Natsume has spent much of this first season circling around one particular goal – finding another human who can share his youkai experiences. Isolated since youth, he’s traditionally framed youkai as solely the source of his pain, and not a potential escape from it. Even now, he’s haunted by the memories of what his gift did to him, and the pain it caused.
Basically every episode that’s touched on this theme has put the lie to his self-image, to the point where it’s become somewhat difficult for me to really offer fresh commentary. Natsume will start off an episode believing that a human who could also see youkai would represent the escape from his isolation. Over time, he’ll draw closer to one or another human with some sort of spiritual gift, generally befriending a youkai over the course of this experience. Ultimately, he’ll realize that what unites us isn’t specifically common experience, but a willingness to acknowledge and empathize with the experiences of others no matter what they may be. And generally, this revelation is reflected in the fact that he ends up closer not to the human he was seeking, but to the youkai he met along the way.
Natsume’s ninth episode doesn’t really shake up this formula, but it does put Natsume’s ethos in the starkest terms yet. Natsume’s human companions have been imperfect mirrors so far, and thus never precisely the person he’s seeking. One classmate is intrigued by his gift, but doesn’t share it – another can sense youkai, but only in a vague, general sense. One human is able to interact with the youkai realm without even knowing it, while another once shared his gift, but now has another life. No one has truly been able to understand not just Natsume’s ability to see the supernatural, but more importantly, what the lived experience of being so strange and different has meant for him emotionally.
In this episode, Natsume finally discovers a true peer. Out taking a walk with his increasingly tubby cat, he runs into Shuuichi Natori, a famous television actor. Natori can actually, actively see youkai – in fact, he even seems to have a couple youkai servants of his own, along with the ability to engage with the spirit realm in ways more meaningful than punching or kicking it. Natori is an exorcist, and seems fascinated by Natsume to the extent that he asks Natsume to be his apprentice. “You and I are kindred spirits,” he says, offering the words Natsume has seemingly longed to hear.
Unfortunately for Natori, Natsume is not the boy he was nine episodes ago. Natsume is deeply suspicious of Natori, and the camera echoes his doubt. Shots consistently frame Natori in deep shadow, hiding his eyes or personifying him through a cruel, untrustworthy smile. Even though Natori seems like a relatively reasonable person, at this point, Natsume appears to have less trust in the human world than the youkai one. And from his first appearance onward, the show works hard to make sure we understand Natsume’s unease.
Their first extended conversation offers some justification for Natsume’s doubts. Natori’s relationship with his youkai companions seems less based in mutual respect than Natsume’s own relationships with youkai; Natori is the master, and they are his servants. When Natori describes his most recent job, where he’s been commissioned to flush a defending youkai out of an old storehouse, Natsume immediately questions whether there’s more to the youkai’s side of the story. Only Natori’s own inexplicable youkai seems to reach Natsume, in a conversation otherwise defined by guarded antagonism. Natsume has spent nine episodes coming to understand there’s always more to a youkai’s story, but he’s not willing to extend an unfamiliar human the same generous spirit.
For his part, Natori does seem to confirm Natsume’s suspicions. Natori clearly sees youkai as more of a menace than Natsume, and Nyanko also acknowledges that he “could feel his hatred for youkai.” After a childhood of suffering in presumably the same way Natsume suffered, Natori has built an easygoing persona that belies his violent understanding of human-youkai relationships. In contrast, Natsume’s vulnerability is far more fragile, but gives him the leeway to actually reach out to youkai. As this episode repeatedly echoes, Natsume embodies the flexible, resilient kindness of youth – he’s been hurt, but his hurt hasn’t calcified into a defensive worldview. As children, we get hurt, bounce back, and get hurt again. As adults, we form ideologies that prevent us from getting hurt in ways we can’t be healed.
As it turns out, Natsume was right to be suspicious of Natori’s mission, but wrong about Natori. The youkai he was sent to exorcise was indeed innocent – bound to the storehouse by a human priest, it had no choice but to scare off trespassers or die itself. As a young boy, Natori himself offered sympathy to this youkai, and the youkai in turn consoled Natori about his own strange nature. Learning that Natori would be the one to exorcise her, the youkai gladly accepted her fate, feeling that increasing one charitable human’s fame was the most her life could be worth.
But Natori’s plan is more complicated than just dispelling a troublesome youkai. Though he performs the exorcism as requested, he intends the ritual not to banish this youkai, but to free her from her bindings. Natori doesn’t sugarcoat his methods – there was also a fair chance this ritual would kill her, and it’s clearly not a tactic Natsume himself would use. But as Natori says, “we don’t have to agree on everything to be friends.”
In the end, Natsume’s first friendship with a human who’s shared his pain turns out to be a relatively humbling experience. Natsume has come to instinctively assume the best of youkai, but as his suspicion towards Natori demonstrates, extending charitable motivations to strangers isn’t a lesson we ever fully internalize. Even a kind child like Natsume who still possesses the charity of youth must learn to trust another human – while his interactions with youkai have been straightforward and rewarding, humans are still naturally associated with the pain he’s experienced. The process of reaching out is an act of continual vulnerability and forgiveness, as we shoulder the hurt we’ve born to reach once more for a friendly hand.
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