This episode of Natsume’s Book of Friends is about, uh, friends!
Well, ostensibly, at least. The narrative frame certainly seems to imply that. Early on, we see Natsume’s two male acquaintances arguing in class over a completely trivial disagreement. They each ask for Natsume’s support, but end up wandering off still bickering. At the end, we see the two of them reunited, having apparently forgotten their decision never to talk again. We even get a “welp, guess that’s the moral of the story” look from Natsume, as Sasada looks on without a clue. All’s well that ends well, and all that.
But in truth, this episode isn’t really about much of anything. Natsume’s Book of Friends has established its core themes at this point – a fascination with and veneration for the past, and a keen interest in the nature of loneliness and companionship. This episode’s central plot concerns both, as Natsume works to help a youkai named Santo reunite with his friend Mikuri. But that conflict isn’t resolved through some big emotional or thematic turn – it’s actually just solved when Nyanko beats the crap out of Mikuri. The pleasures here aren’t really intellectual ones. The journey is the reward.
The setting of this episode certainly supports that. Natsume’s Book of Friends has always had a minor focus on the beauty of the countryside, the intersection of lovely natural terrain with light embellishments from humanity. In the first scene, rummaging through Reiko’s old belongings (one more tip of the hat to exploring the past) leads Natsume to an unused train ticket, which subsequently results in him meeting Santo. And the rest of the episode takes place along the tracks, as Natsume and Nyanko walk Santo to a long-awaited reunion with his friend.
Santo himself is one of the great appeals of this episode. Santo is easily the most immediately charming youkai we’ve met yet – giant, fluffy, and pretty simple-minded, he’s basically a big living teddy bear. Natsume’s limited animation works hard to imbue Santo with a real sense of body language, and the results are wonderful. Santo’s natural instincts lean towards big, exuberant gestures, but his emotional sensitivity is clear in his posture when he tries to demurely sit at a train station bus stop. From his blushes to his grins to his giant gopher hugs, Santo is a good boy.
Natsume’s animation also works overtime in this episode’s finale, where Nyanko and a possessed Mikuri face off in the show’s most dramatic battle yet. The sense of horror from the fourth episode returns here, leaning on classic setups like the scraggly, looming forest and the lake heavy with secrets. The animation is still limited, but the big fight sequence here is thankfully light on stills, and actually conveys the weighty tumult of a giant wolf squaring off with a big friggin’ catfish. The fight lacks any sort of real tension or thematic weight, but it succeeds perfectly well on visceral execution alone.
But again, it’s all about the journey here. In this case, the journey mostly consists of visiting a pair of run-down train stops, which offered perhaps the most consistent and satisfying focus on natural beauty of any episode so far. There’s something inherently compelling about old, abandoned train stations. They almost feel more alive once they’ve been abandoned. While in service, they’re simply portals leading to and from other places – when all their passengers have left, they settle into their own identities, no longer leading to anywhere except themselves.
Train stations reflect how life is a journey defined by transience, and nostalgia in retrospect. They are places we rarely notice in an active sense, but which seem imbued with the memories of their visitors when all their visitors have gone. There’s a loneliness to an abandoned train stop, but also an odd sense of assurance, too. Old train stations may have ceded their role in the active race of human life, but they still exist, possessing no less dignity for having lost their function. There’s a comfort in that. In a society that often equates value with pragmatic purpose, seeing buildings once defined solely by a function now reflect a quiet beauty in retirement indicates there is more to appreciate in life.
Anyway. This was a mild and mostly pleasant episode, one that continued Natsume’s assumption of a semi-heroic mantle. It tempered its relatively high drama with some beautiful scenery and quiet conversations with friends, overall offering another solid example of Natsume’s fundamental excellence. Carefree adventures on regal old train tracks are a genre I am very here for.
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