Natsume is not the main character of his show’s seventh episode. As the episode opens, we see a white summer hat abandoned in the forest, accompanied by a voice that seems excited to see it. Treating the hat as a strange kind of friend, the voice wonders “is no one going to come pick you up? You’re so pretty.” The view opens up, and we see the bearer of this voice is a young fox in human form. “I’ll show you to Mom,” he says, and then we learn his mother has passed away. This fox’s only friend is the discarded treasure of a human. Like Natsume’s faded shrines and disused railway stations, even the things we abandon can become precious to someone.
Natsume comes to visit this fox by way of a summer study group. Before leaving, his caretaker Shigeru asks if Natsume can pick up some bowls he commissioned from a potter up in the forest. Natsume is glad to hear this request, even if Nyanko only sees it as an inconvenience. The ways we inconvenience each other demonstrate how much we care and rely on one another. It is our unnecessary but personal gestures that reveal our bonds.
In an episode where he is not the protagonist, Natsume actually seems more able to play the hero. As the young fox is being bullied by two larger youkai, Natsume leaps to the rescue, demonstrating the strength and conviction he’s gained over this series. Shots of the fox in the forest are often framed from a great distance, impressing on us his sense of isolation in this place. In contrast, Natsume is shown surrounded by friends, though the fox believes there is a sadness in his smile.
This episode’s tone is very different from those framed from Natsume’s perspective. While Natsume’s world is often defined by loneliness, it’s not necessarily an isolated place. Natsume is in constant conversation with Nyanko, and each episode brings some new focus character to spend time with him as well. But this young fox is truly alone, and so instead of chirpy banter, melancholy songs present the reality of his quiet life in the forest.
Deeply affected by his tormentors’ words, the fox most fears the idea of being “useless.” Too young to accomplish much on his own and left alone by his mother, he sees himself as a nuisance much in the same way young Natsume must have. It’s the trust and support of the people around him that have led Natsume to find value in himself, even when he’s alone. It’s the absence of that trust that prompts this fox to actually request becoming one of Natsume’s servants. And when this request is denied, his fears are directly articulated: “can’t I ever be useful?”
Natsume doesn’t have the precise words to comfort this child – instead, all he can say is “I think we’re connected in a different way.” When Natsume returns home, we see his idea of companionship in practice, as Shigeru reveals that the reason he got those bowls was to welcome Natsume into the family properly. The fact that they could have gotten an extra bowl at any convenience store is actually the point of the gesture. The ways we stretch ourselves out of care and goodwill reflect the truth of our feelings; our strongest relationships aren’t defined by pragmatism, but by effort for the sake of something intangible, personal, and deeply felt.
The young fox’s route back to Natsume sees him performing just such a gesture. Confronted by a youkai who promises to help him meet Natsume, he struggles to gather fish to sate the youkai’s hunger. And after all his efforts, the youkai floats away, saying he was a fool for letting himself be tricked. But even for his unkind words, the greedy youkai actually grants the fox an elixir to let him become human for a day. As we learned in the last episode, such an elixir is a rare and valuable thing. The fact that this youkai is giving one away for such simple manual labor means that in spite of his harsh words, he also respects the power of these personal gestures. We can become friends in the strangest ways.
In the end, the young fox realizes the loneliness he saw in Natsume was actually just projection. Confronted by Natsume’s happy home life, he runs away, acknowledging that “it was just me. I’m the lonely one.” When Natsume catches up with him, he breaks down in tears. After an episode of trying to “grow up” or “be strong,” Natsume finally gives him someone he can be an honest child with. He’s lonely, and that’s okay. None of us are strong as we’d like to be. Those small, personal gestures are something all of us need.
The episode concludes on Natsume promising to visit the fox, and reflecting himself on the strength it must have taken to come find him. I hope Natsume tells the fox that, either there or on one of their future visits. The way we lift each other can be as simple as the gift of a clay bowl, or a complement honestly meant. Though pragmatists may disagree, there is a power in such gifts, as real as the youkai Natsume meets. Our strength is born in the people we love.
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