The Japanese Cult Behind the Sarin Gas Attack That Killed 13 in 1995

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No matter what you call them, extremist religious groups led by charismatic gurus are rarely to be trusted. Japan learned that lesson the hard way on Mar. 20, 1995, when a sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system left 13 people dead and hundreds injured.

That a chemical weapon created by the Nazis had been used against the public was hard to stomach. Even tougher to comprehend was the fact that the terrorist perpetrators were the victims’ own countrymen: followers of a high-profile collective known as Aum Shinrikyo, which promised acolytes supernatural powers, preached about the coming apocalypse, and threatened enemies with death.

Premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition, Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto’s sharp and unsettling directorial debut AUM: The Cult at the End of the World is a non-fiction adaptation of journalists Andrew Marshall and David E. Kaplan’s similarly titled book, and an incisive look at the inner workings—and rise to prominence—of Aum Shinrikyo, an outfit whose origins were, on the face of things, humble.

Founded as a yoga school, Aum Shinrikyo was the brainchild of Shoko Asahara (real name: Chizuo Matsumoto), who in 1987 transformed his fledgling venture into a legally recognized religion. To promote Aum Shinrikyo, he produced books and anime cartoons that spread his gospel, which at first was most notable for proclaiming that adherents would attain the same powers he had: namely, the ability to read people’s minds and levitate.

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  1. Some doomsday cults implode in self destruction such as “Heaven’s Gate,” or the “Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments,” literally controlled to death by their leaders. This one exploded in Japan in an external attack against the public at large planned by its master Shoko Asahara.

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