Welcome, friends! A short while ago, I received an invitation from a group of brilliant bloggers to join them in what we deemed Natsume Week, or week where we would take a day and talk about what has grown to become a very special series for all of us. When I was asked to join in, I was astounded. Every one of these people are such hard-working and incredible individuals. Before I began my contribution to Natsume Week, I wanted to take a small moment and say thank you to all of you. I feel quite honoured to be able to celebrate one of the best serials in existence with some of the very best minds in the community.
My blog is the final destination on this Natsume appreciation train. It was extremely challenging for me to narrow down my focus for this article. I went back and forth between all of the themes that I adore and cherish, such as friendship, ostracization, loneliness, family, the power of bonds shared with animals—there is literally a page full of ideas sitting on the table beside my desk. Nevertheless, none of them felt like the one for me. Then one evening, while I was watching one of my favourite films, I made the connection to it and Buddhism, and that’s when I knew I had finally found my topic. I also thought this would be quite fitting since I am a practising Jōdo Shinshū Buddhist myself.
For anyone who may be unfamiliar, Natsume’s Book of Friends (夏目友人帳) is a shōjo, supernatural, slice-of-life series that was originally a manga written and illustrated by Yuki Midorikawa. Then during the Summer 2008 season we got the anime debut for it that spanned six seasons, which was produced by Brain’s Base (seasons one to four) and Shuka (seasons five and six). As of yet, there have been no news on whether it shall be continuing onwards or not.
The series follows the everyday life of a young, fifteen-year-old boy named Natsume Takashi who inherited the ability to see and interact with yōkai, or spiritual and supernatural beings, from his late grandmother Reiko. As we tag along for the journey, we will witness him experience many things, such as loneliness, bullying, loss, friendships, the burden of responsibilities he never asked for, and much more. The series is filled with breath-takingly contemplative motifs that tackle serious elements with heart-warming empathy and grace, as well as the bitterness of reality. It instils into the watcher as much sorrowful emotional depth as it does feel-good, fluffy ones because at it’s core the series is built upon the fundamental beliefs of Japanese Buddhism: that life is suffering and that everything in life is impermanent.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, regardless of the specific sect, all focus on the fact that life is suffering in one way or another, and that that suffering isn’t a permanent entity. They include:
- Life is Suffering, whether that suffering is subtle or more prominent, it’s always there. Even when you feel completely happy and at ease, beneath that joy, there will be an air of suffering to one degree or another.
- The Causes of Suffering almost always stems from craving and fundamental ignorance. People suffer because they are unable to see that we are not separate, independent individuals that leaves no effect on others around us; there’s this delusion of ego that we focus in on that is selfish.
- The End of Suffering arises when we realise that suffering is inherently temporary, like clouds that pass over our heads in the sky. Even though the clouds are always there, they are constantly moving, changing, and shifting.
- The Path is just living as a decent and ethical human being. Learning to be wiser about the decisions that we make and the negative emotions that we use to inflict pain and suffering upon others.
In season one of Natsume Yūjinchō (the Romanised version of the Japanese title), we are introduced to these precepts, particularly the first one, very early on. We see it in Natsume himself as he struggles with terrible loneliness and the fear of abandonment due to his special abilities. People see him as strange and weird and constantly make fun of him for being an eccentric outsider whose family doesn’t want him (schoolmates) or they hand him off to the next family willing to take him in so they don’t have to deal with a bizarre orphan kid (relatives). This is the epitome of prominent suffering. The kid is also constantly being chased by scary monsters and he has no idea why. The concept of joy is virtually alien to him.
When he encounters Madara, otherwise known as Nyanko-sensei, they formulate an accord due to certain circumstances. However, no one could ever have imagined that this simple contractual relationship would turn into a powerful symbol of everlasting friendship that would eventually cause them to Enlighten one another.
In the second percept, Buddhists learn that suffering is caused from desire, or cravings. One of the things that Natsume yearns for more than anything else is acceptance. He wants to be accepted by a family and finally have one to call his own, and he wants to be accepted by people around him so he’ll know what it’s like to have friends. Over time these wants fall into the territory of unfulfilled dreams. Having been neglected and hated, he concedes to the fact that there are some things he can’t have in life. His acceptance is the third noble truth. By acknowledging that he does suffer and that suffering is just a part of life, he was finally ready to learn what it felt like to end his suffering. Enter Madara.
Through their accord, they begin to live together and spend most of their waking time with one another. Through everyday interactions of walking to school or sharing meals, an intimacy between them starts to take root. It is one of compassion, understanding, and respect. Slowly, like those shifty clouds that I mentioned earlier, Natsume’s loneliness and longing start to wither away. There is a comfortable companionship that fulfils the emptiness and the ache within his heart. They then began their journey with Noble Truth Number Four: being better, wiser individuals.
Natsume’s wisdom stems from his interactions with other yōkai. The deeper his understanding of suffering and its many forms becomes, the more that he learns and grows as a person; the more that he realises the world isn’t about “I” or “me,” it’s about the people—living and corporeal, and non-living and non-corporeal—that inhabit the world together. The very same can be said about Madara. Through watching Natsume’s compassion at play in situations where his (Madara’s) way of dealing would be a quick and decisive one, he becomes enlightened to the human condition of suffering and mind-blowing ideal of mercy and forgiveness and trust.
Throughout the series, we encounter various yōkai, one after another, who also encapsulate the Buddhist ideals of Suffering and Impermanence, it’s not jut limited to our two main characters. It is quite literally in every episode with every arc that is presented to us, thus making it the basic foundation of every other theme and motif to follow suit.
Hishigaki was a very gentle and caring yōkai, as well as a terribly lonely one. Then one day she met Reiko and suddenly she didn’t feel as alone anymore. When Reiko leaves, Hishigaki is left waiting for a very, very long time. When she stumbles across Natsume, mistaking him for Reiko, she comes to learn that Reiko has passed. Hishigaki’s loneliness lasted for a horribly long time, but it wasn’t permanent. It came to an end, unfortunately so did those moments of reprieve that she felt. Hishigaki is also a prime example of suffering to the extreme because when her loneliness did return, it consumed her.
Hinoe would be another great example that follows in the same line as Hishigaki. Hinoe holds on to a single hairpin with such vehement adoration. When the hairpin gets stolen, Hinoe is utterly devastated. That small item is a reminder to Hinoe of something very precious that she lost; a keepsake of the impermanence of life, death, and even affection. After Reiko assists Hinoe, she comes to love Reiko very dearly, which once again changes many years later when she encounters Natsume.
Lastly, as far as yōkai goes, there is Madara, or Nyanko-sensei. His past is mostly a mystery for the vast majority of the series. The only things that a person can truly gauge about him is that he shares a similar loneliness with Natsume, as well as a demeanour in which he wishes to protect himself from emotional heartache. He keeps everyone at a distance to a certain point. The suffering he feels is very self-inflected, at least in regard to the chains he has around his heart. But the more time he spends with Natsume and the more people and yōkai that they help, the warmer and kinder he becomes, at least towards his human companion. That misery and isolation that he underwent for who knows how many years, was ending. The tides of suffering shifted. He learned that while it is an essential part of existence—supernatural or natural—there are many sides to it, and not all of them have to be forever.
The five other bloggers who have partaken in Natsume Week have discussed special subjects of their own and each one is another prime example of how Buddhism is steeped into the roots and the soil that Natsume Yūjinchō grew out of; the indispensable essence of every friendship, rivalry, moment of sadness or happiness, and much, much more. Check them out below.
Scott talks about pacifism in his post and how Natsume prefers to find solutions that are based entirely on peaceful resolution, at least as much as humanly possible, and even go insofar as to put his physical health at risk. Pacifism causes suffering. Some things cannot be resolved in a peaceful and non-violent means, which is where Nyanko-sensei usually steps in, being a voice against Natsume’s non-violent nature, especially when it’s required to protect him. There is physical suffering when Natsume gets injured as well as the emotional turmoil of not being able to help those who sought him out. However, with pacifism, we also have the knowledge of suffering’s existence and choosing to avoid inflicting more of it. Thus, taking us through the rest of the Noble Truths. Even then, the pain that Natsume undergoes in these encounters isn’t permanent. It doesn’t last forever and forever. It’s temporary and eventually ending.
Keiko’s post about Tsubame is the perfect example of suffering and the acceptance of the finality of things. It’s quite possibly one of the most powerful lessons of the fallibility of bonds in the whole series. The friendship they share is a very short-lived one, but one that enlightens both individuals so when they do inevitably take separate paths, they are still interconnected and further wiser.
Loneliness is something I mentioned already with Natsume’s struggles in childhood. Karandi’s evocative post goes into further detail about it, especially in regard to the instability of Natsume’s life being a big factor in him being alone, as well as the different ways that he builds walls around himself to protect his emotions from further harm. In this situation, the suffering that he feels is very much self-inflicted. He yearns for something so passionately but becomes quite afraid of leaving himself open to receiving it. This post showed me that we all have walls that we build up, in one form or another, which shuts us out from being able to walk away from the pain. We become so acquainted with it that anything beyond its scope can be too overwhelming to bear.
In Irina’s post, we get so see the spotlight on Madara, and how responsibility is a by-product when someone chooses to need you and trust you. In her words, it’s “A badge of honour given to those that have something precious to contribute.” Nyanko’s seemingly aloof and disconnected persona evolves into a meaningful and empathetic one due to the impact that his relationship with Natsume has on him. Irina’s words really put into perspective the suffering that Madara undergoes and how that suffering and coldness was an impermanent one.
Arthifis talks about the lessons taught pertaining to friendship in his post. He goes over six different important elements, and while each of them can be seen via a positive and uplifting lens, each component also has an air of subtle suffering to it that balances out the joy and the contentment that stems from each facet; for example, having discord or learning to be vulnerable around them with no preestablished emotional walls. However, these two are constantly moving and evolving as the relationships evolve and people change; impermanent. Friendships are some of the things that help make us wiser and more enlightened than anything else, and it can also teach us the harshest lessons in selfishness and compassion.
Natsume’s Book of Friends is my favourite slice-of-life serial of all-time and it forever shall be. Watching this series, specifically as a Buddhist, I grew to love and respect it for the wisdom that laces every chapter and every episode. Additionally, it helped me develop a deeper and sincerer appreciation for things such as friendship, family, compassion, companionship, and the power of pacifistic and selfless co-existence—elements that I take with me everywhere outside of the vibrant animation and soulful instrumental music of the anime, or the intricate and stunning designs of the manga. The lessons taught and the knowledge obtained are gems that I have never received from anything else that I have ever seen or read. Natsume’s Book of Friends has shown me that, yes, life is jam-packed with suffering and pain and sorrow, but it doesn’t last forever, and that gives me more hope and inspiration than I could ever ask for.