Me and the Cult Leader (Japan, 2020) [SDAFF 2020]

The full Japanese title of Sakahara Atsushi’s first feature-length documentary is 贖い: 悪の陳腐さに関する新たな報告 (Aganai: aku no chinpusa ni kansuru aratana hokokui), which can be translated roughly as “Atonement: new report on the banality of evil.” Admittedly, “Me and the Cult Leader” is a more provocative and therefore catchy title compared to the Japanese-language one. It also literally denotes the shared journey of Sakahara and Araki Hiroshi of the religious cult Aleph — formerly named Aum Shinrikyo — and their frank conversations about the 1995 sarin nerve gas attacks that occurred in Tokyo subways, perpetrated by Aum and orchestrated by its leader Asahara Shoko.

But the Japanese-language title perhaps captures or expresses more strongly the tenacious and clinical yet also empathetic manner in which Sakahara engages Araki, head of public relations in Aleph, in conversation to understand not just what happened specifically in March 1995 (and why) — with Sakahara one of thousands exposed to the lethal sarin nerve gas and forced to live with long-term, if not permanent, physical as well as psychical impairment — but also Araki’s background, his circumstances and reasons for joining Aum back in 1993, and those that compel him to remain in the cult even after what happened in 1995 through to the present day. Forgoing a conventional sit-down talk and expert dry facts, Sakahara opts for a more informal and familiar video diary-like format conducive to emotional openness, structured by his and Araki’s series of outings that take them to the past, personal and collective, in the present. As such, the film is marked by an insularity that denotes the very specific and unlikely circumstances that bind these two men’s lives, while keeping the national context of the aforementioned traumatic event simmering on a low flame until the very end. Deceptively simple, the resulting documentary journal, as it were, is at once surprising and affecting in the perspective that it takes with regards to approaching Aum/Aleph with Araki.

Yet in this regard, Me and the Cult Leader invites comparisons with what are probably the two most well-known (documentary) films on Aum in the post-sarin nerve gas attacks period, Mori Tatsuya’s A (1998) and its follow-up A2 (2002). Those familiar with Mori’s films and watching Sakahara’s own will surely note that Araki is the figure who connects these three works. In Mori’s films, a much younger Araki appears as one of the cult’s members with whom Mori interacts and observes through his unprecedented access to Aum members and facilities, especially so recently after the attacks. For the time, Mori’s films provided not only insider access but also a diverging, non-judgmental perspective to Aum in general, whose members were all but vilified by mainstream press and average citizens alike, including those like Araki who had no connection to the sarin nerve gas attacks. But already the designated spokesperson for Aum, A focuses on Araki above all others. In a sense, Sakahara picks up where Mori left off, while heightening the personal, emotional concentration on Araki.

In keeping with the film’s more intimate approach and perspective, Sakahara and Araki meet up several times, as if they were primary school friends reuniting to catch up with each other and journey together to places of a shared past instead of being at opposing ends of a tragic event. But in the course of their outings, which are themselves born from their peculiar connection through Aum, they exchange rather private and at times intense memories that have impacted their respective lives, particularly the latter. And so it is that Sakahara infuses a humanising quotient into his examination of and interaction with Araki that is absent in Mori’s films; in fact, he insists upon it. Casual remarks or questions on the characteristics of the land that they traverse and observe through a train window, the identity of a tree, or what one ate as a child easily become sobering, candid, and quite moving conversations about Aum, the sarin nerve gas attacks, Araki’s decision to become an Aum renunciate (renouncing personal/familial connections and worldly desires and possessions), and the challenges that being a renunciate continue to pose for him, made possible in large part through Sakahara’s extremely personable, easy-going manner towards Araki. All in the name of drawing out Araki’s emotional life and thought processes with regards to Aum, the attacks, and Sakahara’s victimhood, Sakahara and Araki revisit the latter’s hometown province and Kyoto University, which Araki attended and where he first heard of Aum. For his part, Araki is a willing co-conspirator, as it were: whatever topic, question, or conversation that Sakahara throws at him, connected to Aum or not, Araki demonstrates an astounding sense of openness and candidness, particularly when it comes to memories of his childhood experiences and family. In the process, he presents himself as a thoughtful, sensitive, and articulate person with whom one can empathise, despite his ties to Aum. Sakahara even highlights such traits in Araki in that, throughout the film, in the face of a place from his childhood past, he allows Araki to immerse himself in feelings and memories. Moreover, Sakahara often gives the frame entirely to Araki and even has the camera zoom in to close-up shots in order for the viewer to take in Araki’s emotions, words, tears, and, just as importantly, silences and pauses. At times, Araki comes off as more sympathetic than Sakahara.

But in the larger scheme of things, Me and the Cult Leader is ultimately about Sakahara wrestling against not necessarily Araki but the teachings of Asahara and Aum indoctrination that Araki has ingested and, in Sakahara’s view, continue to hold a poisonous grip on his psyche. Despite the film’s very unassuming nature, Sakahara is engaging in nothing short of a battle against Asahara/Aum over Araki’s soul, so to speak. In this sense, Sakahara implicitly makes a point that Araki is as much a victim of Aum as Sakahara, even as he must also be held accountable for Aum’s actions. The film’s last half-hour, which most forcefully brings together family, nation, trauma, and (potential) atonement, attests to such a reading. In this context, the English-language title acquires an unexpected prescience.

Me and the Cult Leader was shown as part of the San Diego Asian Film Festival which ran from October 23-31.