It’s no surprise that Sachiko Kashiwaba is the author behind The Marvelous Village Veiled in Mist, the children’s novel that inspired Hayao Miyazaki‘s film Spirited Away, because Temple Alley Summer touches on a lot of the same themes as the book that won Kashiwaba the 1974 Kodansha Award for New Writers of Children’s Literature – most importantly the idea that sometimes children need to figure things out for themselves without adult help or interference. The story, as all good children’s books do, treats its readers like intelligent human beings, trusting that they can understand the moral dilemma that protagonist Kazu finds himself in: whether or not it is worth keeping around an artifact that, when prayed to, can bring back the dead.
The story opens when fifth-grader Kazu, upon going to the bathroom, sees a girl in a white burial kimono step out from the room where his family keeps their altar. Kazu’s not sure what’s going on, but he knows that it’s somehow not right, and he’s relatively certain that the girl is a ghost, not someone breaking into the family home. There’s no sign of her when his parents and older sister check, but the next day the girl is in his class, and he’s the only one who finds it strange. Apparently they all have memories of “Akari” dating back to kindergarten, and they’re either surprised or annoyed when Kazu claims that she’s a ghost. Everyone is distracted, however, when looking at an old map of their town for a school project reveals that the street Kazu lives on used to be known as “Kimyo Temple Alley” – and “kimyo” is written with the characters for “return” and “dead.”
Needless to say, this freaks Kazu out a bit, and makes him even more certain that there’s something odd about Akari’s sudden appearance. He begins to ask older people in the neighborhood about it, but no one will give him a straight answer until he basically out-stubborns old Ms. Minakami and she admits the truth: for centuries, his family has had the charge of a small Buddha statuette that, when prayed to, can revive a lost loved one, with the caveat that they will be brought back in another family. Kazu quickly figures out that Akari is a girl who died at age ten in the 1970s, unwittingly returned to life when her mother came to pray for Kazu’s deceased grandfather. But what is more alarming to him is Ms. Minakami’s firm belief that the statuette shouldn’t exist or be used, and her apparent determination to destroy it. That would mean that Akari would go back to being dead, and as he learns more about her previous life from both Akari and the mother who unknowingly brought her back to life, that just doesn’t sit well with him. Why should Akari, who has done nothing wrong, be punished because one old woman is afraid?
This leads to Kazu finding himself pitted against neighborhood elders, who are overwhelmingly of the same opinion as Ms. Minakami, who goes so far as to steal it. The story becomes about Kazu’s moral journey as he learns to stand up for what he believes is right and for the first time finds himself with something he’s willing to fight for. He sees no reason why anyone should be afraid – the statuette merely grants an unselfish wish, and the returned aren’t even brought back to their families; they’re merely returned for a second chance at life. Ms. Minakami cites nebulous tales of corruption from the past, but Kazu sees no reason why fears of long ago should affect the present, because after all, Akari’s mother didn’t even know that she was praying to the Kimyo Temple’s deity. For him, it’s about what’s right in the moment and not being ruled by fear, neither of which are things he’s ever had cause to think about before. It’s not so much a coming-of-age story as it is one about taking the first steps towards that – Kazu’s still a fifth-grade boy by the end, with all of the same basic personality traits and maturity. It’s just that he now understands a bit more about thinking outside of himself.
The Akari plotline is intertwined with an embedded narrative, an unfinished serialized novel Akari was reading in a magazine before she died, and this is done particularly well. The art style not only changes for the illustrations for the old serial, but the tale of Adi and the witch isn’t a direct mirror of the situation Kazu and Akari find themselves in. There are some parallels, but mostly it’s about how the kids see themselves in this other story, or even just how engrossed in the tale they become. It gives them something to hold onto, and it gives Kazu another mission to fulfill that he may be able to complete – if he can’t save Akari, then maybe he can at least track down the author or the rest of the story for her so that she doesn’t have to die a second time without knowing the ending. It’s one small thing he has more control over, and finding the author turns out to be the stone dropped in a pond, spreading ripples out that eventually touch the shore.
Temple Alley Summer is absolutely a masterwork of middle-grade fiction, but it’s also a good book that anyone can enjoy. Its themes aren’t tied to any one age group, and reading it at different ages may just give you a different perspective on the narrative and the characters. The translation does feel like it talks down at times, and a few efforts to avoid having glossaries backfire a bit, but it’s worth ignoring that and reading this story. If it doesn’t get an anime adaptation in the next few years, I will be surprised.