The two men on the train are sharing a single set of earphones. “Good song, isn’t it?” says the more gregarious of the two. The quieter man smiles faintly and agrees, “It goes with the landscape.” They could be childhood friends reconnecting, or colleagues who get along despite their differences. But they are filmmaker Atsushi Sakahara, victim of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attacks, and Hiroshi Araki, long-standing member of Aleph (formerly Aum Shinriko) the doomsday cult that carried them out. And their flickering but unmistakable connection forms the core of the desperately moving “Me and the Cult Leader,” a film made all the more heartbreaking because you can never be quite sure who your heart is breaking for.
In the decades since the attack — panicky amateur footage of which opens the film, as the soundtrack crackles with frantic police chatter — Sakahara has suffered from PTSD and various physical impairments. Often his eyes get so tired he can scarcely keep them open. And yet, ever ready with a wisecrack, he walks through the world far more at ease with himself than Araki, who lives in a joyless Aleph facility, eating carefully unseasoned food (“we try not to pleasure our sense of flavor”) and sleeping on bare boards.
Araki is a “renunciate”: He has turned away from the world, his family and perhaps his selfhood, the better to serve the ideals of his guru, Shoko Asahara. That Asahara is the madman behind the terrorist acts that killed 13 and injured over 6,000 (he and 12 acolytes were executed for their crimes in 2018) is clearly troubling to Araki — who himself played no part in the attacks — but not dealbreakingly so. “We cannot understand his truth,” he says blandly.
Such evasions occur often, especially in the beginning. We’re told it took Sakahara a year to convince Araki to participate, but even so, initially he’s guarded and wary. Lengthy pauses stretch between even the most softball of questions and his desperately earnest replies. But Sakahara is taking Araki on a journey that will, as much as the filmmaker’s own genial presence, start to soften that stiff, fearful demeanor. It turns out they grew up in the same region and attended Kyoto University only a year apart, and in bringing Araki back to these places, Sakahara for all his hearty friendliness, is enacting a canny strategy of subtle deprogramming.
It seems, for a time, to be working. Araki cries when the train idles at the station near his grandmother’s house. He recalls stories from his childhood — painful little fables he relates haltingly. He even has an uncharacteristic burst of childlike excitement when they stop off to skim stones across a lake. He is good at it, and takes very un-renunciate pleasure in it.
Editor Junko Watanabe deserves special mention for establishing the discursive, meditative rhythm. Far more than the otherwise utilitarian craft — handheld shots of men in parkas looking at gray buildings in the light drizzle under an unvarnished, caught-on-the-fly dialogue track — it is this rhythm that mesmerizes, as the dynamic between the men begins to seesaw in fascinating ways.
This ebb and flow is gripping, but hardly akin to the punchy dramatics of the thriving subgenre of true-crime/cult documentary to which “Me and the Cult Leader” loosely belongs. Fans of Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” or HBO’s “The Vow” may be disappointed by the lack of cliffhanger storytelling and salacious detail as, if anything, Sakahara is overly reticent about both the attack and the more extremist excesses of the Aleph belief system: The context, if you look it up, is far more damning toward Araki than the film ever suggests. But then, Sakahara’s aim is not confrontation but conversation, and what one might expect to be a reckoning evolves into a relationship.
The only hint of bombast is the subtitle “A Modern Report on the Banality of Evil.” It’s a strange choice of phrase, given that this provocative and profound film suggests not Araki’s evil but his emptiness, which renders him pitiable, especially compared to Sakahara, who for all his suffering is by far the stronger, smarter and more stable of the two. But then the true divide between “Me and the Cult Leader” runs deeper even than victim/perpetrator; it’s between those who belong in this big, messy world, and those can find no place in it, condemned to skip across its surface like a stone.