[Analysis] Natsume Yuujinchou: A Place for Yokai in the Modern World

Natsume Yuujinchou, crunchroll.com

By: Peggy Sue Wood | @pswediting

Note: Hello, Everyone! So, last summer I took a special course on anime and Japanese culture. During that course, I completed a project discussing Japan’s cultural background regarding spiritual beliefs (Shintoism, yokai, etc.) and how these beliefs and myths influence animation and other entertainment media in Japan. For part of the project, I discussed how the mythos lives on today, and how series like Natsume Yuujinchou explore the continued presence of spirits in a modern world–which I’ve decided to share with you all here. I hope you all enjoy it!

Spirituality in Japan is deeply embedded in the culture. This spirituality is, in some regards, foundational to Japan. The native religion of Japan, Shintoism meaning “the way of the gods” or the way of the kami, is a polytheistic and partly animistic belief system that developed from spiritual beliefs and customs from prehistoric times, and while not everyone follows this religion it is critically important to understand as a cultural element routed in the foundations of the country.

Unlike other historically significant, major religions, such as Christianity or Buddhism, Shintoism does not have scriptures or religious documents. Instead, its teachings and beliefs are found primarily within folklore and mythology.

This folklore and mythology present spirits often referred to as yokai or ayakashi (which is a title for spirits that are above water or out of water), and gods, often called kami. According to Shinto beliefs, kami are sacred spirits that take the form of things and concepts important to life, including nature-based or natural phenomena like snow and rain.

Natsume Yuujinchou or Natsume’s Book of Friends is a manga series written and illustrated by Yuki Midori kawa. The series, and its animated adaptation, explore the place of this folklore and mythology through a modern lens by providing audiences with a bridge into the unseen world of ayakashi or yokai through the eyes of the main character, Takashi Natsume.

Natsume Yuujinchou portrays yokai as diverse creatures with their own personalities, motivations, and emotions rather than as frightening or evil entities and, rather than a super-powered shaman, or summoner, who sways spirits with an unknown magical power to cause change or fight, Natsume’s character offers a subtle look into the unseen realm of spirits and how those spirits might be behind those changing winds or small accidents. Essentially, Natsume is the medium for this exploration into the understanding of a yokai’s place in the world around us as being natural and, in some ways, necessary.

Throughout the series, we see various famous yokai, such as the Tsukumogami (a general term referring to all sorts of household utensils and other human-made objects which have become a yokai); Snow Woman (a “yuki-onna” which is a female yokai who appears on snowy nights or in the midst of a snowstorm); Kitsune (typically depicted as a multitalented fox that can be a dangerous shape-shifter and it can possess people; but can also be a servant of a god or person, a protector); and Kodoma (directly translates “tree spirit” and has no set behavior or appearance, each tree can have its own, unique spirit, sort of like the Tsukumogami, but the Kodoma are formed out of nature rather than simply coming into being). As an interesting note, the Kodoma actually come into the Natsume Yuujinchou series several times in different forms and with different personalities.

From all of these examples, the audience of readers or watchers can see how these mythical beings exist in the unseen world around us and what that means for the balance of humanity and nature. By viewing the world and objects as, to some degree, living things, the audience is taught empathy and care towards nature and the preservation of both man-made and natural items in our lives.

The series also explores other traditional depictions of Shintoism, Buddhism, blended traditions, and folklore, such as roadside shrines, exorcism, the use of Noh masks, and dancing. These beliefs lend naturally to closely held, wider cultural beliefs in Japan such as the idea of mending things, blending traditions with modern advancement, preserving history, community, and, most importantly, spiritualism. In turn, this helps to demystify these beliefs and make them more accessible to modern audiences.

In Natsume’s story, there is a place in the modern world for yokai and kami–a depiction that seems to match well with modern Japanese culture. The focus is on themes of coexistence, acceptance, and respect between humans and their spiritual beliefs or spiritual counterparts. It creates a story of compassion and understanding for the nature of things and the world, unlike some prominent Western depictions of spiritual influences that seem to show religious beliefs in conflict with modern or scientific ideas.

If you are interested in learning more about the spirituality of Japan and its influences on anime and manga, I highly recommend checking out Drawing on Tradition by Jolyon Baraka Thomas, and–if you haven’t already–I hope you will give Natsume Yuujinchou a try as it offers a unique and captivating perspective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s