Tokyo: Twenty years ago today, the release of sarin gas into the Tokyo subways by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult killed 13 people. The attack shattered a sense of safety. Atsushi Sakahara politely walks in to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan and apologises for his casual filmmaker attire. He then sits down and tells his story.
The Day Tokyo Got Gassed
It was a near brush with death for the 48-year-old. Then in his late 20s, he noticed a package on the floor wrapped in newspaper after boarding the subway to go to work. It was the sarin gas. His eyes began to feel strange and lose focus, and he wondered if he had forgotten to rinse his contact lenses. Sensing something was wrong, he moved to the next car. Looking back to the first car, he and others saw a middle-aged man had lost consciousness. At the next stop, passengers carried him and another person out. Sakahara later heard that one had died. He got into a taxi. His vision started to get darker. He said he could look right at the sun as if he were wearing very strong sunglasses. He left a note to his boss and walked to a nearby hospital. He didn’t get the antidote as his injuries were not serious enough. After lying down for a while, he went home.
The experience made him realise that life can be shorter and more valuable than he thought. He left his job at Dentsu advertising agency and consulted with a rabbi in the United States. He later helped a friend in Hollywood make a short film, Bean Cake which won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2001. In 2010, he published an autobiography, Sarin Gas and Bean Cake but he still felt unsettled. “I guess the catharsis was not enough,” he said. He decided to make a documentary on Aum, which has since split into two groups, focusing on a man who is the public relations director of the larger group, Aleph. But Sakahara still has trouble sleeping, fatigue, numbness in his limbs and sometimes blackouts.
Even if people kill each other under the name of religion, even if people kill each other under the name of a country, or even if people kill each other under the name of race, I still want to believe in humans.
-Atsushi Sakahara, Tokyo Saris Gas Attack Survivor