Confronting a Madman Trapped in a Japanese Doomsday Cult
The gripping new documentary “Me and the Cult Leader” features director Atsushi Sakahara questioning Hiroshi Araki, a man whose cult injured him in the Tokyo Subway sarin attack.
Hiroshi Araki doesn’t appear, on the surface, to be a monster. Wearing a dark blue windbreaker and khakis, and sporting glasses beneath an ordinary haircut, the man is the definition of nondescript—just your average Tokyo resident making his way through the city alongside his millions of fellow citizens. That ordinariness, however, is a façade. Because lurking beneath his plain exterior is a void, and though there are inklings that he’d like to reckon with the sociopath he’s become, such a process, Me and the Cult Leader suggests, isn’t fully achievable—no matter the transformative efforts made by him, and those on his behalf.
World-premiering at the digital edition of the Sheffield Doc/Fest this month (June 10 – July 10), Me and the Cult Leader: A Modern Report on the Banality of Evil is a documentary about both Araki and director Atsushi Sakahara, the former an executive in the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, and the latter a victim of that group’s early-morning March 20, 1995, sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways that left 13 dead and more than 6,200 injured. Sakahara remains physically and mentally scarred by that incident, and his film is an attempt to heal himself through understanding. Over the course of a few days, it tracks Sakahara and Araki as they engage in conversation while taking a literal trip down memory lane, visiting not only the underground subway station where Aum Shinrikyo perpetrated chemical warfare on the city’s populace, but also Araki’s former university stomping grounds and his hometown—places that were once a part of his life, before he joined the deadly cult.
There’s no context provided by Me and the Cult Leader; for that, one must seek out Sakahara’s accompanying true crime podcast Before After Aum, which comprehensively delves into Aum Shinrikyo’s history and conduct, all of it under the stewardship of founder and guru Shoko Asahara. Instead, after a brief montage of horrific sights from the sarin gas attack (set to panicked police radio chatter), as well as a few introductory text cards explaining the proceedings’ basic premise, it picks up with Sakahara and Araki on the street. After a year of negotiations, Araki agreed to speak with Sakahara about Aum Shinrikyo and the tragedy of that fateful day. From the get-go, though, it’s clear that this won’t be a straightforward confrontation, since Araki—a reserved, considerate individual who often pauses to think about his answers before speaking—is at once open to talking and yet unwilling to fully and honestly discuss the incident.
Araki immediately says that it’s “hard to remember” what went down, and that the accused who testified in court didn’t properly comprehend the situation, since they could only rely on their own incomplete versions of events and couldn’t know guru Asahara’s real intentions. “We cannot understand his truth,” he says about Asahara, who along with 12 accomplices was convicted of the sarin gas attack, and eventually put to death by hanging in 2018.
Evasion is the starting point for the duo’s dialogue, but over the course of their time together, revelations begin to emerge about Araki, thanks in part to the fact that interviewer and interviewee are surprisingly similar, having grown up in the same region, at the same time, and attended the same school. At the cult’s dojo, where numerous people reside, Araki shows off a typical daily meal for adherents consisting of rice, banana, soy milk, soy beans, and a bland “Aum soup,” stating, “We stay away from stimulating flavor. We try not to pleasure our sense of flavor.” It’s a small moment that speaks volumes, since we quickly learn that rejection is central to the operation and ethos of the cult, which demands that all members renounce their families, friends and former lives for an ascetic existence dedicated to Aum Shinrikyo.
For Araki, that was a painful ordeal that surprised and saddened his devoted parents, and Sakahara allows the cultist to tell his tale while simultaneously forcing him to address key issues—for instance, Araki’s hypocritical decision to temporarily return home, thereby proving that his renunciation wasn’t wholehearted. Throughout Me and the Cult Leader, Sakahara proves a canny questioner, amiably getting Araki to expound on recollections of his beloved grandmother, and the unhappy incidents that compelled him to join Aum Shinrikyo, and then seizing opportunities within those chats to undermine Araki’s elusions, denials, and overarching belief system. That strategy, carried out along a journey designed to conjure up memories of his discarded prior life, has a notable effect on the demeanor of Araki, who’s soon tearing up at long-buried thoughts, as well as his own complicity in the sarin gas massacre.
As its subtitle makes plain, Me and the Cult Leader is a portrait of banal evil. Having sought escape from personal disappointment and dissatisfaction, Araki hollowed himself out and then filled himself back up with Asahara’s severe teachings, in the process shielding himself from the world and his own responsibility to it. The more Sakahara presses him, the more he seems on the verge of coming to a great epiphany. If there’s tension to be found in this documentary, it’s in the anticipation for a bombshell generated by their long conversations, shot in extended takes that fixate on Araki’s placid countenance. In his eyes, one can see him critically analyzing Sakahara’s pointed queries, and contemplating his own choices and continuing culpability, since he remains in the cult, 25 years after it perpetrated its unforgivable atrocity.
Things come to a head in Me and the Cult Leader’s later passages, when Araki makes amends during a meal with Sakahara and his still-tormented parents. Even then, however, the promise of true rehabilitation seems like a mirage. At a climactic press conference—occurring at the end of Sakahara and Araki’s visit to the sarin gas attack site, where the latter lays flowers in commemoration—the film reveals the limits of genuine transformation. Both self-aware and determined to remain inside his hermetically-sealed cult bubble, Araki exemplifies the twisted, hopelessly compromised psychosis of those who enlist in such groups, and the damage their decisions have on themselves, their loved ones, and the many innocent people they choose to harm in the name of a mad cause.