Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Demon's Bridge

鬼の橋 (oni no hashi, The Demon's Bridge, 1998) is a children's book by ITOU Yuu (伊藤遊, born 1959). The story is set in the Heian period, in the early days of Kyoto, where the hero Takamura is the teenage son of a high ranking civil servant.

Takamura had had a much loved younger sister, who had died playing hide and seek with him in an abandoned temple. For various reasons, Takamura blames himself: they were not supposed to go to the temple; he knew his sister hated playing hide and seek, but insisted; when he could not find her, he went away thinking she had run home. The story starts as Takamura revisits the temple where his sister had been found, fallen into a well.

Crossing the bridge was forbidden. Takamura hesitated a moment, still gazing at the far side, then with a kick to the bridge's railing, he set off purposefully over the bridge.

'What are you playing at?' a girl came out from under the bridge and shouted up at Takamura, her eyebrows raised in anger. Apparently that was not enough for her. She sprinted up the bank. Takamura stopped in confusion and looked towards her.

'It was you, wasn't it, who kicked the bridge?'

Her rolled up sleeves showed horribly thin arms. The fingers of her hands were clenched and she was glaring at Takamura with eyes that blazed with anger. He looked perplexed at this girl, who hardly came up to his shoulder.

'Apologise!'

'Apologise?'

The child is Akona, the daughter of a bridge builder, who had died while working on this bridge. Now she lives as a homeless orphan under the bridge that he built.

But there is another bridge in the story, the bridge that the souls of the dead have to cross. In his regret at his sister's death, Takamura finds himself in a place that is the threshold to the world that the dead go to. A huge bridge spans an icy river.

'If I cross this, where would I get to?' he wondered.

Somewhere in his heart he could hear a voice saying 'Better not.' He ignored that and set off slowly to cross the bridge. At that moment, he felt like whatever fate might be waiting for him, there was no reason for him to fear it. Let it happen as it happens, a feeling of throwing everything away. Anyway, walking along the side of this river, there was no goal for him to head towards.

As he kept walking on, however far he walked, no end appeared. The far side never came in sight.

'I wonder how far I've come by now?'

Takamura stopped and glanced back; as he did so, the shock stopped his breath.

There was a demon standing there.

The demons in this world are the guides to the souls of the dead; but they see the living as food.

The story is very episodic, with encounters with supernatural beings in Kyoto and in the spirit world. Through various inconclusive adventures, the various characters (particularly Takamura, Akona and the demonlike Hitenmaru, who saves Akona's bridge when a flood threatens to destroy it) move slowly forward. In particular Takamaru learns to move on from his grief and guilt and to accept adult responsibilities.

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