Natsume’s Book of Friends – Episode 2

Natsume’s second episode opens with a distant shot portraying Natsume’s school, along with more of the rural scenery that has already proven to be one of the show’s central characters. I love that scenery, beautiful even in this show’s simply drawn, low-resolution format. Rural Japan is one of my favorite anime settings, along with that “vaguely medieval Mediterranean countryside” employed by shows like Kino’s Journey and Haibane Renmei. Perhaps it’s simply a natural tendency towards exoticism, but something about Japan’s rolling hills and sprawling farmlands naturally puts me at ease.

A love of natural things, and of the monuments that have grown like saplings among them, permeates Natsume’s Book of Friends. In this episode, graceful exposition leads us towards a new youkai and his troubles, as we learn much about the nature of youkai, gods, and Natsume’s relationship with both. It’s a classic pattern – the first episode offers a catchy example of the show’s usual formula, and then the second episode slows down to explain the mechanics of its world.

We quickly learn that Natsume has already adopted to his new life, where youkai visit him either in pursuit of his grandmother’s book or in order to regain their names. We learn that what happens to a youkai’s name is carried through into their body, and also that gods in this world draw their power and very existence from the worship they receive. That last reveal is a handy bit of worldbuilding (and one of Neil Gaiman’s favorite assumptions), but it also points to one of Natsume’s core themes – the nature of loneliness, and the power of company to give us strength.

This episode’s central narrative concerns a youkai named Tsukuyami, whose name is stuck together with another in Reiko’s book. In order to free him, Natsume and his companions must find the other youkai whose name is stuck, so that he can release both of them together. And so Natsume and Tsukuyami roam the countryside, searching for the youkai who will help Tsukuyami be free.

That conflict is largely incidental to what this episode is “about,” and resolves itself conveniently towards the end. Far more important is the nature of Tsukuyami, and his relationship with Hana, the one person who still worships at his shrine.

I’ve talked before about how a holistic approach to storytelling empowers your narrative – how when all your aesthetic variables work in concert, the turns of your narrative and emotions of your characters come through that much more clearly and powerfully. Natsume’s Book of Friends seem to embrace a holistic approach to its themes, where virtually every element of the world as presented facilitates both the wonder of the past, and the terror of being alone.

The relationship between Hana and Tsukuyami embodies this approach. Hana is the only one who still prays at Tsukuyami’s shrine, meaning she is the only tether between his now tiny body and the living world. This state of being is sad, but its melancholy seems reflective of shintoism at large, and the practice of praying to individual gods of shrines and streams. There’s a clear beauty in that system, but also an inherent loneliness – countless gods at scattered posts, whose fortunes ebb and flow with the passing of fickle and fragile humans. Natsume’s Book of Friends treasures old traditions and the natural world, while acknowledging that treasuring these things is a rare and fading trait. The loneliness comes from both sides; the fate of these old, beautiful shrines and gods, who are losing their place in this world, as well as the loneliness of those who remain faithful, making solitary trips to these shrines as they slip into old age.

Natsume’s Book of Friends seems to speak for these relationships, and for the beauty of the past, expressing the wonder of both through its lovely backgrounds, cozy shrines, and lonely youkai. And Natsume is a natural guide into this world, with his connection with the youkai both isolating him from the modern world and granting him a natural appreciation of the old one. While Nyanko tells him “if you want to survive, you must never let your guard down,” that doesn’t seem quite right. Loneliness may be the ultimate fate of this fragile old world, but its inhabitants still seek a human touch.

Natsume’s second episode comes to a bittersweet ending, after battles are won and names are reclaimed. Though Tsukuyami has regained his name, he is still fading – Hana has passed away, and with her gone, his time in this world is ending as well. Even their connection ultimately feels like a kind of loneliness; Hana only saw him once, and their time together passed without a single exchange of words. But Natsume’s love of the old and fading lends some solace to their parting, as Tsukuyami seems sure their hands will touch in the next life. We can turn from the past if we choose, and seek comfort in the warmth and vitality of the new. But we are all ultimately fading ghosts, and an acknowledgment of the beauty of what’s past may one day let us move on with a smile on our lips.

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