is coming back this fall. One of my all-time favorite anime series - perhaps even the
favorite of them all. To get ready for October's premiere, I've started rewatching the first four series again. It's my third time through, but I'm still discovering new things and new ways to think about it.
The show is about a high school boy, Natsume Takashi ("Natsume" - NAT-soo-may - is his family name, but that's what almost everyone calls him), who can see beings from the spiritual realm. Japanese tradition is full of Shinto gods ("kami") and various spiritual beings called "youkai," and there have been many shows about people interacting with them. But this one is different. And it's taken me this long to realize exactly what its special nature is and why it appeals to me.
Underneath it all, Natsume Yuujinchou
is a meditation on solitude. Or on loneliness. Take your pick.
Japanese culture is much more communally-oriented and conformist. Being different, not fitting in, is a problem. And as you'd expect, that makes it a regular theme in Japanese TV. But I can't think of another show that treats it the way this one does.
Natsume sees spirits, and that makes him different. It sets him apart from everyone. He was orphaned at a young age, and was passed around from distant relative to distant relative because everyone was too creeped out to keep him for very long. We regularly see flashbacks of how painful and frustrating his lonely childhood was. But in the first episode, he meets a youkai named Madara (or Nyanko-sensei when he takes the form of a fat calico cat) who tells him about his grandmother, Reiko. She could see spirits, too, and the people around her rejected her for it, to the point where she spent most of her time among the youkai. Nyanko-sensei also tells him about Reiko's "Yuujinchou" or "Book of Friends." It contains the names of all the youkai that Reiko defeated in spiritual duels. Whoever possesses the book has the power to command all the youkai named in it. But rather than become a youkai-master, Natsume decides he's going to give the beings their names back (I'm not quite sure how the metaphysical logistics of that work, so I just kind of go with it). And so our series begins.
I said the show is a meditation on solitude. It's chock full of characters who are alone. Besides Natsume, there are other humans with similar gifts, and they're all separated from normal society to one degree or another. Many of the youkai are alone, too - bound to a particular location, once worshiped by humans but now forgotten, cut off by a curse or some similar misfortune. A lot of them wear masks that completely hide their faces. And the most isolated of all is Reiko, long dead and seen only in flashback, cut off even from the audience, which is never given much insight into who she was or what she was thinking. She is the enigma at the center of the story, like the invisible black hole at the center of a galaxy.
And yet - even the most isolated characters in this series never stop trying to reach out and make connections, to build communities for themselves, from the beings around them who best fit their strange circumstances. Natsume never stops being different, and never completely stops being apart from the world around him, but as he meets people and youkai over the course of four seasons, he pieces together his own kind of family. And so do the people and the youkai around him. They don't stop being themselves, but they come together as well.
So you probably can see why a show like that would appeal to me. To anyone who feels different, really, or who feels like their particular road through life is a more solitary one. We're all human, and so we're all hard-wired to seek community - but it can be a community that fits who we are, even if we don't fit the mainstream. Yeah, I like that idea very much.