This is a great week to be blogging with Scott from Mechanical Anime Reviews having organised a week for us to write about, explore and celebrate the beauty that is the Natsume Yuujinchou anime. And I’m really, really glad because I don’t get to talk about this anime enough, though my current read through the manga has given me another excuse to make Natsume themed posts.
If you want the schedule we have:
On Feeling Alone
For anyone who has watched Natsume Yuujinchou the theme of loneliness and isolation is one that you will be very familiar with. However, unlike so many other shows that isolate their protagonist, Natsume isn’t trying to be edgy or to sensationalise an issue. Instead, Natsume seeks to explore the many reasons people (and yokai) feel alone and how loneliness can shape their life.
Natsume is isolated because he has walked in between worlds his whole life with no one who understands what he is going through. As a child who could see yokai that no one else around him could see, and with no parents or stable home environment, he had no immediate familial connection to ground him. Afraid of the yokai or angry with them for being the essential cause of the taunts he endured from others, Natsume couldn’t make friends with either humans (who believed him to be a liar or unhinged) or with yokai.Even the light wishes to separate Natsume from others.
And again, where this becomes different from other stories is that Natsume is not bitter or resentful toward the people in his life who have isolated him. Despite knowing how he’s been treated, he speaks of past families as being ‘good people’ or ‘nice to begin with’. He blames his own actions and strangeness for their distance. He isn’t desperate to connect with other but still longs for it. He builds a wall to protect himself but he keeps hoping someone will find a way inside or that he will meet someone like him that he won’t need to keep the wall between.Desperate for a friend and someone to talk to.
Because ultimately, Natsume Yuujinchou is not a story about an isolated boy feeling sorry himself or struggling to come to terms with loneliness. Natsume’s Book of Friends is a story that celebrates those new encounters that allow us to open ourselves up again, sometimes leaving ourselves open to new pain but sometimes finding new family and friends and people that will leave a lasting impression. It is also the story of a boy who understands what it means to be alone and so has empathy for others who are ostracised even if the reason for their isolation is vastly different from his own.
Fortunately, it also doesn’t become a story where everything can be beaten with teamwork and the power of friendship either. Natsume is still one of only a few characters who can even see yokai and is regularly at odds ideologically with others who see them. This means he often acts alone and is forced to overcome quite dangerous situations by himself. The bonds he makes give him a reason to not give in or be too reckless but individualism isn’t totally taken away by the idea of working with others which also makes this story feel quite unique in its take on the theme of loneliness.
Where the story excels is that we begin in the middle, with Natsume already having been taken in by the Fujiwaras. It is their kindness that allows Natsume to begin lowering his walls, though not yet dismantling them. We see Natsume’s childhood and incidents that have constructed his reticent personality as we meet him in the first season only in flash backs that come spaced throughout the series. And in every flash back of Natsume we see him standing alone or being isolated from others. The few times people have reached out to him in flash backs they are normally torn away again, or Natsume pushes them away, by the time the flash back ends.
However, the Fujiwaras, as lovely as they are, do not know Natsume’s secret so as much as Natsume has built a family with them, and one he wants to protect, they alone wouldn’t have been enough to lower all the walls he has constructed. It is Natsume’s encounter with Madara/Nyanko Sensei that truly allows transformation to occur. Nyanko Sensei knew Reiko, Natsume’s grandmother, and acts as a bridge between Natsume and other yokai. So the Fujiwaras and the friends Natsume make at school start drawing him back into human relationships, at the same time that Natsume and Nyanko Sensei make a pact and begin working together drawing Natsume back into yokai relationships.
The parallels drawn between Reiko and Natsume are quite deliberate. As Natsume works to return the names Reiko collected in the book of friends, Natsume learns more of her life as he sees a vision of her when he returns a name. Natsume himself has said that Reiko is always alone when he sees her. She lived a short and seemingly mostly isolated life from humans and one where her relationship with yokai was combative. She never found that middle path to walk that Natsume seems to so desperately want to find. While in season one, Natsume and Reiko were nearly mirrors of each other, it is Natsume’s kindness and willingness to get involved with others, despite past wounds, that begins to build a community around himself. By season six, Natsume can no longer be thought of as alone. While there are still scenes where he and Nyanko are apart from others, there is almost always someone or some group waiting for him.
This is a story of hope and one of never giving up or giving in to self pity. One of doing what you can do and trying again even when it feels like it is pointless. Certainly Natsume had given up at various points in his life and it did take the catalyst of meeting those who would stand by him to get him moving again, but ultimately it is Natsume who has used those opportunities to forge lasting connections with others.
In case you haven’t noticed, I love Natsume Yuujinchou as a story. I love how it explores this theme and so many others. I love how multilayered the idea of loneliness is as we explore it from multiple character perspectives. And I love that the scars of loneliness are still visible even six seasons even though so much character growth and progress has been made. This is an unmissable anime and one that is truly an emotional journey worth taking.
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 1
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 2
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 3
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 4
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 5
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 6
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 7
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 8
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 9