At first, Asa Nonami’s Now You’re One of Us ambles along like one of Yasujiro Ozu’s movies about Japanese home life, a drama of manners about marriage and extended families. Then it reveals its real subject by degrees — how a cult mind-set works to seduce outsiders and break their resistance — and it goes from Ozu coziness to full-blown Takashi Miike madness. In a good way, that is.
The way cult mindsets work has spooked me for quite some time, long before Japan’s own head-on confrontation with it in the form of Aum. In high school I read about the exploits of Ted Patrick, going up against the likes of the Children of God (which he was almost indoctrinated into himself) and a whole raft of other True Believers whose motives and methodology were questionable at best. Not all such groups numbered in the thousands, either. Some of them passed themselves off as cozy little families and found easy acceptance in a 1970s America that had learned to live with hippie communes as just another twitch on the cultural seismograph — even when those “families” were so, well un-family in practice. Small wonder many of them had to lie outright to get members, and use deceptive emotional tactics to keep them.
… One of Us works by adopting the same tactics as one of those families, and it works amazingly well. Noriko has just married into the Shito family, an extended clan of eight running a family business, and has never felt so welcome in her whole life. The more she lives with the family, however — and her new husband, Kazuhito — the more things crop up which she finds hard to put out of mind. When a neighbor, Mr. Iwai, commits suicide by opening the gas tap and blowing up his house, Noriko’s struck by how weirdly disengaged the family seems to be about the whole affair. Many other things, too, that should summon an emotional reaction, simply don’t.
Then other problems begin to bubble to the surface, like whether or not the great-grandmother of the family is in fact faking her infirmity, or what’s in the greenhouse that always remains locked, or … and sure enough, it isn’t long before Noriko is poking around where she manifestly shouldn’t. What’s fascinating is what happens after she gets caught — how instead of summoning the energy to run away, she is instead dragged back down and made into one of the family all the more. We’re not only allowed to see Noriko’s thoughts but watch how they are yanked out from under her and used against her, and how she is eventually turned against the very people who were trying to empower her to resist being exploited. And then there’s the truth about what’s growing in the greenhouse, about which the less said the better, since it forms one of the book’s more pivotal plot elements.
One easy criticism would be that Noriko is far too smart a person to fall prey to such tactics. The book goes out of its way to show exactly how such things are possible, and how smarts have nothing to do with it. Smart as Noriko might be, she’s also emotionally insecure, and the Shito “family” preys on that — first by offering her unconditional love and then withdrawing it just as abruptly. They provide her with a sense of something absolute, even if she has to trade in all that she is to obtain it. Surely no sensible thinking person would make such a trade. But yes, sensible thinking people do just that, and the book shows how that happens and makes it accessible (which is in some ways even more important) by wrapping it in the guise of a creepy psychological thriller.