Natsume’s relationship with his ability to see youkai has evolved considerably over the course of this series. Initially seen as a total burden, his power isolated him, leaving him abandoned by relatives and without any close friends. Natsume wished only to be rid of his power, and barring that, he craved contact with anyone who could in some way relate to his experience. Actually getting closer to youkai was inconceivable – they were the source of his pain, the reason he couldn’t live a normal life.
Over the course of Natsume’s adventures so far, he’s arrived at a more complex perspective on his power. He’s made friends with youkai, and found joy in both getting closer to them and helping them with their problems. He’s discovered that being different doesn’t necessitate being isolated, and has discovered companionship in both his home and social life. Natsume has come to find some joy in his own nature, and in this episode, he is forced to come to terms with his own changing perspective.
Natsume’s eighth episode finally introduces the character Natsume has been looking for all series long – someone else who can not just see, but actually interact with other youkai. Visiting a swamp bank in order to witness its famous fireflies, he runs across Akifumi, a man who seems to be possessed by a youkai. After saying his goodbyes, the youkai follows Natsume, and reveals that she and Akifumi were once actual friends. Akifumi could see youkai in his younger years, but the power eventually left him. Now the youkai Hotaru is left alone, simply waiting for the day her former friend gets married.
The distance between Akifumi and Hotaru is an echo of Natsume’s general thoughts on loneliness and personal connections, but that’s a concept we’ve seen before. More important to this episode is the specific nature of Akifumi – not only does he represent the first person who could actually relate to Natsume, but his story implies that Natsume might also eventually lose his ability, too.
Akifumi’s story is very similar to Natsume’s. Bullied and isolated because of his difference, he first met Hotaru after running off to the swamp to cry. Hotaru didn’t actually want to reveal herself to him, but her natural glow made it impossible to hide, and thus a friendship was born. Even that small narrative detail reflects the show’s larger concerns; we often build up the drama of making connections in our mind, but the friction we imagine is often greater than any conflict which could actually occur.
Natsume eventually makes that same connection, and directly tells Akifumi about his own power. After full episodes dedicated to finding someone with the same experience as him, Natsume’s long-awaited meeting feels like a serious anticlimax. The two chat about their powers, Akifumi talks about his past and current love, and then they part. The relative normality and emotional flatness of this conversation speaks to the transformation that’s occurred in Natsume – from being desperate to find any human who can relate to him, he’s arrived at a point where he’s more concerned about Hotaru’s feelings. Finding his emotional bonds among the youkai has become second nature to him.
In light of that fact, Natsume also finds he has serious misgivings about losing his power. From once seeing it as a curse, he’s come to treasure the connections he makes with youkai, the people he meets and stories he learns. His fascination with Akifumi takes on a very different tenor – instead of simply wanting to meet someone like him, he specifically wonders “why does he still go to that swamp, even if he can no longer see Hotaru’s soft glow?” The question is no longer “how can I make peace with my condition” – it’s “how can I cope with the possibility of losing my power?”
The episode’s conclusion offers no tidy answers, but is gorgeous and heartwarming all the same. Intent on reconnecting with Akifumi, Hotaru chooses to return to her original form – a firefly, the creatures that once guided a god and human through these woods. Akifumi finally notices his old love, and though Natsume can’t understand her anymore, he feels certain that Akifumi must. Walking along the forest roads with Nyanko at his side, Natsume accepts that he may one day lose his gift. But like Akifumi, he hopes to find joy in these meetings and partings while he can. Though his friendships may eventually feel like a myth or a dream, he is determined to hold on to the feelings he shared. “My ability to see them may disappear, but my memories of the time I spent with them never will.”
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