Sundance Film Festival 2023 Review: AUM: The Cult at the End of the World

Chiaki Yanagimoto and Ben Braun’s AUM: The Cult at the End of the World tells the fascinating true story of Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo. Chronicling the cult’s history from its formation in 1987, Yanagimoto and Braun’s documentary delves into their deadly subway attack of 1995, their lingering connections with Nazis and contemporary Russia and wider themes of cult doctrine and the cult of personality. For their research, Braun and Yanagimoto draw on the work of journalist David E. Kaplan and Pulitzer Prize–winner Andrew Marshall (who both appear in the film).

In its 106 minute runtime, AUM: The Cult at the End of the World covers a substantial amount of Aum Shinrikyo’s troubling history. Holding nothing back, the feature explores leader Asahara’s rise to prominence in Japan and his claims of being a reincarnation of Buddha before delving into the true crime horror of the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system that left 14 dead and injured an estimated 6,000 additional civilians. This would ultimately see Aum Shinrikyo transform from a one time legitimate political presence in Japan to one of the country’s most extreme terrorist organizations.

Opening with chilling audio description documenting the noise of Aum Shinrikyo’s subway attacks, we hear the unnerving calls to emergency services and the hiss of gas filling the train. For those like myself without a particularly deep awareness of the attacks, Braun and Yanagimoto hook us into the motives behind this act of terrorism. Tracing to an earlier chronology, the documentary describes Tokyo as a blend of modernism and tradition through the eyes of a journalist freshly moved to the city, sewing the contextual seeds of the city that housed such a devastating attack.

Braun and Yanagimoto excel in gradually unveiling the mysteries of Aum Shinrikyo and their curious behaviour, dropping breadcrumbs of the horrors that will be explored whilst investing us in the events shrouded mystery. Documenting the conflict in a local village at the base of Mount Fuji and their newly moved in neighbours – Aum Shinrikyo (imagine You Only Live Twice’s volcano layer), elements of sheer madness are thrown in from sightings of Russian helicopters to Nazi nerve gasses being traced in the waters. It has all the makings of sixties spy thriller, but with the fascination of being soaked in truth.

AUM: The Cult at the End of the World soon delves into those responsible for these – exploring the structure of Aum Shinrikyo from former yoga teacher turned hierarchal leader Shoko Asahara manipulating followers, dedicating their possessions to the cult, before tapping into youth obsession with science fiction, supernatural and mysticism. The uniqueness of the story of Aum becomes more apparent as the documentary delves into Asahara and his political aspirations, submitting dozens of candidates for Japan’s House of Representatives and their subsequently humiliating political failure. Testimony from former cult members explores the cult of personality within Aum and Ashasra, before delving into the outlandishness of Aum’s strengthening of ties with Russia and their leader and movement’s growing popularity there.

There’s a real strangeness in the story of Aum as it builds up to the devastation of the subway attacks – it is a truly chaotic narrative journey that at one point feels like it is going to veer into the plot of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Weapons-manufacturing and heavy duty Russian military helicopters begin to hint at the violent plans that rear their head with this feeling like a simmering melting pot. The madness of the feature feels authenticated by grounding talking head contributions from academics and testimonies from involved parties.

Wider themes of the very notion of cults feeding and exploiting our anxieties, whilst delving into the idea of the media as feeding cult ideology and influence pack familiar beats to other documentaries exploring cults – yet these feel unavoidable.

AUM: The Cult at the End of the World is impeccably constructed by Chiaki Yanagimoto and Ben Braun, giving an insight and depth to a tragedy given little exploration in the West.

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