Grade: C+

Aum: The Cult at the End of the World premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the US.

Registration: Stay up to date on the latest movie and TV news! Sign up for our email newsletter here. Aum: The Cult at the End of the World Review: A Chilling Doomsday Doc

Lindsay Lowe

World Time Todays is an automatic aggregator of the all world’s media. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials, please contact us by email – The content will be deleted within 24 hours.

Related Articles

Back to top button