For many, religion proves to be an almighty influence in life. It can provide rules and order, explaining away some of the mysteries of life. In troubled times, religion provides a source of comfort -- the hope of a miracle, or the promise of the afterlife act as a warm blanket to assuage fears.
And that’s what Kazuo, the wide-eyed salaryman at the center of A Guru is Born, is looking for. Tired of the salaryman life, this youngster decides to throw it all away in the hopes of joining a cult. All is not what it seems, though, and Kazuo has to reconcile reality with his idealistic visions of life with this cult.
Before getting into the bulk of the review, it’s worth noting that the author, Takeshi Kitano, should be a familiar face to many readers. You’ll know him for his extensive acting career (Battle Royale, Zatoichi), as well as his prolific work behind the camera and in front of the canvas. This is just another feather in an already talented artist’s cap.
A Guru is Born
Kazuo is not sure what he wants in life, but in his vague notion of what a religious organization is, he sees a chance to live an aestetic life, get paid, and not have to worry about what it is to be a salaryman. It all starts from taking a flyer. It’s for a religious organization, attempting to recruit new members. One of those streetside “show” of miracles. An elderly guru summons his powers to restore mobility to a crippled grandmother. Suddenly, a religious fire opens up within him, and he begs the group to allow him to join.
They do agree, somewhat hesitantly, but before he knows it, he’s dragged right into the group’s “central committee” -- the headquarters of the cult. Now, he feels like he can live the lifestyle of a religious acolyte: prayer, prostelytization, and reclusion. No more rush hour trains. No more complications in life.
Sadly, that’s not the case.
This is a real turning point for the book, and what got me hooked on finishing it in a single sitting. Now that Kazuo is a part of the organization, he finds himself ping-ponging between members of the cult -- each one attempting to mold Kazuo in their own image. Shiba is a philanderer and is a serial opportunist -- he hops from one cult to another, using the organization’s bankroll to fund his lavish lifestyle and nightly visits to prostitution palaces. Komamura is his polar opposite, living an aesthetic lifestyle, denying himself any pleasures, and constantly holding his feelings to himself until things boil over.
Kazuo takes trips with both of them, alternating between recruiting delinquents to clean up a park and feel good about themselves to an after-hours visit to a Soapland with the developer of a new temple. Kazuo now has to determine what this cult means to him. Is it a sham, or a way to do some real good in the world?
And that brings me to my biggest criticism of the book.
The remaining characters in the book exist almost within a null state, fighting to keep things status quo. They do have things they strive to accomplish -- whether it be an acceptance of their relationship status or stopping fighting -- but the actions have the ultimate aim of calming the boat, not changing its course. Because of that, the main conflict in the book becomes a direct power struggle between black and white. Both Shiba and Komamura are so entrenched in their beliefs, that the conflict between them becomes one dimensional. There is little to no wiggle room for growth or evolution in their viewpoints or personalities, although you could argue that they both go down their own rabbit holes, falling deeper and deeper into their entrenched views until things hit rock bottom in the climax of the book.
For a book this size and of this ease of read, it isn’t bad at all. The greater themes of finding religion and what exactly it means to you are worth thinking about, especially in the way that Kitano presents it. The story may be a little hard to relate to, because the existence of startup religious organizations does not have as great a hold in the West, but if you approach it with an open mind, then you’ll be able to see through some of the story’s weaknesses.
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