It would be inappropriate to call cults “entertaining” — they’re soul-sucking, exploitative enterprises that ruin people’s lives — but if you’re interested in learning about human behavior, particularly its extremes, there’s no denying that cults are fascinating. Not just because people can do, say, and believe outlandish things as a result of cult mind control, but because of the social conditions that lead people to join them in the first place.
“AUM: The Cult at the End of the World,” directed by newcomers Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto, certainly doesn’t shy away from its subject’s atrocities; in fact, it opens with their most infamous one. But where less adept filmmakers might have resorted to shock value or bone-dry moralizing, the team behind “AUM” works hard to understand one cult in all its dazzling, horrifying complexity.
To reel you in, “AUM” opens with the cult’s notorious 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway, but really this documentary begins at their beginning, in the 1980s. Japan’s economy is booming and journalist Andrew Marshall has just moved to Tokyo. He describes the city as simultaneously “futuristic” and “backwards,” a place straight out of “Blade Runner,” where you could all too easily blow your apartment’s electricity by plugging in multiple items.
That simultaneous prosperity and fragility likewise characterized Japan’s people. Adrift in consumer culture, they sought something deeper, and many were drawn to the transmundane. Shoko Asahara, a charismatic yogi published in occult magazines who claimed he had gained superpowers through meditation, began cultivating a following. In 1987, that following became Aum Shinrikyo. By 1995, the cult would be found responsible for murder, chemical warfare, and terrorism.
Through archival footage and interviews, “AUM” unravels how such an organization developed and thrived, despite skepticism and outcry from lawyers, journalists, and members’ loved ones. The film is based on “The Cult at the End of the World: The Terrifying Story of the Aum Doomsday Cult, from the Subways of Tokyo to the Nuclear Arsenals of Russia,” which Marshall co-authored with David E. Kaplan, who also appears in the film. (Marshall and Kaplan are also credited as producers.) Their journalistic rigor — coupled with that of Japanese journalist Shoko Egawa, another interviewee — grounds what could otherwise be a sensationalist portrait of madness.
While the filmmakers interview the cult’s victims, they also rely heavily on Fumihiro Joyu, a senior member of Aum Shinrikyo who leads its current iteration today. This is a boon rather than a betrayal, as Joyu speaks about what drew him to the organization and the role he eventually played.
He says he joined Aum Shinrikyo because, despite his education in space technology, he didn’t want to be pulled into a galactic war. (To understand just how darkly ironic that assertion is, you’ll have to watch the film.)
Despite Joyu’s helpful contextualizing, the film hardly glorifies him: To hear Marshall tell it, the only reason Joyu wasn’t put to death like the rest of his colleagues is because, during the cult’s most heinous attacks on the Japanese public, he was overseeing its Russian membership. In perhaps the film’s most badass moment, Eiko Nagaoka, whose husband was nearly murdered for leading the Aum Victims Support Organization, says of Joyu, “I cannot die so long as he is alive.”
Before detailing the cult’s penchants for sarin gas attacks and burying naysayers, “Aum” delves into the upbringing, psychology, and appeal of Asahara. This is particularly instructive, demonstrating why a film about a cult that dissolved nearly 30 years ago might still be relevant today. Asahara’s charisma, cultural literacy, and kookiness made him seem deceptively nonthreatening, even to those who should have known better.
Before Aum Shinrikyo ever had spies in the media and police force, journalists painted him as a harmless oddity. It’s difficult to associate grave inhumanity with a portly man in fuschia robes who literally made himself into an anime character and had his followers dance around in papier-mâché imitations of his head.
But, as Marshall warns in the documentary’s rather on-the-nose finale, this was Asahara’s greatest trick. He asks what similar blindspots we might have now — including, say, the cult-like nature of American and British politics.
By the time the documentary gets there, you’ve likely already had that thought. Whether you’re paranoid about the right or the left, so many elements of Aum Shinrikyo (their persecution complex, their political estrangement, their cooperation with the then-president of Russia) ring eerily familiar. (1980s Donald Trump even makes an appearance early on in the film.) There’s no need to take viewers by the hand when your film has such an obvious destination.
Still, all along the journey, “AUM” balances perspective and tone with aplomb. The film zips by briskly, spending its 106-minute runtime well. Though it is ultimately a chronology, editor Keita Ideno (“Kusama: Infinity”) peppers in just enough unsolved mysteries to keep you hanging on until the very end. Yet “AUM” feels neither exploitative nor maudlin. This is a polished, straightforward account of harrowing events, told with empathy and relative objectivity. If you’re looking for an entrée into one of the most bizarre, complex chapters of human history, look no further.
“AUM: The Cult at the End of the World” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.