Most people know Ohtsuki Kenji for being that bald guy who can sing some of the craziest and most intelligent anime OPs and EDs in the medium. His most famous song is probably 踊る赤ちゃん人間, the ED for NHKにようこそ — a song about how we want to be treated like babies because we can’t stand the world. This inability to endure the difficulties of reality is a common theme in his songs. For him, adulthood has as much angst as being a teenager.
But he is also fascinated by cults and how we go to them when we don’t know what to do. The opening song to 懺・さよなら絶望先生, 林檎もぎれビーム!, is based on a famous incident surrounding the Cosmic Brotherhood Alliance: in the 1960s, the world looked like it was going to end because the poles were shifting and the water levels were rising ala Judgment Day; members then received a message from their leaders that they will be saved by messianic UFOs. The リンゴ送れ、C incident as it was soon to be called became a huge joke and the CBA switched to ancient astronauts, a more respectable theory.
However, many people in the West who are into his music don’t know that he has written some legendary books that have shaped the Japanese mind. 新興宗教オモイデ教 is his first novel after a collection of musician essays and it is arguably his most famous and acclaimed of the novels he has written. It is so influential that some websites have pages dedicated to comparing it to 雫, one of the earliest denpa eroge. ガガガ文庫 has even published a spinoff series a decade later written by White Album 1’s writer. It is one of the most important books and it is certainly a fun one that combines his interests in punk rock, the inability to see ourselves performing well in this world, and cults.
Because it questions its readers over this “fact”: We are meant to be someone great.
Everyone has told us that we’ll be great people someday. The more you study and work, the easier you will find your place in the world. Good grades mean you will find you a good job. And a good job means you are contributing to the world.
This mindset is ingrained in our culture. We admire great leaders for their hard work to better humanity and we wonder how we could do the same. At some point, we imagine we are going to do something important like everyone else. No matter how old we are, we act like children amazed by adults being able to do everything. So we too try to grow up and become good people like everyone else.
If that isn’t happening, we tell ourselves, “Failure is the mother of success!”
If that isn’t going to happen any time soon, we’ll switch objectives. We are probably on the wrong track. We can do better somewhere else. It’s too early to give up and become a boring, normal person. There’s gotta be something meant for us. Something important to us. Something only we can do.
It’s all a matter of finding where you are supposed to be at.
For Natsumi, that means becoming the miko of the Omoide cult. Before, she had given up on her life after being dumped by a teacher she had fallen in love with. The one thing she definitely didn’t want — a boring life — began to haunt her. But when the cult leader approached her and told her that she was special and different, she finally regained her confidence and a new meaning in her life.
The Omoide is no ordinary cult: it has a special power called Megma, which allows its users to transmit brain waves to kill people. Omoide’s goals are to wipe out all the bad people harming this world and let the good people live peacefully.
Natsumi knows she is integral to the cult and develops a raison d’être: an eradicator of the bad and a preserver of the good. Like everyone in the cult, she is a slave to the cult leader’s bidding. But she has found something to live for: to be one with the leader. This is it. Her life can be interesting again. She doesn’t have to be a normal, boring person ever again. And no matter what happens, she can live happily.
But what about Jirou, the narrator of the novel? He is a passive protagonist and is only tangled in the politics of Omoide because he has accidentally met Natsumi after she has quit school. Even though his life is now like a Hollywood action movie, he always finds himself going back to school. He isn’t sure if he should join Omoide, but he is jealous of the people he has met along the way. They know what they should be doing and they may not live long because of their lifestyle, but that’s better than going to art class and trying to paint something. He wants a different life; he just doesn’t know what kind. And later, he knows that he is one of the strongest casters of Megma. He can wipe out an entire army of Megma users. He could make a difference, but he becomes sick of everything and can’t delude himself into picking a side. That’s why he’s back in art class trying to paint something. There’s nothing that feels right for him. So Jirou wonders if he has lost it — it being both his meaning in life and sanity.
So then, what is he meant for?
What are we meant for?
We try to forget that we are like Jirou in the world by pretending we are Natsumi. We are in our own little Omoide cults, telling ourselves we are the good people and they are the bad people. Our love for successful people has become so delusional that we are no different from the brainwashed believers in the fictional cult. They may chant nonsense, but we too are chanting our own type of nonsense — we are just telling ourselves adages, cliches, and motivational phrases that hide the reality away. We are so much like the believers. We can’t accept that we are normal, so we brainwash ourselves that we will one day find a place.
To be normal means accepting your fate and knowing how your free will works. The world is crazy, nothing makes sense, and no one can do a damn thing about it. Normal people know that they can make a very small difference that will not matter to the whole world, but they are fine with it. They are absurdists by nature. To accept the absurdity of the world and yet finding a way or two to live with it — that’s what being normal entails. We are not meant to be anyone great; we are meant to find a way to be happy with our small, little lives.
However, not everyone especially teenagers like Jirou can accept such a conclusion. Becoming a normal person or an absurdist means going against everything in our culture: We ask not what our countries can do for us; we ask what we can do for our countries. It feels inhumane to drop this project, especially if you know you are meant to be someone great.
By the end of this book, Jirou feels betrayed by everyone especially Natsumi. She has lost her sense of individuality and freedom by placing herself to the cult leader. Meanwhile, he is still burdened by the amount of choices. She is happy with her decision, but he is unhappy with his indecision.
He doesn’t know what is right or wrong. He can’t accept insanity or normalcy. He teeters on the balance and can’t decide where to go.
This is how the individual lives today.
Our search for meaning in life becomes a joke. Trying to find something interesting in our lives and yet not going insane from it — it is this paradoxical situation that arrests so many of us from living the life we want to have.
But we envy people like Natsumi. We want to take a side that tells us, “Your life changes everything!”, and we will do anything — even chant about a plucking apple beam — just to feel like we mean something to the world. We just want to search for a paradise that accepts us as interesting people, giving us a meaning to our lives. We want the UFOs to save us.
But in reality, we are a ticking time-bomb meant to send the world into a catastrophe.