Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Natsume Yuujinchou Shi - 04

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Let there be no mistake: Natsume Yuujinchou is totally on top of its game at the moment.

I've been thinking a lot about the interactions between humans and youkai as presented in this series, and so brilliantly in this week’s episode, and how they play into the “message” the show is trying to communicate.  Natsume Yuujinchou always balances sadness and joy on a knife’s edge, with the line between them ever blurrier.  It seems as though every human-youkai meeting is fated to end sadly – two beings who aren’t really meant to be together, their paths inevitably intersecting for a brief time before they’re pulled apart.  This is the dilemma of Natsume’s life – is what he possesses a gift or a curse?  He’s able to share his life with wondrous beings other humans will never know exist, yet he also inevitably parts ways with them, and experiences their pain and loss during almost every interaction.  Wouldn't it be better to be spared all that, and only to mingle with his own kind?

But you know, as I think about that more and more, I’ve come to believe it really isn’t any different from relationships in our mundane human lives.  Every relationship we have is destined to end in separation, either by choice or be death. They all bring the possibility of pain and loss, and complicate our lives – forcing us to ask ourselves, “It is worth it?  If I take in a cat, I’ll surely have to say goodbye to it one day.”  “If I go out with her, will she break my heart?”  “Do I really have room in my life for another friend – aren’t the ones I have enough?”  It doesn’t seem all that different from what happens in this series, it seems to me, and I think the answer we get from Natsume Yuujinchou is a resounding yes – it is worth it.  And what Reiko passed on to Natsume – both her sight and the Book of Friends – is a gift.

In every way, this was a classic episode, so full of the feelings that make this show special.  And it’s a historic occasion in that we finally have what I feel is a very natural crossover, as the great Nakano Yuto who played Ginko in the show I consider this one’s closest spiritual relative, Mushishi -  appears as Yobiko, a bearded youkai who seeks Natsume’s help.  As is so often the case the youkai initially tries to coerce Natsume’s help, the notion of cooperation between youaki and human seeming so far-fetched, and actually tries to steal the Book of Friends by mimicking Touko’s voice (his special ability).  What he wants is something Natsume cannot provide – to summon the youkai Karikami (Sasaki Takeshi), whose name is inside the book.  Karikami has the ability to restore old paper, and Yobiko has a very old, rain-bleached letter he wishes to see.

What follows is a classic tale from the heart of this series, as Yobiko kidnaps Natsume, who ultimately expresses a willingness to help (as you knew he would) if Yobiko shares his reasons for asking.  Yobiko’s tale is a typically sad example from the annals of youkai-human relationships, the story of a young girl Youko (Takahashi Ao) who engages in a chaste affair at a mountain shrine with a young aristocrat, Takahiko (Nakagawa Keiichi) under the watchful eye of Yobiko, who takes an interest in her.  When Takahiko stops coming for their meetings, Yobiko finds Youko’s sadness unbearable.  He learns the truth – Takahiko has married according to his family’s wishes – Yobiko begins a ruse of pretending to be Takahiko, hiding inside the shrine and pretending to be sick.  What was meant to last a day our of kindness stretches on for months, as Yobiko is unable to break Youko’s heart and (though he’d never acknowledge it) falls in love with her.  Finally he snaps, telling her the truth when she breaks down in tears at being unable to see him, and flees giving her a brief glance of his youkai presence.

This entire story illustrates so beautifully how youkai and humans are so different, yet in so many ways alike.  While Youko has passed from this world – human lives being a blink to a youkai – her letter lives on, and with the gentle and noble Karikami’s help, it delivers a simple and beautiful message of gratitude than Yobiko must have Natsume read for him, being unable to read human script.  One might argue that there’s not much of consequence to this story, but in Natsume Yuujinchou nothing is more important than the most basic emotions that drive us, human or youkai, and they’re on display brilliantly here.  With apologies to those who feel differently, this is the side of the series I love most, because it’s only when it turns its eye on the relationship between the two worlds of human and youkai that Natsume Yuujinchou achieves its most profound nature.  Simpler is better, as is so often the case, and simple stories like this one can make the greatest emotional impact.

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9 comments:

  1. This was a superb episode. If you ever got to see just 1 episode of Natsume this would be the one to watch as it illistrates just what this show is about.

    I wonder if we will see that little fox again (he is in the OP)this year? I can't remember if he has any more interactions from the manga but I do enjoy his character.

    He totally adores Natsume as if Natsume was a beloved big brother.

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  2. @Karmafan
    I absolutely adore Kogitsune, and I think he brings out the best in the show. I'm pretty sure his manga appearances have all been adapted, but his excellent S3 appearance was anime-original, so who knows?

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  3. This episode was absolutely superb. Heartwarming. Tragic. Sweet. This episode had almost all of what Natsume Yuujinchou is all about.

    I just can't get over how beautiful "Stand In" was. The scenery, the soft rustles of the paper, the angles, and motions - everything was a pleasure to watch. It's kind of surreal how much the animation has changed over the seasons. S1 and S2 were great (although Zoku's "Temporary Home" episode was a stunning aberration), and S3 had a few lapses in quality. But damn, Shi is a feast for the eyes.

    (I'd also like to mention that Kurikami, and his restoring of the letter, seemed straight out of Studio Ghibli.)

    It seems that both the anime and the manga are stepping things up a notch. In the latest chapter (59) of the manga, it seems as if we are finally getting some information on Reiko. I can't read a lick of the Chinese scanlations, but from what I hear from natives, it's going to be good. I'm pretty sure this is a golden year for fans.

    I can't wait for the next episode, which looks to be a filler. (I also can't wait until Natsume Yuujinchou is released here in the U.S., but that's another story.)

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  4. The next episode is from the manga. Its one of those special chapters. I think it is 39.5

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  5. Loved this episode!!! Unlike you, I did love S3 as much as S1 & 2 cuz However it is episodes like this one, simple and bittersweet, that makes me love this show soo much and one of my favorite anime ever. It is one of those rare animes that I hope it goes on and on, cuz each episode is so heartwarming that u really don't want to leave the characters or the place, and ur not watching it to see the endgame of the show but actually enjoying every moment of it ;)

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  6. @MrMz

    Well, as long as the manga is ongoing and the blu-rays sell, I don't see any reason why they'd stop animating it. I suspect the manga will be adapted 100%, whenever it ends.

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  7. Yeah, this episode was wonderful. The best part was the ending. The sentence was short but brought closure for the youkai, Natsume and the viewer.

    If the letter's contents had been different it might have touched too heavily on the sadness of Youko's passing. As it stood, the contents was a simple event that could have happened on any day to any one, that of simply thanking someone.

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  8. It was a beautiful episode, and one of those episodes that sums up exactly what it is I love about this series.

    "The voice, the smile that still remains in his heart.
    All of it was a long time ago.
    Humans lead such short lives."

    Such beautiful melancholy. It's that air of melancholy this show has had since episode one. We've seen Natsume find his new life, find a loving family, find his good friends, but that air of melancholy is still there.

    We may never find out the full story of what happened with his grandmother, but I think revealing that would lessen the mystery. All we know is Reiko existed, bested youkai and took their names - and their love and respect.

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  9. This episode made me feel like I've fallen in love all over again. I absolutely love these stories that have you feeling joy and sadness all at once. It was great having Nakano Yuto in this episode too; I really wish there were more shows like Natsume and Mushishi. I've probably rewatched these two shows more than any other single show.

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