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 himself is the focus of this third episode. As we open, twilight colors and suburban sprawl return us to Natsume’s childhood, as he cries over his strangeness beneath a playground slide. As he laments his isolation, a girl comes up to console him, and asks the question he most wants to hear: “can you see them too?” Perhaps Natsume is not so alone after all.
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
Natsume’s Book of Friends has long been one of my shortlist shows – the shows whose reputations are so strong that I essentially know I’ll get to them, and so it’s just a matter of when. Of course, the “when” is its own serious hurdle in my case, since I’ve moved from being so slow about getting through backlist that it barely moves to so overwhelmed by other things I literally need to watch that it doesn’t really move at all. I get through a handful of personal watches a year at this point, which makes it a great relief when someone decides to support something like Planetes, or Nichijou, or Natsume’s Book of Friends.