Japan’s legendary past (as seen in works such as the Kojiki and various folk tales) is depicted as fraught with youkai and kami, and encounters with them tend to occur around sacred places like shrines or nondescript locations; youkai can be quite mischievous, as tales recounting humans encountering kitsune attest to, but not all exhibited that trait, as part of the animism tradition in Japan attributed supernatural behaviors to all things. Even unassuming items such as umbrellas can achieve spirit status – there exists a category of “tool kami,” tsukumogami, describing objects that can become spirits after reaching their 100th birthday, and numerous works of art (ranging from woodblock prints to video games) depict said tsukumogami as either neutral beings or mischievous creatures, sometimes even antagonists. Anime depictions of youkai exhibit the same trends; one of the more famous examples is InuYasha, featuring the eponymous half-dog demon whose initial antagonism towards Kagome morphs into respect as the two protagonists embark on a quest to recover the shards of the Shikon jewel. Youkai and kami are represented throughout Japanese culture as complex beings whose relationship with humans are mixed – this leads into the show featured here, Natsume Yujin-cho, an anime that debuted in 2008. This anime’s depiction of youkai in relation to humans rests primarily (if not exclusively) on the central human figure, Natsume Takahashi, whose grandmother Reiko compiled a ledger full of the names of the various youkai she encountered in her life; Takahashi has the ability to see youkai, a rare power that few others possess, and his familial connection to Reiko naturally attracted a lot of attention from the youkai who simply want to recover their names from Reiko’s “book of friends” that she produced many years ago.
As one might expect, the youkai featured in this show are a mixture of sympathetic and malevolent – Natsume Reiko compiled her book more as a means of establishing a group of friends than exerting control over them, primarily because society as a whole ostracized her for her ability to see (and communicate with) spirits who would otherwise be invisible to humanity. The ability to command these spirits and demons with their names, written down on a ledger, may seem unusual from a fan’s perspective, but it can be understood through the concept of how names exert power and dominance – this likely ties into the “true name” phenomenon, wherein people can exert their will over other forces by learning that other force’s “true name,” thereby gaining some control over them. That the featured youkai in the first episode wishes to regain control of her name doesn’t seem so unusual when one considers the ramifications of relinquishing one’s name to an external force – Reiko tapped into a means of “commanding” others through their true names, and the youkai‘s desperation to recover them can be understood as a means of recovering their former lives.
The name of the youkai seen here is never explicitly revealed, but her frustration with Reiko for seemingly balking at her promise to call her is palpable; the first few minutes of the first episode shows the youkai chasing the grandson through a forest, attempting to recover her name through force. This delves into the nature of family; Takahashi ultimately takes it upon himself later to return the names included in his grandmother’s book, but his frustration towards youkai stems from the same issue Reiko had, namely that his family and neighbors see him as someone to be ostracized rather than understood, simply because he has a power no one else seems to possess. Youkai come after him for something his grandmother committed, and he cannot deactivate his power on a whim – as far as Takahashi is concerned, he sees spirits as a menace, unwilling to leave him alone for a slight done against them by a woman who wants to exert her own personality and obtain friends through unusual means. The first episode contrasts Takahashi’s troubles with that of two other boys in the neighborhood; these unnamed human characters discuss the potential for getting a part-time job at the beach, a common situation that pales in comparison to Takahashi’s (who must save himself from a demon). Something as complicated as a youkai attack cannot easily be resolved – Takahashi must protect his own life from a creature determined to restore its social life and extricate itself from a contract established years ago.
The introduction of the maneki neko youkai Madara comes when Takahashi inadvertently releases his from his confines in a shrine; the cat reveals himself initially in maneki neko form, explaining that he has another form that he adopts (possibly more frequently), a possible reference to how youkai and kami do not have a fixed physical appearance in Japanese literature. His comment on gender is illuminating – gender differences may not even exist among supernatural beings, and Madara’s comment illustrates how humans are far more concerned over such differences than the gods and demons that co-exist with them. To give an example of this, the kami Inari has numerous forms, both male and female, and their appearance depends on the beliefs of individuals worshiping Inari; while speaking with Takahashi, Madara exhibits this trend among the supernatural, where gender is mutable. Regardless, Madara is depicted as conceited and arrogant – he adopts this attitude towards Takakashi, whom he perceives as “below” himself in status, although he’s not in a position to lord himself over a human who has a direct connection to the woman who can obtain the names of various youkai for her own mischievous purposes. This presents Madara as someone who is proud of his power and rank as a youkai, but can recognize the inherent power in another; the series is predicated on a single woman being able to outwit supernatural beings and see them as simply other beings in a complex world. Rather than defer to their power, Reiko is willing to communicate with these spirits and treat them as any other person she might encounter in any given day; as far as she was concerned, the youkai inhabited the same space, and her ostracism from the human world (thanks to her ability) likely pushed her to the social periphery, where she could more easily understand the plight of the “demonic” characters who simply wish to survive in a world where they cannot interact with others. Takahashi exhibits this same personality trait – he grew up with the same power, realizing the precarious position that he inhabits, and therefore is intimately familiar with the difficulties Reiko faced. Both lived practically on the edge of society; they do not have the social protection that shrines extend to people such as Buddhist priests, and trying to explain their position to others resulted in social exclusion from their peers.
When Takahashi discovers the Book of Friends, this necessitates a brief discussion about Reiko; Madara’s account of Reiko dueling youkai presents the grandmother as someone both feared and respect among the youkai community as someone capable of exerting enormous power and influence among them, and one doesn’t have to look very far to see how troublesome her ledger can be. Contained within are the names of those Reiko “conquered” in duels, with each page representing a contract she initiated with the bearer of each – such an item bestows the ability to command numerous powerful youkai to its owner, and that power cannot be taken lightly. A youkai cannot disobey someone who calls them, according to Madara; this sort of power means that an unscrupulous person can ignite war with the humans, and there are likely plenty of youkai who wish for that ability. At the same time, however, several youkai simply want a peaceful existence free from the influence from one person; the Book of Friends represents an ironclad contract they are bound to uphold, an existence they do not wish to obey (as it would require them to remain honor-bound to a single person). Madara emphasizes that very point – some youkai have selfish reasons for wanting to obtain the Book of Friends, and imagine the book falling into their hands. The owner of said ledger can effectively become a ruler of the youkai world; such incredible power cannot be given to someone with thoughts of destruction, and Madara wants Takahashi to understand that.
Takahashi’s decision to accept his grandmother’s legacy and return the names to their rightful owners shows his maturity – he recognizes Reiko’s kind heart, and his restoration of the central youkai‘s name in this episode reveals a bit of back story where the youkai suffered from loneliness. Reiko was practically the only human who interacted with her, and she treated her with civility – the Book of Friends symbolizes the potential for humans to sympathize with youkai, breaking down boundaries that existed for centuries and displaying kindness towards someone who likely experienced only lonesomeness and fear before. That Reiko never returned (“she didn’t call me today, either?”) made the featured demon feel even more alone – someone who went out of her way to praise the demon’s name seemingly didn’t uphold her promise, but the two recognized that they inhabited a similar social environment. Neither would feel lonesome anymore, because they saw kindred spirits in each other; Takahashi recognized that, and he would rather mend the divide between youkai and human than antagonize people.