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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Cult X

Nakamura Fuminori

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To purchase Cult X

Title: Cult X
Author: Nakamura Fuminori
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 505 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Cult X - US
Cult X - UK
Cult X - Canada
Cult X - India
  • Japanese title: 教団X
  • Translated by Kalau Almony

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Our Assessment:

B : flawed (and with some very ugly features) but intriguing, with solid suspense

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times A 26/5/2018 Iain Maloney
The LA Times . 25/5/2018 Paula L. Woods
Publishers Weekly . 26/3/2018 .
Wall St. Journal . 18/5/2018 Tom Nolan

  From the Reviews:
  • "The philosophical monologues are a ruse to smuggle in criticisms of contemporary Japanese society and politics. (...) On one level this is a fast-paced thriller with an explosive climax, crying out for cinematic treatment, but it is also a sign of the author moving to a higher plane. (...) In Cult X, Nakamura has stretched his muscles, broadened his canvas and proved he can step up to the next level." - Iain Maloney, The Japan Times

  • "In this regard, Nakamura's impassioned writing is part of a continuum that stretches from Dostoevsky to Camus to Oe. Yet as passionate or well-researched as Nakamura's writing on philosophical and religious principles may be, it is difficult to connect with Cult X's indistinctively drawn characters when the novel's graphically detailed depictions of sexual violence against women stand out so vividly. By Cult X's conclusion, whatever retribution, redemption or compassion is meted out to the novel's principal characters is overshadowed by the harrowing journey readers must take to get there." - Paula L. Woods, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Though lengthy digressions in the form of transcribed lectures about faith and science demand some patience, and some readers may be uncomfortable with the explicit sex scenes, this noirish thriller will resonate with Ryu Murakami fans." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Mr. Nakamura raises the literary stakes to literally cosmic proportions in Cult X, a hefty, sometimes lewd, sometimes metaphysical exploration of the meaning of life that is also a thriller about the terrorist conspiracies of a secretive, sex-obsessed religious group. (...) Cult X, translated into handsome, unadorned English by Kalau Almony, pushes the boundaries of the thriller genre to an extreme degree. Mr. Nakamura has written a daunting, challenging saga of good and evil on a Dostoevskian scale. Those who persevere to its finale may well feel the richer for it." - Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Cult X begins with Toru Narazaki being warned off looking any further into Ryoko Tachibana by his friend, a junior private investigator named Kobayashi. Narazaki had been involved with Tachibana for a few months, and then she vanished out of his life; Kobayashi caught a glimpse of her a month later, and Narazaki, still drawn to her, asked him to investigate. Among the things that Kobayashi learned about the mystery woman was that she had been involved with a religious group of some sort. Narazaki doesn't take his friend's advice, and goes to investigate for himself.
       Narazaki, who feels his life has been pretty meaningless -- "The life I lived ... That life has no value at all", he tells Kobayashi --, goes around to the religious group Tachibana was involved with, and immediately gets sort of sucked in. The group's leader is an old man named Shotaro Matsuo, and while Narazaki can't get the audience he wants with him -- the old man is in hospital -- his followers invite him in and show Narazaki a couple of DVD recordings of lectures by the old guy. Nakamura includes full transcripts of several of these lectures in the novel, giving some idea of Matsuo's style and philosophy, as well as autobiography, as the leader describes his own life experiences. The house philosophy seems to be a relatively laid-back grab bag of Eastern and Western religions
       Narazaki learns that there's also a group that broke off, under the leadership of a man named Sawatari, an old acquaintance of Matsuo's, who had eventually scammed Matsuo out of land and money. The woman Narazaki is looking for was part of the scheme, and Matsuo's group also wants to find her. The group doesn't even have a name -- they're just called 'X', or 'Cult X'.
       Narazaki is then approached by a woman who promises to take him to Tachibana. Despite some misgivings he seems powerless to resist, and lets himself be bundled off to the cult. A quick blood and urine sample and test, and he's allowed in -- and promptly completely seduced, with women offering themselves to him and he losing himself completely in sex.
       There's a lot of sex at Cult X. They even have professionals on staff, women hired to service the men, since there aren't enough cult members to go around. Narazaki is a bit mystified by it all, but apparently finds it hard to resist, and goes with the flow.
       His introspection is limited:

     Have I been brainwashed ? Narazaki wasn't sure. But he couldn't imagine that all the sex was just some sort of free service. Is this normal here ? Maybe this is just the way things are here ?
       But they do want something from him. He finally gets to meet the leader -- who wants him to go back to the other group, Matsuo's, and infiltrate it. Though he promises to call him back every now and then, because: "A little decadence is good for you".
       The two cults are not exactly competing, but there's some overlap -- beginning with Matsuo and Sawatari's shared history -- and their present-day activities are slightly intertwined. They are, however, on very different courses: the more passive, go-with-the-flow group is dealing with Matsuo's decline and then death. Meanwhile, Sawatari's group is planning a massive terrorist strike -- while one of the top men under Sawatari, Takahara, is either helping leading the charge or going his own way with the attacks.
       Takahara's background is interesting as well. For one, he was kidnapped while working for an NGO in Africa by an armed group that planned terrorist attacks, only narrowly escaping with his life -- and the warning that his betrayal of that cause won't be forgotten. Beyond that, Takahara is also the stepbrother of Tachibana -- and: "When they were thirteen, Takahara put his penis inside her for the first time". As someone eventually explains to Narazaki:
     They're step-siblings. They're not related by blood. And they've always been lovers. For ever and ever. They're a strange pair.
       Sawatari is a creepy man, living in isolation on the twenty-first floor of the building the group occupies. He is difficult to reach, though every new member is called before him; the women-initiates all have sex with him -- a bizarre and disturbing rape-ritual that is always calmly explained (and rather too harmlessly described).
       Eventually, Sawatari's background is explained in more detail, in yet another first-person account (Nakamura uses several of these in the novel), and it is even uglier than one might have anticipated, He was a doctor who: "only saved lives to play with them". Eventually, he gave up practicing medicine and: "created a harem" -- and:
I continued to act like a god, half in jest. But no real god appeared, and my believers increased. It seemed that the empty space inside me attracted people. I, who had been repelled from everything, attracted others.
       The story moves towards the terrorist attack plans, as they begin to unfold. If not exactly your traditional thriller, Nakamura does this quite well: the exact nature of the attack(s) and plans aren't immediately clear, and unfold in a quite unusual way. By leaving unclear who exactly is pulling what strings, and what the ends are, Nakamura manages some solid suspense. Even among those involved in the attacks, there are different levels of awareness as to just what is being orchestrated as, for example, the guns of many of the participants are disabled (though they don't know that). And with the Public Security Bureau -- in a sort of homeland security function -- having an interest in fostering unrest, the resolutions are not clear-cut either: with many different factions, this isn't simply good-vs.-bad, or the authorities against one terrorists group.
       Cult X is a convoluted story -- though not necessarily in a bad way. It's a bit of a mess, but part of its appeal is that messiness -- the range Nakamura is trying to explore. Veering between straightforward lectures and first-person confessions (of sorts) -- all at considerable length -- and multiple strands of action, the novel is both packed and consistently engaging. The religious, philosophical, and nationalist issues raised by the different characters and their various situations -- including Matsuo and Sawatari's experiences in war and abroad -- and the terror-ambitions range rather far and widely -- there's no tightly-focused argument here -- but especially in the use of the human element Nakamura achieves a sense of verisimilitude: it feels realistic. Or at least the basic debates do; the characters, and some of their backgrounds and actions, are certainly unrealistically extreme.
       There's also a lot of description of sex in Cult X. Rather limited description, and rather a great deal of wetness. Typically:
     She got wet again. They'd just done it so much she could still feel it down there. Disgusting, she thought. I want more, she thought. Even though we just did it so much.
       And there are exchanges such as:
     "Ah ! Ah !"
     She died. Her pussy -- her pussy was so happy. It came again. I'm so vile. I'm so vile. I'm, I'm --
     "Ah ! Ahhh !"
     "Ah !"
     "Are you still coming ? Mm. You're still coming. That's amazing. Still coming ... Mm. I'm going to come again ... Ah, ah !"
       So, yeah, there's that .....
       There's a lot of this very male fantasy. While several of the women do display slightly more complex emotions, looking for more stable, monogamous relationships, even those are undermined at pretty much every turn, and the sex remains easily accessible and shallow, resembling casual drug-consumption (complete with the euphoria and desperate longing for it) more than anything else.
       (The casual sex can readily be dismissed as silly fantasy; it's a bit ridiculous, but is arguably harmless enough as such. The violative sex is much more problematic, in particular because for the most part the women are presented as ultimately accepting. Sawatari's calm description of what a woman can expect is outrageous:
     When I give the signal, several men will come. They will tie you up. You will be raped by me. Then, when it's over, you will be at the very bottom.
       And though he represents a sort of pure evil, Nakamura weakens the sense of his culpability by endowing the women with a masochistic streak of finding pleasure or satisfaction in submission and pain. It's a dynamic that can be explored convincingly, but Nakamura doesn't really dig deep enough, leaving only a very unpleasant taste to all this.)
       Nakamura even has character point out at one point -- about the sex, and pretty much everything:
     Yes, it's insane. But there's nothing we can do about that. The inner workings of any cult are far removed from the normal workings of the world. Cults produce a sort of fictional world within themselves in order to keep themselves running.
       But it's not quite explanation and excuse enough.
       Cult X is ambitious and big; it's also flawed -- from the presentation of some of the philosophy to some of the writing to the unwieldiness of aspects of the plot. It remains intriguing however, and those that can overlook the ugliness of some of the ideas and actions should find it an engaging, very wild ride. A distinctly Japanese kind of thriller -- Murakami Ryū's From the Fatherland, with Love comes to mind (though that goes over the top in different ways) --, it poses many more questions about contemporary Japan (the cult-metaphor obviously extending to the country as a whole) than it can find answers to, but is certainly worth reading just for that.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 April 2018

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Cult X: Reviews: Nakamura Fuminori: Other books by Nakamura Fuminori under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Nakamura Fuminori (中村 文則) was born in 1977.

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© 2018-2023 the complete review

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