Me And The Cult Leader

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Me And The Cult Leader
"There are huge struggles going on here, with far reaching relevance, yet everything is conducted in a very quiet, polite, downbeat way."

On 20 March 1995, 12 people died, 50 were severely injured and over a thousand suffered other forms of trauma when deadly sarin nerve gas was released on the Tokyo underground. More than 200 members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult were subsequently arrested and 13 of them, including its guru, Shoko Asahara, who had apparently hoped that the attack would bring about the apocalypse and thus end the torment of karma, were executed. Others, bearing no clear responsibility for the crimes, were released back into the community, some after serving short prison sentences. Amongst these people was Hiroshi Araki, who is now one of the highest ranking members of the cult to remain at large.

In this documentary, survivor Atsushi Sakahara, who has suffered lasting health problems as a result of the attack, spends time with him, visiting places that are important to them both, talking, and trying to uncover the real reasons for what happened.

This isn't as simple as prompting a confession. For a self-proclaimed renouncer, a man who has given up on social connections and the pleasures of the material world in order to focus on the spiritual, Hiroshi does not seem to possess much self-awareness. One must be wary, of course, of the gap between what he truly believes and what he's willing to reveal, but the impression that builds up over the course of the film is of a man who is thoroughly lost.

In a pivotal scene when the two take a rest during a walk along a mountain path, he tells a story about a formative experience in his childhood - the sort of thing that might come and go for many people, but which seems to have left him profoundly disconnected from the world, in search of something to make it all make sense. In Japan, members of assorted religious cults are free to try and recruit in schools. It's easy to see how appealing this might have been to Hiroshi. When Atsushi realises that they went to the same school, just a year apart, one is reminded of what Truman Capote said about the killer Perry Smith: "One day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front."

There's a bond between Hiroshi and Atsushi, a natural connection built around their similar ages and background. If anybody seems to be exploiting this, it's Atsushi, who repeatedly lets Hiroshi get close before probing him with questions that border on cruelty - no doubt justified, and certainly understandable, but nonetheless uncomfortable to watch. Sometimes he seems to be trying to help, pushing the lonely cultist to reconcile with the parents he has shunned for years, even offering to buy him a new jacket, gradually drawing him back towards an ordinary life, but always with an underlying agenda.

Does he want to save Hiroshi, or simply to use this opportunity to try and save himself? For his part, Hiroshi seems to be going along with it all out of a desire for greater self-understanding, still pursuing a solution to his feelings of emptiness - yet for all his apparent openness, he maintains a barrier, clinging to the conviction that if he can't make moral sense out of Asahara's choices, this must be due to failure on his own part rather than that of his guru.

There are huge struggles going on here, with far reaching relevance, yet everything is conducted in a very quiet, polite, downbeat way, with even the paparazzi they encounter at a memorial service minding their manners. Atsushi's parents, who nursed him through the aftermath of the gas attack, explain their feelings to Hiroshi in carefully measured terms and make an effort to see his point of view. In another scene, Hiroshi explains that he doesn't like to take up much space in the world, crawling into a home proportioned like the office suite in Being John Malkovich. One wall is lined with religious books. Shortly after the attacks, Aum Shinrikyo split into Aleph and Hikari no Wa; Hiroshi remains devoted to the former, which has been accused of terrorism and financial irregularities since, but his shy smile and nervous laugh are a world away from most people's image of such things.

A compelling film which tests the boundaries of journalistic ethics, Me And The Cult Leader will keep you constantly wondering who is in control, whilst raising questions about the nature of power. There's a profound sadness to it, not simply because of the lives lost and ruined, but because of the bigger questions neither man can answer and the sense that it is only in their relationship to those questions that they can really find what they seek in one another.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2020
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Atsushi Sakahara, a victim of the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo's subway system, travels with Hiroshi Araki, an executive of Aleph (formerly Aum Shinrikyo), the attack's perpetrators, visiting their respective hometowns and the university they both attended.

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