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.