In 1995 members of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo (now named Aleph) deposited bags of sarin gas along Tokyo’s subway line during rush hour. It was an act of domestic terrorism that killed 13 people and has left many thousands with long-lasting health issues, including writer and director Atsushi Sakahara. His documentary Me and the Cult Leader is an introspective project about the attack. In the film, Sakahara meets and befriends a member of Aleph in order to explore trauma, forgiveness, and responsibility.

Sophie Maxwell spoke to Atsushi Sakahara about the film and his experience directing such a personal project.

Thank you so much for this incredibly moving and challenging film. What was the central feeling that motivated you to make Me and the Cult Leader?

As you know, I’m a victim [of the attacks]. I also have the unique experience of having been married to an ex-member of Aum Shinrikyo. I always had the idea of developing a project as an autobiographical story. But I had one question to ask myself: how much do I know Aum Shinrikyo? I’m a victim, but not a journalist. I know some things through my ex-wife, but she doesn’t want to talk so I don’t [ask]. That’s one factor. Also, as a victim, I have a very strong feeling that nobody really understands us. Many journalists approach us in Japan. They write what I say but they never have the opportunity to spend time [with us]. If you’re a victim you don’t reveal it easily, but when you are cornered, you start to show fatigue. That sort of feeling led me to ask, do I really understand Aum? Do I really understand who they are? I didn’t have a solid answer for that so I thought, let’s make a film.

How did you find Araki Hiroshi [the cult member featured in the documentary]?

Frankly I didn’t have much selection. I convinced Aleph [to be involved in the film] and in the beginning I asked Araki if he would let me live in the dojo, in their facility. I thought, then they would know me, they would see my fatigue [a symptom of Sakahara’s long-term side effects from exposure to sarin]. But they said it wasn’t possible. They didn’t want to reveal their identities, even though they have left society. [Members of Aleph retreat from normal society to live together, tending to cut ties with friends and family.] Araki was the PR person, so he was the only choice for me. The fact that we were from the same region and the same school was all a coincidence. With the coincidence, I structured the plan of the shooting trip.

And you wanted him to apologise?

Yes, because I knew if he apologised, Aum in his mind would collapse.

Sakahara Family

Courtesy of: Good Move Media

Did you always plan to befriend Araki?

I am a very open-minded person. Too open-minded as a Japanese person! I’m too strange, I don’t fit into Japanese society. That’s something we shared, in different ways. So when we spent time together I talked about my views on Japan. In order to build a relationship, you must have common ground. So I talked about my feelings towards the government and society, and he understood me well. I was open with him, but I had to ask him not to talk to me until the camera was rolling, because I am not a good actor. I couldn’t have done a second take! Usually professional documentarians and journalists try not to talk about themselves. They listen. But I am an amateur documentary director and took an amateurish approach, and that worked well for this.

There’s a moment in the film when you challenge Araki about his lack of conviction about his philosophies. How did it feel for you to confront him?

Before the production I was his friend, and during production I was his friend. Afterwards, I’ve still been a friend, and I don’t know if it’s welcome or not, it’s his choice, but I’m his friend. I wanted to wake him up. I wanted to rescue him from the cult. In one sense, he was a classmate [they both attended Kyoto University], so I treated him as if he were an old college friend.

Are you still in touch with him now?

I try. Once in a while I feel anger, not out of hate, but out of disappointment. I have hope for him, so I’m frustrated. I saw him on Christmas Eve 2018. I went to a human rights gathering in Kyoto and he was there. He was very shocked to see me. In 2016 I had a five-hour discussion with him in a freezing park in Tokyo. And he said he would stop recruiting. And I was very happy. But he didn’t.

Araki Crying

Courtesy of: Good Move Media

I think it reflects on your personal philosophy that you are continuing the conversation with him. The message of the film seems to be the power of conversation and the importance of listening to somebody on the other side. It seems that you believe in forgiveness, and that people can change. Would you say there is always a place for these conversations in our human stories of suffering and trauma? Is friendship always a route towards healing?

You need friends to live. You have to be open-minded. You don’t have to obey, but you have to listen. Araki lost his capability to listen, and that’s why I feel sorry for him. I’m already not so young, but when you are young, experienced people advise you. The scariest thing about getting older is that people don’t advise you anymore. You start to appreciate when people criticise you. You can learn and improve yourself so much. You need friends who can criticise you. I felt sorry for Araki, because he didn’t have true friends around him to challenge him.

A moment struck me in the film when Araki describes joining Aleph, and how he lost all joy in his life. It’s a difficult moment because, as you say, you wish he’d had friends to take him in a different direction.


This is your first feature-length documentary. How has the whole process of making the film made you feel?

I feel that now I can move on. That’s what’s important. Maybe I can move onto the next film, maybe an autobiographical one. But I have another story I wrote that’s not about me, because my father passed away last year. Of course, he wanted to see my first work, but he understood that I cannot compromise. He waited and waited. But he understands, and he’s in the film. When I saw my father’s body, I wrote another story that I haven’t published yet. But sometimes if you borrow someone else for your story, you start to think, do I really know them? In this industry you can’t make a film by yourself, so we will see what comes first.

Atsushi and Araki on the Subway

Courtesy of: Good Move Media

Is the autobiographical element an important part of healing, too?

Yes. The important thing, for Me and the Cult Leader, was that I didn’t run away. I faced the feelings. This gives me satisfaction.

How does that work in the editing room? You were having difficult conversations and then having to re-watch and work with them.

It was very challenging. My psychological defence system was triggered when I started editing. I kept falling asleep. Really! I didn’t know that would happen. Post-production took five years. Finally [co-producer] Pearl Chan helped me locate a very good editor, Junko Watanabe. She started cutting, and she understood my process. To review everything was very hard, and I had almost no experience. So if a professional editor said something, it stuck with me. And Junko was very good.

I felt that the important thing was to maintain truthfulness to myself. There were so many directions to go with this film. It’s hard to understand yourself as a director in front of a camera. You ask, what is my unique role in this?

And now, where is the film at in terms of distribution? And has anyone close to you seen it, such as your mother, or Araki?

I showed it to a limited number of people, who were knowledgeable about the film. They liked it. Araki, though, never replied when I contacted him.

Araki Laughing

Courtesy of: Good Move Media

Do documentaries play a big part in your life?

Now they do! I started to dream of being a film director after I watched the Beverly Hills Cop franchise. I’m not coming at this from Godard… I’m coming at it from American popcorn movies. I never thought I’d make an intelligent movie, or a quiet movie, like this one.

Because I survived the sarin gas attack, I was a subject of mass media attention. I became very sceptical of documentaries, to be honest. That’s why truthfulness was so important to me. I still think that for me it’s easier to deliver truth through fiction. I do have some ideas to make another documentary. Not about Araki though, unless he leaves the cult. You can see it, right? He leaves, he struggles, and I can help him as a friend! But I don’t want to make another documentary film about the cult.

I think the politics of documentaries can sometimes obscure truth. What I love so much about your film is the clarity: you are always clear with yourself, with Araki, and with the audience, about what you are hoping for from the process. And that’s what makes it such a strong film.

Thank you.

What is your favourite film?

I think I’m probably the film director who knows least about films on Earth! I like Beverly Hills Cop. And Midnight Run. Then I discovered that they are both directed by the same person [Martin Brest]. I like Napoleon Dynamite. It’s a great film! I really want to make a film like that.

You’d certainly have an amazing career trajectory if you move from Me and the Cult Leader to Napoleon Dynamite.

I love that film. It would be a way for me to find balance. That sense of cool, a funny way of doing things, alongside the material I was given by chance.

Atsushi and Araki in Kyoto

Courtesy of: Good Move Media

I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Thank you. For me, making a film is a learning process. I think my sense of humour is good. I’ve been living in hell, in some ways, so many bad things have happened to me. But still I’m laughing and smiling. That’s the spirit we all need to have, right? But this film is serious, and I should say that the title is English. We have a Japanese title too, but the original is English, because I want to share it with the whole world. There are terrorist attacks and hate in the world. And I think that the root of these things is portrayed in my film, in talking to Araki and describing how he started out [in the cult].

If you go into war, you need a uniform, a mask, to hide your truth. People who commit terrorist attacks might not wear uniforms, but they wear masks, in a sense. They kill people. They fall into a state of ceasing to think. I want people all over the world to watch my film and to learn about how humans can fall into that [situation]. Araki was a good guy in the beginning. He didn’t commit any crimes as far as I know, but he still stuck with Aum. It’s so unfortunate. So much can be found in this film for the rest of the world, and if it works, I will feel that I’ve done my job.

But now we’ve got too serious… I like The Blues Brothers, as well.

I like it, too. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

I didn’t have a plan to talk about my favourite film… I hope people don’t think I’m not intelligent!

Not at all. For most of us, I think our very favourite film isn’t the one we tell people about. We need to keep reminding each other that humour can be the most important thing.

I think a sense of humour is the ultimate freedom of thought. In retrospect, looking at my film, I’m a joker. That’s why I’m not in a cult. If you have a sense of humour, you can see things more objectively. In my film, there’s a big contrast [between the humour and the subject matter]. There was one moment when Araki laughed at my joke. Maybe that was my one true victory!

Me and the Cult Leader premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020. Further release information is upcoming. Our review can be found here.

Atsushi Sakahara’s podcast, Before/After Aum, explores many of the themes touched on here in more detail – you can find it at

With thanks to Atsushi Sakahara, Pearl Chan and Kaila Hier. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.