This post is largely about the latest episode to air, episode 4, of the fourth and current season of Natsume’s Book of Friends, but contains light spoilers for the previous seasons. It’s a stand alone episode focussing mainly on the story of one youkai, one of the many who have encountered Natsume to date, and can be enjoyed as a gently creepy, humorous, and romantic tale in its own right. However, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, to get the most out of the show as a whole thus far, I would recommend going back to season one and giving it a ‘two episodes test’. Yes, that’s a fair few episodes in between those two and this latest one, but, quite frankly, this is a wonderful series and you’d be doing yourself a disservice not to start off with how it all, so beautifully, began. Right, now that that’s out of the way, on to the highlights of this latest episode, which showcases so many of the things that I’ve come to love about this show.
In short: a self contained episode including romance(s) involving humans and youkai, with a (bitter-)sweet ending, and flashbacks of Reiko. I.e. the best type of Natsume episode, in my opinion. All that would make it better, perhaps, would have been to have more of Natsume in it. However, that’s a minor quibble, as more Natsume character development is not necessary at this point and the episode did just fine to focus on the youkai in question, Yobiko. Speaking of whom, Yobiko’s introduction was the stuff of everyday nightmares; preceded by Natsume being alone at home, only to discover that a ghostly intruder has gained entry into his house. *Shudder* Until Dat Punch and a certain kitty’s comic jam jar wearing entrance, of course, I thought this sequence was genuinely creepy, not least of all due to the use of BGM, which also sounds like footsteps.
However, Yobiko is swift to reveal himself as a ‘good guy’, and one who has a story to tell of a courting couple from the past and his involvement in comforting the girl after her lover abandons her due to the pressures of familial duty (i.e. he marries for money; alas, ‘gentle eyes’ are not enough to put bread on the table, for some). We are soon drawn into the story of how Yobiko helps to cover up the man’s abandonment by pretending to be him, via a handy ability to mimic voices and an equally useful partitioning door. Naturally, Yobiko develops feelings for the girl, Youko, who becomes aware that the one who she is now conversing with is not quite the same as the one to whom she first opened up her heart, and eventually desires to see his ‘face’. At this, plagued by his own feelings of guilt and self-loathing, Yobiko comes clean, before promptly fleeing, overcome by shame. Years later, finding an old, damaged letter at the shrine which had been their meeting place, Yobiko requests Natsume’s help in being able to read the letter… Clearly, Yobiko’s observation of Youko and the feelings he develops for her, as well as her tragic love story, are what drive this episode, as are our own cathartic feelings regarding the contents of the letter and desire for resolution in terms of finding out what happened to Youko, and these are what I wish to focus on…
…Namely, the themes of love, loss and forgiveness, which are highlighted in this episode, but recur throughout the show. Unattainable love is not a new theme in Nasume, but Yobiko’s simple observations cut to the quick:
I knew that humans and youkai could not be together, but I never thought that two humans, who loved each other so much, could not be together.
Gosh, where to begin with this… ‘Perhaps they didn’t really love each other (enough)’? Or, ‘They were just victims of contemporary social and familial pressures’? Or… Well, a fair few other things, I expect. Either way, it doesn’t stop the whole thing being as sad a hell. Namely, because of that vision of faithful Youko waiting, every day, at the same place, at the same time, for someone who never really comes back to her. The stuff of broken shoujo dreams, no doubt. And, to make things worse, you have her unsuspectingly living a false dream, in the form of Yobiko’s attractive deception. Arguably, Yobiko, as a youkai who lives so much longer than any human, doesn’t sacrifice a great deal in the grand scheme of things. However, he is clearly so affected by the guilt of having deceived an innocent, heartbroken (‘breaking-hearted’?) young woman, that he goes into self-imposed exile (‘a journey’) for many years, with Youko’s inevitable death as well as his guilt being accompanying punishments.
In contrast to so much guilt and self loathing, it seems fitting that the denouement of the story, when it comes with the reading of the restored note, is so simple. The relief is almost palpable nonetheless, and I love how such moments are so subtly presented in this show. In other words, no lengthy, tear-jerker of a letter from Youko pouring out her feelings and cathartically allowing us to release our own. And yet her simple, ‘Thank you, for telling me the truth’ was just perfect, because it did express all of her feelings, without having to spell them out; her obvious sorrow, but also her affection, her forgiveness evident in the fact that she is thanking him even though he lied to her, her relief at knowing, and her acceptance of the truth. Clearly, she – and Reiko – have long since passed away, and so Yobiko and we know that Youko, no matter what else she went through later in life, took some comfort knowing why the man she loved for so long gave her up. Speaking of other less savoury themes such as the need for money and reputation, at least this show, despite all its fantastical goings on, is also not afraid to keep things real. And speaking of Reiko, it was great to see her again, given the fact that her flashbacks seemed to dry up after the third episode or so of last season…
…Perhaps we were simply due a Reiko flashback, but I hope we see a bit more of her this season. I guess, as a contrast to how far her grandson has developed, we might not need to see that much of her. And speaking (finally) of Natsume, I also thought it was a nice touch to have him read out Youko’s letter, given that the poor boy could barely speak out to anyone at all in season one. Moreover, here, he is happy to ‘translate’ Youko’s final message, which is also symbolic of how much he is a ‘bridge’ between the human and youkai worlds, between which he now fairly easily and happily navigates.
Finally, with the threat of the Matoba clan still fresh in our minds from this season’s opening double episode, Natsume still has a way to go in terms of carving out his own legacy and destiny, as well giving back all those names in the Book of Friends, and thus encountering more youkai he has yet to meet. However, I do love these poignant little episodes and their focus on love and the passage of time and, no matter how difficult or fleeting these may be, the idea that reaching out to others and working hard to make things right are still worth it in the end.