Takeshi Kitano (or Beat Takeshi to his legion of fans) nominally gets notice as a filmmaker, but he's written a bevy of books — some fiction, some non- — slowly finding their way into English. Boy was a good taste of his talent; A Guru Is Born is even more ambitious and rewarding.
The story's an exploration of a phenomenon which only seems peculiarly Japanese at first glance: the "New Religions" that have sprung up across the country, which combine classic Shinto and Buddhist concepts and iconography with New Thought and sometimes plain old hucksterism. Callow young Kazuo is exactly the sort of person likely to be recruited into such a cult, and he is: he's looking for something to belong to and be part of. A group that revolves around a "Guru" who performs miracles ends up serving that function in his life.
Kazuo's sincerity about the whole thing is tested when he finds that everyone in the top levels of the cult know the whole thing is little more than a hustle. What's strange is that even the ones who know it's a hustle still seem to believe they're doing a good thing — e.g., Shiba, the Guru's Number One, who takes over behind the scenes when the current Guru dies (has this happened more than once?) and who drafts Kazuo into filling his shoes. More idealistic, but in some ways less practical, is Komamura, the "Youth Group" director, and the three of them engage in an increasingly messy tug-of-war over both the group's future and Kazuo's own soul.
Most modern fiction about religion breaks into two categories: religion as a breeding ground for hypocrisy (Elmer Gantry) or the story of the holy fool (Wise Blood). Sometimes it's both at the same time, as is more or less the case here — the book is not really about the Guru's doctrines (even the group admits they're all potted clichés anyway), but about whether it's possible to do good things for people while at the same time ripping them off in some form. The problem, of course, is that you can't tell the same lie forever without it eventually colliding with reality. Even worse is how everyone in charge of the enterprise is all-too-human, a point driven home all the more bluntly at the end when Kazuo finds himself offered the opportunity to seize power. He knows now the only alternative is to have it yanked away from him all over again by people he knows are complete cynics. Can you really be an idealist when the only way you have left to preserve your idealism is by stabbing everyone else in the back first?
The book is short, barely 200 pages, and written in the kind of direct, unadorned language that I wish more novels used. It encourages more than one reading, in part because Kitano has found very simple and direct ways to talk about things that are anything but direct and simple, and because it starts on one subject and finds itself touching by degrees on many more. I started with a book about the role of religion in modern life, and ended with one about the abuse of power, intentional and un-, and also a sobering answer to the question of with how little wisdom the world really is governed.
Footnote: Guru was filmed, starring him but not directed by him, as Many Happy Returns (Kyôso tanjô) in Japan. Sadly, the film has never been released for English-speaking audiences.