Review: A Guru is Born

Filmmaker and actor Beat Takeshi’s novel reads more like a movie, in ways both good and bad.

A Guru Is Born
By Takeshi Kitano
Translated by Dawn T. Laabs
Vertical Inc.

If you have an interest in contemporary Japanese culture, there’s a very good chance you know Takeshi Kitano, a.k.a. “Beat” Takeshi. Although he started as a comedian, over the decades he’s become one of Japan’s true, international superstars. He’s a leading man in television shows and movies; he writes and directs award-winning films; he sings, he paints; he hosts a TV show; he even has his own video game. Finally, he’s also a novelist and essayist, and his latest to be translated into English is his 1990 novel, translated as A Guru is Born.

Kazuo is a young man who’s down on his luck. He’s been dumped, and he’s unemployed. He’s pretty bummed about his whole situation, but when he witnesses a guru of a small religious sect perform a miracle in the streets of Tokyo, he makes the impulsive decision to be a part of their group, and not just as a congregant, but as a staff member.

You can probably guess before reading A Guru is Born that the religious group is not as benevolent or well intentioned as their performance on the street would make them. They are, after all, basically a cult, and their chief of staff, not the guru, is the one using the system for his own gains. But Kitano narrowly avoids the clichés of the phony, money-laundering cults and the dangerous, brainwashing ones like the real life Aum Shinrikyo, because there are members of the staff who, despite the parlor tricks and other myriad manipulations, actually believe in the healing power of faith, religion, and community in the lives of the hurt and unfortunate. The main thrust of conflict that drives A Guru is Born is born from the egos and philosophies of two opposing members of the staff, with affable but spineless Kazuo caught in the middle.

Ultimately, A Guru is Born reads more like a film than a novel, to its benefit and detriment (it’s no surprise that it was made into a film just three years after publication). Anyone who knows a thing about screenwriting can see the basic structure of a studio film in the plot, with act breaks, turning points, and climaxes all where they should be.  It moves along nicely, the rhythms almost predictable, though comforting. The problem with this approach is that Kitano has no real style as a novelist; details are sparse, characters are sketchy, and it’s very dialogue heavy. In another novel, we might learn a little bit why Kazuo was dumped, and why that event has made him so vulnerable, so easily manipulated, and his need for religion so great. The reader never really gets an answer, presenting Kazuo matter-of-factly and just going from there. This might work in a film, but it’s somewhat unsatisfying here.

The only character Takeshi has any real interest in is Shiba, the shady, manipulative chief of staff and the real driving force behind the operation. Shiba is the one with the plan, the one who knows how to pull strings, and the one who knows how to bring in the money. Shiba is the one with the longest, most interesting monologues about faith and human nature, and the one character closest to being the villain in the story. I’m sure you can guess who played Shiba in the movie version.

A Guru is Born is a fun little story, and it seems to me that it was conceived as a vehicle for Kitano to explore the reasons why someone would want to join a cult. As an expression of whatever Kitano wanted to say, A Guru is Born is successful. By that same turn, though, it’s just not a great novel, because of the classic problem of Kitano telling the reader everything instead of showing them. Almost all the good, interesting ideas (and the novel does have plenty of them) A Guru is Born has is explained from the mouth of Shiba, usually to Kazuo, instead of shown in action or narrative.

There’s certainly plenty here to like, but ultimately, Kitano should have played to his strengths and gone straight to screenplay.

___

Originally published July 20, 2012.

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