In Me And The Cult Leader, director Atsushi Sakahara, a victim of the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo's subway system, goes on a journey with Hiroshi Araki, an executive of Aleph (formerly Aum Shinrikyo) - the attack's perpetrators. They visit their respective hometowns and the university that they both attended.
During their travels, the unlikely pair talk about their lives, their families and their beliefs - developing a surprising and often moving bond. We see them laughing together, skipping stones and sharing headphones.
These intimate moments are surprising - even charming. However, the documentary never loses sight of its ultimate purpose - to find the human behind the mask of Aum and to expose the banality of evil.
For 20 years, Sakahara has suffered from the effects of the attack - he has symptoms of fatigue, paralysis and post traumatic stress. Throughout this time, he has struggled to understand why the incident took place.
After years of negotiations, filming on Me And The Cult Leader began. Understandably, Sakahara uses the documentary to discover why Araki joined Aum Shinrikyo and why he still remains an executive member of the cult.
Araki was not directly involved in any of the crimes - but he was a cult member at the time. He finds it difficult to equate the attack, which killed 13 people and injured 6,200, with what he was taught by the group’s leader, Shoko Asahara. Should a cult (or a religion for that matter) be held to blame for the actions of some of its members?
Sakahara pushes him to confront his own guilt and culpability. He wants him to see Aum Shinrikyo for what it is and face the damage it has inflicted. It is fascinating to see Araki’s practised PR responses begin to give way to more genuine emotions.
Meanwhile, Me And The Cult Leader also explores the lasting impact of joining a cult. Here, the film begins to feel like something of a rescue mission. Sakahara wants to open Araki's eyes to what he has lost and guide him towards redemption.
A documentary consisting of two men talking amiably for almost two hours sounds like it shouldn’t work. However, Me And The Cult leader is surprisingly powerful, gripping and thought-provoking.