Natsume’s tenth episode opens with a lovely forest shot and gentle piano, a picture of serenity before we return to Natsume’s daily troubles. Reflecting once more on how he’s kept his secret close, we first see Natsume once again navigating the difficulties of his isolation, as he plays off noticing a lost umbrella that none of his human friends can see. This umbrella isn’t actually lost, though – it’s harboring a youkai, the dedicated umbrella bearer Akagane. And along with Akagane is another youkai trapped in a small gourd, the gentle koto player Asagi.
The overt narrative of this episode closely mirrors that of the firefly youkai two episodes ago. Asagi used to play the koto in the Isodzuki forest, for the master of that forest, Mibu-sama. However, a wasting disease eventually made Asagi unable to play, and so she fled, unable to bear the shame of no longer performing her function. But with the disease having progressed even further, Akagane hoped to give Asagi one more chance to play – and so he fused Asagi with Natsume, and tasked Natsume with helping him create a magic koto to give Asagi one last chance to play for Mibu-sama.
While the larger narrative beats are relatively familiar, the tone and emotional specifics here are all their own. Natsume’s tenth episode is one of its silliest so far, and demonstrates Natsume embracing the ridiculous demands of his life enough to actually have some fun with them. Scenes of Natsume brawling with Akagane or chasing a magic fish reflect a Natsume who’s clearly come to terms with always being a youkai’s gofer, and who actually seems comfortable putting up with their strange demands. There’s little bitterness in him anymore, and a great deal of confidence.
Of course, this episode’s specific youkai problems still reflect Natsume’s various anxieties. Natsume clearly relates to Asagi’s desire to return to the forest, and her fear of not belonging there. His painful history prevents him from assuming he’ll have a permanent place in his current home, asking instead “how long will I be here?” Natsume’s worries regarding the impermanence of homes reflects the show’s overall emphasis on old, abandoned places. But of course, one of the great strengths of Natsume is how it can find beauty worth celebrating even in places that are ostensibly abandoned – and by the end of this episode, Natsume seems to find peace with impermanence as well.
The final key thread of this episode is the strange link between Natsume and Asagi. As Asagi’s disease progresses, her strength wanes more and more, and she must be preserved by being carried in some sort of vessel. At first, her vessel is a gourd at Akagane’s side – but early on in the episode, Akagane actually fuses Asagi with Natsume as he sleeps. And so, as the episode continues, we see the two of them merge into a single being, with one or the other taking greater control at certain moments throughout.
At first, this fusion is used for a combination of body horror and fairly cheap jokes. The body horror side is quite effective – seeing Natsume fret over his unfamiliar features, or share a dream that echoes Asagi’s disease, is a fundamentally disconcerting narrative touch. The jokes, on the other hand, fall into pretty obvious “suddenly Natsume seems like a girl” territory. There’s a touch of gay panic frustration here, but mostly these jokes just end up feeling pretty obvious.
While sequences like Nyanko being creeped out by Natsume’s newfound effeminate side were frustrating, by the end of the episode, the two had arrived at a far more thoughtful and positive union. There was a strange, oddly beautiful intimacy in seeing Natsume and Asagi share their thoughts, as the feelings of one bled into the other. In both physical and emotional terms, their bond represented a kind of union that went beyond words, such that Natsume could share Asagi’s sense of joy and peace. This episode wasn’t truly about gender identity in a particularly meaningful way, but I greatly appreciated how it ultimately celebrated Natsume’s connection with Asagi’s spirit.
In the end, their connection resulted in a beautiful private performance for Asagi’s treasured friend Akagane. Though Akagane spent the episode trying to rekindle Asagi’s connection with Mibu-sama, it turned out that Asagi just wanted to play for Akagane himself. We can treasure our past memories without having to cling to the past, and as long as we live, we’ll keep discovering new connections to hold close. It is that shift in Asagi’s feelings that gives Natsume his own sense of peace – though they ultimately part, her contentment with her changing fortunes carries on.
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