Natsume’s twelfth episode opens with a shot of a half moon, hanging silently in the sky. We’re given no context for this moon at first, but eventually, it comes to feel like a kind of clock, ticking away Natsume’s remaining hours with each slice removed. In this episode, Natsume is cursed by a youkai, and his arm branded with the “Five Day Mark.” Natsume must fight back against a creature that only wants to destroy him, and must enlist new allies to survive his trial.
Over its first ten episodes, Natsume’s Book of Friends has settled into a clear rhythm. Depending on your own mileage, it’d probably be fair to call that rhythm either “comfortable” or “stifling.” The show clearly knows the kind of stories it wants to tell, but it’d be hard to watch all that many of them in a row. It’s a consistently competent exercise in a genre space I’m inherently fond of, but even I have had some trouble getting enthusiastic about continuous stories of youkai and humans just barely connecting.
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.
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.
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.
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 and his human friends begin this episode by visiting a massive dam constructed over a former village. The mere fact of Natsume’s presence on this trip implies things have changed for him – from largely being known as that weird, quiet kid who seems to see things, he’s now got stable friends who invite him on stuff like fishing trips. Natsume is growing up, both through his experiences with youkai and his experiences with all the humans around him.
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.
Natsume’s Book of Friends got intense this episode! After three episodes of melancholy pastoral fantasy tinged with slight danger, this episode dipped directly into horror and even action territory for the first time. The results were as uneven as you might expect, but I appreciate the show branching out, and doubly appreciate an extension of the central cast. Loneliness might be one of Natsume’s fundamental themes, but Natsume doesn’t need to be lonely all the time.
Natsume’s second episode opens with a distant shot portraying Natsume’s school, along with more of the rural scenery that has already proven to be one of the show’s central characters. I love that scenery, beautiful even in this show’s simply drawn, low-resolution format. Rural Japan is one of my favorite anime settings, along with that “vaguely medieval Mediterranean countryside” employed by shows like Kino’s Journey and Haibane Renmei. Perhaps it’s simply a natural tendency towards exoticism, but something about Japan’s rolling hills and sprawling farmlands naturally puts me at ease. Continue reading