Walking among spirits

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One of the reasons I enjoy anime is the variety. The genres range from magical girl shows to horror. And there are subgenres within those sections as well. But sometimes you have to wade through a sea of dreck to discover a gem though. Luckily for me, I found two new shows this summer that look promising. One of them keeps surprising me with each episode.

“Natsume Yuujinchou” is both a fantasy and a supernatural anime but it’s not scary at all. Think “Mushi-shi” but wilth a younger protagonist and a simpler storyline.

Our hero, Takashi Natsume, is an orphan who just transferred to a new school set in a bucolic-looking town with green fields, clear blue skies, a shrine and a horde of spirits.Takashi has been able to see spirits since he was a child which made for a lonely, isolated childhood, The various relatives and people he stayed with thought he was weird and treated him accordingly.

Now he’s staying with a nice couple in a town where his grandmother, Reiko, once lived. And the spirits are pestering him more than usual. In the first episode, we meet Takashi as he’s being chased by a one-eyed long-haired monster that only he can see.
He makes a run for the nearest shrine for safety but trips over a rope and snaps it.

The rope is part of a barrier around a small shrine that houses a spirit in the shape of a cat charm. You’ve seen what this charm looks like if you’ve ever been to an Asian market or souvenir shop. It’s a white cat with one paw raised.

Anyway, the cat charm thingy is the size of a very fat cat and speaks as well. Takashi is less than impressed since he’s seen weirder things before. The cat’s true form is of a shaggy white beast (looks like a dog actually) with red markings. The spirit’s name is Madara but he prefers Takashi call him sensei or master. Our hero also refers to him as Nyaanko sensei (don’t ask me what that means).

The teen finds out that the spirits want their names back from him and calls him by his grandmothers’ name. It turns out Reiko Natsume could see spirits and also had a lonely existence. So she went around challenging spirits and taking their names after she defeated them. She kept the names in a journal called “The Book of Friends.” It is this book that the spirits are after.

Takashi agrees to return the names of the spirits who come to him and promises sensei he can have the book when he’s gone. Nyaanko sensei despairs that the book is getting thinner since Takashi keeps returning the names.

Having power over someone because you know their true name is a concept not restricted to Japanese folktale. Several cultures also believe in this.

The show’s pace is slow, almost languid at times. But it’s interesting and can be touching. Case in point episode two, which is about a local spirit who has shrunk since only one woman is left who remembers him and makes offerings. She is dying but still painfully makes her way to his small shrine to pay her respects and leave him a peach. The spirit could have left years ago but he chose to stay, knowing he would vanish once the woman dies. The reason why he stayed made me teary-eyed. Sniffle sniffle.

When Takashi returns a spirit’s true name, he sees the spirit’s memory of its interaction with his grandmother. He is getting to know who she was and starts to feel some empathy toward the spirits that progress and people have forgotten.

I’ve seen four episodes of this show and I’m always waiting eagerly for the next one. I like shows that make you think and feel.

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