Friday, January 17, 2014

Rewind: Natsume Yuujinchou

I'm amazed at how much my tastes changed just in the past few years. Once upon a time, I wouldn't watch anything that didn't promise action. I slowly expanded to other genres. Anime showed me that not all comedy was embarrassing, and romance could be fun. Still, as I browsed anime entries on Anime-Planet, there were a few descriptions I avoided, including "episodic" and "slow-paced." I was in love with long plots and fast paces. Surely anything else would be boring.

Nowadays, I'm open to anime that take their time. I savor peaceful scenes as much as battle scenes. I appreciate the portrayal of real feelings as much as fantasy. I know that slow-paced anime can be some of the richest on my list. I don't have to immerse myself in action-filled fantasy, and I'll even watch slice of life.

A youkai, Nyanko-sensei, and Natsume in the second episode.
This youkai, like many others, has come to Natsume in order to get his
name back, which his grandmother had taken from him. In the process,
they become friends.
This change may be partially due to maturity. As might be expected, I grew a lot between my sixteenth winter and my twentieth. But at some point, I had to step outside my box and watch something with that drab "slow-paced" label. The show that did it for me was Natsume Yuujinchou.

I'd noticed Natsume Yuujinchou, or Natsume's Book of Friends, pop up as I browsed Crunchyroll and Anime-Planet. It was popular. The "fantasy" tag interested me, but the "episodic" and "slow-paced" tags turned me off. Still, as I recounted two years ago, I eventually gave in, and I loved it. I followed the fourth season as it aired.

While each episode had its own conflict, there is overarching character development and plot to give it continuity. Natsume is a high school student who has been passed among relatives since his parents died when he was young. He's endured rejection and loneliness for years, largely because he can see youkai, and no one else can. He's been called a liar and troublemaker, he's lost friends, and no family keeps him for long.

At the beginning of the show, Natsume moves in with a distantly related couple that is different than the others, more gracious and genuinely caring. Trust and a sense of family develop throughout the four seasons (or series, if you prefer, since they weren't aired consecutively). He makes friends with his schoolmates, and if they notice anything strange, they don't desert him over it. He stops running away from the youkai, finds out why he can see them, and makes friends with many of them. He learns about others who are lonely, and he learns that people do care for him. He is still in a very unique situation, but he is not alone.

The themes of loneliness and friendship have been important to me for a long time. I went through a lonely phase in high school, and twists in my thinking convinced me that no one needed my friendship, at least no one in the vicinity. I did, at least, have my mom to talk to, and I wrestled through things with God, but I still felt isolated. I don't think the feeling was at its worst when I watched Natsume Yuujinchou, but I still wasn't in great shape at the time. It was soothing to watch Natsume become less lonely.

There were other things I enjoyed, of course. Shintoism plays a key role in the set, premise, and characters, so that is fascinating to watch. Nyanko-sensei, known to most youkai as Madara, is an amusing character, and impressive in his full youkai form. Further, it's always fun to build vocabulary, and, as you may have noticed, "youkai" now flows easily off my tongue or keyboard. [Come to think of it, I should probably put that in my glossary. My understanding is still limited, so I struggle to find an appropriate English word. Perhaps "spirits" will do for now. The Japanese word just holds so much more richness, as "youkai" has the proper connotations, and "spirits" has other, Westernized connotations.]

When I think of peaceful anime, Natsume Yuujinchou is often the second to come to mind, after My Neighbor Totoro. It's interesting to realize the prevalence of Shinto elements in both of them. I have not done enough research to say much more on the religion, but these anime remind me to appreciate the little things in life and nature. They help me to slow down, take deep breaths, and smile. My perspective is different than the one in these anime. When I watch the wind ruffle branches or birds hopping along the ground, I see beauty created by a loving and present Creator. Still, there's no denying that Natsume Yuujinchou and the other shows got something right, and it's a delight to take part in it.

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