It’s an auspicious winter indeed that brings us new Natsume Yuujinchou and Mushishi both, and we’ve had two Natsume OVAs and a Mushishi TV special in the span of about a month. Even better was the announcement that Mushishi would be getting another season starting this spring, which certainly begs the question – will Natsume as well (its fifth)? As always, this series continues to be a sales dynamo in both manga and anime form (this disc broke the 20K barrier) so it’s really only a question of having enough manga to adapt. Maybe next year.
I’ve waxed poetical many times about why this is such a wonderful series, and this OVA is a prime example of Natsume Yuujinchou at its best. Natsume is a benchmark show for me in many ways – I certainly consider it the defining series for Brains Base and director Omori Takahiro. Inoue Kazuhiko’s performance as Nyanko-sensei is one of the standards by which all seiyuu work should be judged, truly one of the best ever. And in terms of pure emotional impact, there are very few properties out there that are able to consistently deliver the depth of emotion that this one does. It’s one of the all-time greats.
As you probably know I’m a big fan of mono no aware as an anime theme, and it’s something that seems fundamental to the Japanese spirit in a way that’s hard to put into words. The intersection between the human and spirit worlds is an especially powerful vehicle to communicate mono no aware, and no series can do that like Natsume Yuujinchou. I’ve never encountered a show that could make feeling sad feel so good – it’s the very essence of bittersweet, a beautiful heartache that lingers long after the credits have stopped rolling. In lesser hands this series could easily seem cloying or manipulative – in Omori and mangaka Midorikawa Yuki’s, its touch is as light as a ghost’s kiss.
Here, we have the type of story I like best from NY – a wistful tale of Natsume and the world of youkai, one without too much conventional plot and a good vs. evil conflict. Natsume Yuujinchou can do those too, and it has a great cast of human supporting characters – but this is my particular favorite mode of the series, especially as it prominently features the best of those human characters, Natsume’s adopted parents Shigeru and Touko. There’s only one youkai that’s prominently featured here – Mokomoko (“Lumpy”), a snowman-like figure that Natsume meets when he’s out for a stroll on a certain snowy day.
Snow is a fitting theme, given that Tokyo just a week ago experienced its biggest snowfall in 48 years – and then another that exactly matched it six days later (that’s a statistically significant weather event). I’ve waxed poetical about snow almost as much as Natsume Yuujinchou, and snow and mono no aware are a perfect match – and the mangaka too (her name is “Yuki” after all). Touko-san has unearthed a cache of memories digging for an old space heater, and Natsume has gone for a walk on a rare snowy day (I can’t resist either, so I feel this part). That’s when he meets Mokomoko, who’s looking for something – something “shiny and warm”, though he doesn’t remember what it is. There’s just a hint of menace in Lumpy, and he certainly freezes everything he touches, but he’s good-natured enough. Mokomoko assumes Natsume is searching for something too, and when the puzzled boy wonders why, Mokomoko says he just assumed all humans spend their lives searching for something. “They search for something, then they forget about it. Humans are so strange!”.
Later, Mokomoko pays Natsume a visit in his room – to return the scarf Natsume had given him, now frozen solid – and brings with him a big chill. As Natsume and Nyanko-sensei huddle under their blankets Natsume tries to coax the details about Mokomoko’s otoshimono, but the youkai just can’t remember – though it has found something nice and warm in Shigeru’s box full of boyhood memories. The next day Natsume and Nyanko-sensei go off to play in the snow, but Natsume (under the guise of searching for fresh snow to leave the first tracks on) is searching for Mokomoko.
Eventually they find him, still searching for his lost treasure, and Natsume spots something shiny in Mokomoko’s chest. Turns out that it’s a seed, and “he” is really a she, a spirit named Yuki-hana (“Snow Flower”) whose fate it is to search for centuries for something she’s forgotten. Yuki-hana is destined to give birth to what she seeks, then disappear when the flowers bloom. The essence of spring, it seems – and as soon as she “blooms” she starts to disappear, though Natsume seems much sadder about it than Yuki-hana is. Before she’s gone the youkai laughs and tells Natsume that he’ll definitely find what he’s looking for – someday. And when they arrive back home, Toumo gives him a gift Shigeru was too shy to present himself – something that connects the present to the past, and keeps the memory of snow alive all year long..
What could be more mono no aware than the story of beautiful snow, fated to disappear with the start of spring – and what could be more Natsume Yuujinchou than such a story? This series has a direct link to the soul, somehow – an emotional radar that’s unerringly accurate. It embraces impermanence and the pain of loss in such a way as to make them ethereally beautiful in a way more permanent things could never be. As I listen to the rain outside, slowly washing away the snow of yesterday, I’m reminded of how glorious it was to be outside as the flakes fell, listening to the sound of the snow under my boots and breathing in the cold, clean air. Many series can make you think, but very few can transcend the intellect and appeal directly to the heart, allowing you to experience pure, elemental emotion. That’s the essence of Natsume Yuujinchou for me, and there’s no other series quite like it.
ED: “Daidai Iro no Toki” by Yoshimori Makoto