Not many novels open with the narrator peeing out the window. But Kazu, the protagonist of Sachiko Kashiwaba’s newly translated Temple Alley Summer, is an unapologetically average kid. His classmates nickname him “third” because he is third in his class, in sports, and in popularity. He’s just fine with that.
This review may contain spoilers.
While Kazo is relieving himself that summer evening, he happens to see a young girl sneaking out of his family’s home. She is dressed in a white kimono—an outfit used almost exclusively in Japan funerals. He is wary because he spent his evening watching scary stories on television with his older sister, but he is pretty sure that girl is a ghost.
The next day, Akari appears in his fifth grade class. Everyone else seems to know her. Kazu is left with too many mysteries on his hands. Is Akari really a ghost? If so, how did she come back to life? And why, as he soon discovers, was his street once called Kimyo Temple Alley?
His curiosity leads him to the home of a bewildering octogenarian, Ms Minakami, who seems to have the answers he is looking for. But, she warns him
Everybody in this world gets one lifetime, Kazu. One chance. We all try to live in such a way that we have no regrets…
People have to live as if there is no second chance—so they’ll make the most of every day.
Kazu eventually befriends the girl. Kazu is desperate to help Akari live. His desperation, along with his general outlook about life, keep the novel moving at a fast clip. Kazu resolves to help Akari finish reading a serialized story she started before she died almost forty years earlier. Unfortunately, the only way to fulfill that wish is to ask Ms Minakami for help.
That story-within-a-story is really the key of Temple Alley Summer. It reads more like a Western fairytale than the story of a Japanese elementary schooler. The narrative voice is also completely different from Kazu’s, an impressive feat by Kashiwaba and translator Avery Fischer Udagawa.
Under a penname, Ms Minakami wrote the original chapters decades before Kazu was born. Her parents knew that Kimyo Temple might hold the key to bringing ghosts back to life; she has always thought of those ghosts with resentment and fear. And so the prince of her first chapters is cruel and smug. His mother promises him resurrection so that he can “fill this land with hatred and fighting.”
But the intervening years—and Kazu himself—soften Ms Minakami. When she finishes the book for Kazu and Akari, the vengeful witch is also a grieving mother. The prince, too, is no longer bent on having his revenge. By the story’s conclusion, all he wants is to live again, to do no harm. The author of the first chapters would never write the book’s ultimately ambiguous ending. The ghost of the prince, now seen only by the narrator, asks her, “What does it mean to embrace life?”:
“Don’t ask me!” I told him. I had no answer for him.
It is clear that the writing of The Moon Is on the Left has changed Ms Minakami. She is willing to give ghosts the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they are no threat—just people who want to live again so as to have no regrets.
Ms Minakami’s change of heart reinforces one of Temple Alley Summer’s central themes. Stories create empathy. They allow readers to see past their preconceived notions and encounter people, or ghosts, as they really are.