Natsume’s Book of Friends – Episode 3

Natsume himself is the focus of this third episode. As we open, twilight colors and suburban sprawl return us to Natsume’s childhood, as he cries over his strangeness beneath a playground slide. As he laments his isolation, a girl comes up to console him, and asks the question he most wants to hear: “can you see them too?” Perhaps Natsume is not so alone after all.

The sudden meetings continue in the next two scenes, as Natsume first just misses a visitor in class, and then is accosted by two youkai with an unusual request. Apparently, some new human has arrived in Natsume’s town, and assumed the title of “youkai exterminator.” The two youkai want Natsume himself to exterminate this interloper, but Natsume is more intrigued by the base prospect of meeting someone else who can see youkai at all.

Natsume acts friendly enough towards the youkai around him, but he doesn’t see himself as any kind of champion for their cause. His loneliness is perhaps his most fundamental motivation, and the thought of meeting someone else who can relate to his experience is a tantalizing one. In fact, Natsume even sympathizes with this potentially murderous human, thinking on how they might possibly have suffered in just the way he’s suffered. Even if they disagree on how to treat youkai, if they shared the same fundamental experience, there must surely be some common ground for them to find.

Natsume’s thoughts are understandable, but his actual experiences put the lie to his initial view of the situation. In his pursuit of this youkai exterminator, Natsume finds himself spending more and more time with the youkai around him, and not necessarily regretting it. And on top of that, his normal schoolmates aren’t presented as jerks or sources of isolation, either. They actually seem quite comfortable being friendly with Natsume in spite of his eccentricities, implying there’s friendship available to him even in the absence of true understanding.

The imperfect nature of connection is emphasized more and more as the episode continues. Young Natsume continues to seek solace in the woman at the playground, while present-day Natsume questions the nature of a man who could see youkai and still seek to destroy them. As it turns out, the woman at the park was a youkai herself – and young Natsume sees this as a terrible betrayal. If she can’t truly relate to his experience, then she can’t possibly be a friend. Her attempts at comfort were based on a lie, and thus she is an enemy like all the rest.

The conclusion to present-day Natsume’s story reveals that attitude for the understandable foolishness it was. Finally coming across the “youkai exterminator,” Natsume learns it’s actually a buddhist priest who has no connection with youkai, and who was simply performing routine purifications around his new home. This priest can’t truly understand Natsume’s situation, but that doesn’t stop him from sympathizing with Natsume. First asking if Natsume can actually see them, he considerately walks this question back, and simply says “if you ever want to discuss something with me, don’t be afraid to drop by.”

The priest’s kind words speak to the central argument of this episode. Our connections with others don’t have to be based on common experience – and on the flip side, common experience doesn’t necessarily imply connection. If Natsume had actually run into a human who was destroying youkai for the fun of it, he would have been no closer to finding a kindred spirit. We have an inherent tendency to believe those who’ve seen what we’ve seen, or even just like what we like, are naturally going to be sympathetic to our worldview and feelings. But the key isn’t common experience, it’s simply respect and empathy for the experience of others.

This revelation brings Natsume full circle, as he’s now finally able to appreciate the emotional generosity of the youkai he once knew. That youkai wasn’t trying to trick him, but simply relate to him in the only way she could. And even though Natsume is very different from the youkai, their shared experience has helped bridge that gap as well – as he says, “I’ve talked to them for so long, I’ve come to understand them.” The initial, experience-driven ease with which we connect with others is far less important than our willingness to respect the experience of another, and work to bridge what emotional gaps may come. In the end, Natsume does find an imperfect mirror of his experience, in the form of the priest’s spiritually gifted son. But that connection is only made when Natsume learns to approach others with an open mind.

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