Imagine the following scenario: a millenary cult commits a terrorist attack on a major metro subway line, filling the cars with poison gas and killing many passengers. In the investigation that follows, it is learned that the cult is not only widespread and deep-pocketed, but peopled with highly-regarded intellectuals from the nation's top universities. What kind of shockwaves would that send through the halls of power? What kind of intellectual chill would result? That's roughly the situation that Japan faced in 1995, in the aftermath of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult's nerve gas attack on the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway. Four hundred suspected collaborators and fellow travelers were arrested following that attack, although some of the leadership went uncaught. The cult -- its members, its practices, its mythology -- vaulted to the forefront of Japanese consciousness and never left. Over ten years later, stories about the potential resurfacing of the cult and its leaders still make for easy, scary headlines and gel nicely with the image Japan exports through its entertainment, of a society with ghosts practically falling out of the walls. Akihiko Shiota's Kanaria is a thinly fictionalized take on the societal fallout of the attack.

Although set in the aftermath, the film is peppered with flashbacks to the cult's apex, when it had an entire apparatus set up for bringing in and breaking down new recruits with military efficiency and crushing brutality. For the offense of dropping food on the floor, we see one child hog-tied from head to foot in leather straps. The child, Koichi (Hoshi Ishida), was forced into the cult by his mother, an empty-eyed true believer. When we first see him, he is busting out of a juvenile detention facility where he was sent after the cult was smashed by the authorities and his mother left him alone to join the fugitive cult leadership in the underground. With no money and no family, he wanders the countryside aimlessly, jabbing a rusty screwdriver he carries into any hard surface he can find like someone who is criminally insane. Clearly headed toward another confrontation with law enforcement, he's saved by an almost mythical collision with common sense, in the form of Yuki (Mitsuki Tanimura) a young, streetwise girl who has been abducted by a child molester.

Koichi happens to be standing in the middle of the road when the car being driven by Yuki's abductor comes roaring out of nowhere and then swerves to avoids him, overturning in a ditch. At the risk of being accused of a lazy comparison, the next scene feels like something out of Kurosawa, with its rapidly shifting points-of-view and beautiful free-standing imagery. With one handcuff hanging off her wrist, Yuki crawls out of the overturned car and struggles to her feet. She and Koichi then race away from the scene and towards the freedom of the open country, leaving the abductor to die alone. In a more conventional movie, this might be the precursor to a cutesy, adolescent romance, but Kanaria is more interested in having its characters represent different sides of a national dialogue than in telling a conventional story. From the moment he meets Yuki, Koichi's deep belief in the cult's religion, which hasn't faded, is put under scrutiny. When he expresses moral reservations about stealing food so that they can survive, she immediately retorts "But it's OK to murder people!?"

Koichi and Yuki begin a cross-country journey towards Tokyo -- he wants to locate a younger sister who was barely old enough to walk when the cult dispersed, and was sent to live with grandparents. As they travel, unaided by adults, the film reveals, perhaps unintentionally, an interesting aspect of Japanese culture -- the lack of condescension between children and adults. We see Koichi and Yuki eating and being attended to in a restaurant and engaging in important, plot-advancing discussions with adults. We also see them stage a dramatic confrontation at the home of Koichi's grandparents. In an American film it would read as absurd to have a twelve year-old relating to an old man as an equal, let alone forcefully accusing him of moral shortcomings. Wes Anderson's Rushmore got a great deal of mileage out of recognizing this dichotomy and exploiting it for humor. In this film, it's played perfectly straight.

A subtle parrying between Koichi and Yuki over his religious beliefs continues throughout the film, as Koichi struggles to shake off the institutionalization he experienced during his time inside the cult, where even the slightest deviation from what was prescribed would lead to a violent rebuke. Yuki is the opposite: she's naturally inquisitive and able to survive only by questioning the people around her. At one point, exasperated with his inability to recognize the reality of his situation, she exclaims "We just have terrible chemistry!" The closer the two get to Tokyo, the more opportunities the director has to show us the effect of the cult on society at large. The fear generated by the attack hasn't subsided. Grimy wanted posters and grainy television images of the escaped subway attackers -- including Koichi's mother -- are sprinkled everywhere, setting us up for the possibility that they will make a late appearance in the film. When they finally do, it's in a completely unexpected way that eschews easy good guy/bad guy scripting. The danger that Koichi and Yuki have to avoid is not a madman who wants to shut them up or a religious fanatic who wants to put their brains in the spin-cycle. The danger is that they will not be able to accomplish the mundane, routine things like finding a good home and getting their lives back on the track that a young person's life needs to be on. Credit goes to director Shiota for recognizing that as the more compelling danger.

Kanaria is part of the NYC Japan Society's "Against the Tide: Rebels and Mavericks in Contemporary Japanese Film" series, which runs through Sunday, April 16. For more information, visit www.japansociety.org.