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Sundance: ‘Aum’ directors on their paper on the Doomsday cult behind the Tokyo subway attacks

Aum: The sect at the end of the world tells the lesser-known story behind the highly publicized 1995 Tokyo subway attack, the largest act of domestic terrorism in Japan’s history, which saw the release of saring gas into the Tokyo subway system during rush hour, killing 14 people .

Chiaki Yanagimoto and Ben Braun directed Ouch, which takes a deep dive into Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult behind the attack, founded by Shoko Asahara, a self-professed yogi who said he was the reincarnation of Buddha. Drawing on investigative journalist David E. Kaplan and Pulitzer Prize winner Andrew Marshall’s book on the cult, the doc is told through the testimonies of characters like Fumihiro Joyu, a former Aum devotee blamed for the attack. ignored, and Marshall, a British journalist living in Japan who sounded the alarm about the cult early on.

Braun – the son and nephew of Dan and Josh Braun, the founders of the document production and sales company Submarine – has worked in and around documents for years, but Ouch marks his directorial debut. Yanagimoto and Braun talked THR as regards Ouch.

What was your personal understanding of the Tokyo subway attack before making Aum?

CHIAKI YANAGIMOTO I was in high school. I grew up in a place called Yamanashi, rural Japan, and at age 11, when it happened, I didn’t really know about the group until that point. When the attack happened it was huge news and it didn’t take us long to realize that this group is behind this crime. Then I personally found out that their main headquarters is in Yamanashi. I remember all the parents telling their children to be careful of people in white robes roaming the mountains.

BEN BRAUN I had more or less a similar experience growing up in New York where my elementary school was next to the World Trade Center. I was there with my mom that morning and it was very traumatic to go through, and to be very close to it. I think this attracted me to investigate similar incidents. And if you read about this particular incident, you know a lot of information about what happened, but it seemed difficult to sort out what actually led up to it. Whereas what leads to 9/11 is very, very overanalyzed and well understood. I had wanted to expand into directing and felt like this was something that, knowing from my own life how to live and process a lot of trauma, I could relate to it in a way.

What does the documentary have to offer that news media or other coverage of the incident does not?

BRAUN If you look at the wider story, although I knew a lot about the incident, when we started investigating it there was so much more leading up to it. I think we felt like that wasn’t told. When you look at the coverage of the various incidents in the film, it almost looks like an archaeological dig. Only small bits of the story were told in a book, some were told in another documentary being made, some were told in the news. And it felt like this just needed to be put all in one place. Like it needs to be put back together so it can be told in an understandable way. So you can see the cumulative effect of everything that happens.

The archive material in the film is extensive. Much of the footage shown looked contemporary and seemed to come from within the cult. How did you find it?

BRAUN It’s utterly wonderful. The movie has had so many challenges and that was from the beginning when we started researching it and we would go on YouTube and see little clips of things that were just on the air. [We’d ask]”Whose footage is this?”

YANAGIMOTO We’re not talking about news footage, we’re talking about images clearly shot within the group.

BRAUN We were like, “Who owns all this?” In the book, which we chose as a reference point for the story mentioned in the index, Aum filmed many of their own activities. We thought we would find it, and actually we couldn’t. What eventually happened was after we first met Joyu, we brought this up and he said, ‘Someone has to have them. Maybe I still have some lying around, I’ll have a look.”

YANAGIMOTO I went back in February 2020 for research and a few days before my flight back to LA Ben reminded me that Joyu said he might have some tapes why don’t we just call him and just ask again. Joyu said, “If you go to this office in Nagano, I think you’ll find something.” So the day I had my flight back to LA, I bought an empty suitcase in Tokyo and took an ultra-fast train to Nagano went to this office and there was VHS tapes and VHS tapes books and cassette tapes I put everything I could in that briefcase went straight from there to the airport and came back to LA

BRAUN Chiaki took the bullet train and it was such a last second that we tried to find someone to go with her. This was the night of the Oscars in 2020 back then Parasite won best photo and I was there [Parasite distributor] Neon’s awards ceremony and went to the bathroom and stayed on FaceTime video with her for an hour as she went to this place to find these tapes so I could be on the phone in case something strange happened.

Cults are a very popular documentary subject. How did you differentiate the story into Ouch?

BRAUN Submarine was working on Wild, wild country; we’ve worked on tons of cult stuff and they’re all similar. What was different about this is that it’s a disaster movie. Of course you have to dive into their ideology and what they wanted to do, but it revolves around this major incident and secondarily around a western journalist who comes to Japan and hears about this strange phenomenon happening in the hinterlands. At that point, it starts to feel like Godzilla. It is a story about his monster lurking in the countryside.

YANAGIMOTO Our position for this movie was more of a story, like making a narrative movie, rather than saying, “Let’s make a cult documentary.” Personally, I wasn’t aware of what other cult documentaries did or didn’t do because I saw this story as very character driven. All our references were not other cult documents. Our references were Godzilla or Godfather.

What do you want the Sundance audience to see in the documentary?

YANAGIMOTO I am very curious what Japanese people think of this film. The story we tell in the movie, for many Japanese, they don’t really know or they deliberately looked away. I want the Japanese people to really see our own history and what really happened. And really don’t think of it as a shame, but as something that happened and here’s what we can learn from it.

BRAUN I hope Americans can learn something about their current context by watching this. As you go through the story of someone megalomaniac and a very popular, beloved figure who has a huge following, who goes off the wall and basically launches an attack on the capital. I’m sure people will register. When someone says, “Armageddon is coming, I’m going to destroy the world.” Or, “I’m not going to leave my office.” We have to listen to what people say because sometimes it’s not that much of a mystery what the intentions might be.

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