In short: this week’s episode of Natsume Yuujinchou Shi (no. 11) was amazing. In not as short: it’s probably my favourite episode to date, as it focuses on Natsume’s backstory and development and finally gives us information about his parents, as well as some really great moments that highlight the importance of memory and (be)longing. In addition, other elements such as photographs, light and shade, flashbacks, dreams, camera angles, voice-overs, tension, bathos and pathos are used to full effect in the episode, which also echo previous episodes well and really makes me look forward to the next episode even more.
Starting with a stunning image of pink cherry blossoms that gently fall as Natsume arrives home to find Shigure tinkering with an old camera and then suggesting that they all take a group photograph someday, we swiftly realise that there are deeper implications to such a suggestion for Natsume. Only until relatively recently, Natsume has been shifted from one relative to the next like an unwanted package, having lost both his parents when he was very young. And while he does have a photograph of his parents which we finally see later, it’s both a precious and painful reminder to Natsume; of the loving parents he once had, but lost, and of the fragile and fickle nature of most of his familial relationships since his loss. Natsume’s reluctance to ‘show’ us the photograph thus colours some of his other objects and behaviour in a different light. The plain looking box with ‘Takashi’s things’ tucked away in his deceptively neat and orderly room, as well the photos of him and his new friends hidden away in his little closet; he might say they’re ‘embarrassing’, but it seems more like he’s afraid to have them on display, as if it would be showing off something that could so easily be snatched away/ parted from him. Indeed, when he does lose that precious, sole photo of his parents, the suppressed anguish and readiness to leave it behind, rather than trouble his friends to help look for it, is almost heartbreaking. Thankfully, Tanuma (with a little help from Madara) comes to his rescue, with a passionate reminder that Natsume shouldn’t lie about his feelings and that it’s okay to ask his friends for help, which also paves the way for allowing him to ask Shigure and Touko if he can visit his old family home before it is lost to him forever.
Speaking of home, much of the episode is structured around Natsume’s discovery that his first home is to be sold, his memories of the house and of his father (his mother having died shortly after his birth), and his growing desire to see the old place again before it’s too late. Natsume reveals little in his tone and much of his face is hidden during the telephone call, but the use of shade, as well as Touko and Tanuma’s intuitive concern, convey the sudden inner turmoil that this shy young man must’ve been experiencing upon learning that the remaining bonds he has with the only place where he was genuinely happy and unconditionally loved are about to be broken. Despite affirming before Madara that he’s ‘okay’ with what is to happen and his insistence that ‘the most important place to [him] right now is here’, the news clearly depresses him and dogs him throughout the rest of the episode, as is evident from the melancholy blue-tinted dream sequence and the way that the shadows play across his face while he’s in the forest with the boys later, and when he realises he’s lost his parents’ photograph. Here, the fact that Natsume has only just had a beautiful, sun-dappled flashback of being in his father’s arms as a little boy while sitting on their old porch, makes the whole thing seem even crueller, with the juxtaposition of the happy memory highlighting how much he still misses them and how hurt he is by the feeling of displacement and rootlessness that dog him still.
Thankfully, with the help of the boys, Natsume is able to find the photograph and look upon it with a relieved and lighter heart. And this tactic of delaying the audience’s view of the image of the smiling parents who look so much like him is cathartic for us too, as Natsume’s hitherto suppressed, simmering feelings can find release and disperse as easily as the afternoon sunlight through the trees. Finally, with their brief reunion with Sasada and Taki on their way home, this physical grouping of Natsume with all of his friends is a nice touch, reminding him/ us that he’s not alone and is a little bit closer to them all now. Also later, when he’s back home with his foster parents, these ideas are further emphasised when he applies Tanuma’s advice when speaking with Shigure and Touko. We know what that simple request and their agreement mean to Natsume, and this is enough, for now.
A photo, a phone call, a walk in the woods. On the surface, not a great deal happens in this episode. And yet the structure, and its placement in the series, is perfect for allowing Natsume to take another step forward in opening up, developing and finding his place in the world. A world that needn’t be as dull or blue as he still fears it could revert back to being, but rather one where, with the help of others who love him, can be just as bright as his precious memories of his parents and their love and wishes for him.