I have a weird condition where sometimes when I watch Natsume Yuujinchou, I get something in my eye.
If I had to choose one word to describe the first two episodes of Natsume Yuujinchou Roku, it would be “classic”. These have been stories 100% cut from the cloth that’s the heart of this series – not game-changers or paradigm shifters, just Natsume Yuujinchou doing what it does best and doing it exceptionally well (especially this week). Given that the only real shifts in my enjoyment of this franchise come as it shifts focus from time to time, this development pleases me very much.
There’s a particular quote which I’m sure you know, which seems to exemplify the spirit of this series better than any other:
“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Mercy, it seems to me, is at the core of everything Natsume Yuujinchou stands for. The series’ best stories are of powerful beings showing mercy towards those less powerful than they, driven by no compulsion apart from their own kindness. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the giver or recipient is human or youkai, and that’s a big part of the equation I think – goodness (and evil, of course) knows no barrier of species. The connections we form through mercy are the ones that spiritually sustain us through our lives, and those who allow their own greed or fear to prevent them make those connections starve – even if their bodies seem hale and well-fed.
The youkai at the center of this week’s story is the “Stonewasher” – a powerful youkai who purifies stones which have themselves taken in bad aura and purified it, only to become tainted in the process. Stonewashers come from Fujima Village, a paradise of great beauty and spiritual power, and when they depart they must purify 80,000 stones (by painting a beautiful floral pattern on them) before they can return to their home. Nanamaki (Natori Yukimasa) has completed this spiritual journey but has gone on a journey again, in search of his student Azuma (Yamamoto Kazutomi) – a journey which has taken him to Natsume’s home town.
Dammit – how is it than Natsume Yuujinchou can still do this to me after all these years? This is really a profound and moving tale, meaningful on so many levels. Compassion runs through it like a river, from its headwaters to where it feeds into the sea. The stones themselves are engaged in an act of mercy by taking in miasma from the surrounding world, at risk to themselves. The residents of Fujima leave their paradise in order to repay the kindness of the stones, with no reward other than the act itself. Nanamaki himself performed an act of mercy by allowing the weary and frightened Azuma to stay in the village, then in training him to perform the job of a stonewasher. And when the letters from his former student stopped coming, Nanamaki left his paradise to find his student and help him.
Naturally enough, there’s no way Natsume, as kind as he is, could ever say no to helping the old stonewasher no matter how irritated Nyanko-sensei might get. So much so that he enlists the aid of the Dog Circle, who claim to do so because they’ll enjoy being owed a favor (though I suspect they’re more doing so out of their regard for Natsume). Tragically, it turns out that Azuma has been sealed by an exorcist (who I’m convinced are the closest thing to villains in Natsume Yuujinchou). And while Azuma has managed to escape on his own, he’s been tainted by the exorcism and is now unable to purify his 80,000 stones. Ashamed by this, he’s gone off on his own – painting beautiful designs on stones that now hold no power apart from their beauty itself.
The resolution of all this really is a beautiful, terrible sadness. With the Dog Circle’s help Natsume leads Nanamaki to Azuma, who’s utterly forlorn and bereft. Azuma can never return to Fujima Village now, so Nanamaki declares that he’ll never return there either – he’ll give up his paradise to stay with his protege and find a new beautiful place. “If we can’t go back, let’s find a new place to go back to.” What a lovely way to sum up all that this chapter represents – a validation of all the ideals that Natsume Yuujinchou embodies. I’m not sure The Bard himself could have brought his quote to life more perfectly.