Aum: Cult at the end of the world tells the little-known story behind the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, the largest act of domestic terrorism in Japanese history when sarin gas was released into the Tokyo subway system during rush hour, killed 14 people.
Director Chiaki Yanagimoto and Ben Braun aum, delves into Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday sect behind the attack, founded by Shoko Asahara, a yogi who claims to be an incarnation of Buddha. The document, drawn from the book on the cult by investigative journalist David E. Kaplan and Pulitzer Prize winner Andrew Marshall, is told through the testimonies of characters such as Fumihiro Joyu, a former follower of the cult. Aum, who was to blame for the attack, and Marshall, a British journalist living in Japan, who soon sounded the alarm about the cult.
Braun — son and grandson of Dan and Josh Braun, founders of documentary production and sales company Submarine — has been working in and around documents for years, but aum marked his directorial debut. Yanagimoto and Braun talking CHEAP around aum.
Before doing Aum, what is your personal understanding of the Tokyo subway attack?
CHIAKI YANAGIMOTO I was in secondary school. I grew up in a place called Yamanashi, the countryside of Japan, and at the age of 11, when it happened, up until that point I didn’t really know about the group. When the attack happened, it was huge news and it didn’t take long for us to realize that this group was behind this crime. Then I personally found out that their biggest headquarters is in Yamanashi. I remember all the parents telling their children to be careful of people in white robes roaming the mountains.
Wharf BRUN I went through a similar experience, growing up in New York, where my elementary school was next to the World Trade Center. I was there that morning with my mother and it was a very traumatic experience, and being so close to it. I think this attracted me to research similar incidents. And when you read about this particular incident, you know a lot about what happened, but it seems difficult to find out what really led to it. While what led up to 9/11 has been very, very thoroughly analyzed and well understood. I wanted to break into directing and feel this is something that, from my own life, knows how to live with a lot of trauma and work through it, so I can relate to it in some way. .
What does the documentary offer that the media or other media that covered the incident did not?
BRUN When you look at the broader story, even though I already knew a lot about the case, when we started researching there was a lot more to it. I think we feel like that hasn’t been said. When you look at the coverage of the various incidents in the film, it’s almost like an archaeological dig. Only small bits of the story were told in a book, some told in another documentary made, some told in the news. And it looks like this just needs to be put all in one place. It’s like it needs to be put together so that it can be recounted in an understandable way. So you can see the cumulative impact of everything that happens.
The archives in the film are very rich. A lot of the footage shown seemed simultaneous and seemed to come from within the cult. How did you find it?
BRUN It’s completely magical. The movie had a lot of challenges and the challenge from the beginning was when we started researching it and we would go to YouTube and we would see little clips of new things coming out there. [We’d ask]”Whose scene is this?”
YANAGIMOTO We’re not talking about news-like footage, we’re talking about footage that was clearly shot within the group.
BRUN We were like, “Who owns all this?” In the book that we have chosen as the reference point for the story it covers in the table of contents, Aum has filmed many of their own activities. We thought we would find it, and basically we couldn’t. What ended up happening was that after we met Joyu for the first time, we brought up the issue and he said, “Someone must have had them. Maybe I have some around, I’ll search.
YANAGIMOTO I went back in Feb 2020 to research and a few days before my flight back to LA Ben mentioned that Joyu mentioned he might have some tapes, why don’t we call him and ask again . Joyu said, “’”If you go to this office in Nagano, I think you’ll find something.” So on the day I took my flight back to LA, I bought an empty suitcase in Tokyo and took the bullet train to Nagano, to this office and there were video and VHS tapes, books and cassettes. I put everything I could in that suitcase, from there I went straight to the airport and back to LA
BRUN Chiaki took the bullet train and at the last second we were trying to find anyone who could come with her. This is the night of the Oscars in 2020 when Parasites won the best picture and I was in [Parasite distributor] Neon’s awards party and went to the bathroom and stayed on FaceTime video for an hour with her while she went into this place to find these tapes, so I could answer the phone in case there was a problem. something strange happened.
Cults are a very popular documentary topic. How do you distinguish the stories told in aum?
BRUN The submarine worked Wild, wild country; we have worked on many hit things and they are all the same. What’s different here is that it’s a disaster movie. Of course, you need to delve into their ideology and what they want to do, but it revolves around this big incident and second, it revolves around a western journalist who comes to Japan and hears about the strange phenomenon. Strange happening in the hinterland. At that point, it started to look like Godzilla. It’s the story of his monster lurking in the countryside.
YANAGIMOTO Our stance on this film is that a story is more like making a narrative film than saying, “‘”Let’s make a hit documentary.” Personally, I’m not aware of what the other hit documentaries did or didn’t because I found this story very character driven. All of our references are not other cult material. to be monster or godfather.
What do you want Sundance audiences to see in the documentary?
YANAGIMOTO I’m really curious what the Japanese think about this movie. The story that we tell in the movie, for many Japanese, they don’t really know or they intentionally ignore it. I want the Japanese people to really see our own history and what really happened. And really take it not as something to be ashamed of, but as something that happened and this is something we can learn from it.
BRUN I hope Americans can learn something about their present day context by watching this. When you’re going through the story of a person with delusions of grandeur and a very popular, well-loved character with a huge following, this person has come off the wall and is basically… launch an attack on the capital. I will definitely subscribe to everyone. When someone says, “Harmageddon is coming, I will destroy the world.” Or, “I’m not leaving the office.” We need to listen to what people are saying because sometimes what the intention might be is no mystery.