The Metaphorical World of Yōkai
How Natsume’s Book of Friends Uses Yōkai as a Metaphor for Queerness: Intro & Part 1
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Natsume’s Book of Friends. Consider this your one and final warning.
There are moments we find ourselves walking down a path we’ve followed countless times on the way to a familiar place where monotony becomes the norm. Then, suddenly, we encounter something from “the other side” — something fantastic, a surreal dream, a reminder of death. Those manifestations of the “other” serve numerous purposes, but in stories, they appear in order to illuminate a lesson or turn the subconscious into a tangible manifestation.
They may be supernatural, but those brief moments we stumble into a world that no one else can see serves to remind us of our humanity.
I found myself ruminating on these encounters as I watched many episodes of Natsume’s Book of Friends while in Iceland. Maybe it was the mysteriousness of the country, but something about where I was while watching this deceivingly gentle television show made the hair on my arms raise, as I realized something much deeper was going on in the series.
I quickly came to understand that the show reminded me of the internal struggles of being queer and uses yōkai as a metaphor for navigating queerness.
For the uninitiated: Natsume’s Book of Friends (夏目友人帳) is an anime series based on the manga by Yuki Midorikawa, which follows the titular character Takashi Natsume (moving forward, every character will be referred to by their surname unless otherwise noted) who is able to see yōkai and inherits a book from his deceased grandmother that contains the names of spirits she defeated during her life, which gave her the power to control them. Natsume is constantly moved from relative to relative, often abused and mistreated, as no one wants to take care of him for long due to his odd behavior and his claim that he can see things that no one else can see.
He is an outcast at every level and caught between two worlds, neither of which he seems to comfortably belong in, and his internal struggles and innate desire not to hurt others while allowing himself to trust them and find a semblance of home is the undercurrent of the series. It’s not until he lives with the kind-hearted and loving Fujiwaras and meets other people who are able to see and interact with the “other world” that he is able to explore his queerness and begin his journey to self-acceptance.
Kazuhiko Komatsu, a prolific scholar of yōkai, discusses at length the fact that yōkai studies are really human studies (Komatsu, 74). The realm of yōkai isn’t static — it’s constantly changing with time, as new yōkai are added to compendiums, and lives and breathes on its own. Yōkai illuminate how humans interpret the world around them and help us make sense of what we experience and how we connect with one another. As Michael Dylan Foster explains:
“…we do not often speak literally. Rather we often speak figuratively, drawing on metaphor and other figures of speech to accurately and gracefully express our ideas or feelings… All of this is to say that by exploring yōkai we challenge ourselves to ponder issues of belief, both personal and cultural, as well as metaphysical and phenomenological questions about the ways we experience and perceive our lives. Although belief in the supernatural is often debunked as irrational or unscientific, for example, we can actually consider the processes through which yōkai are created to be, in a sense, rational. The unknown, the feared, those things that overwhelm us with anxiety, are carefully identified, given form, and labeled. Only then can we grapple with them. Whether we label something with the name of a yōkai or a disease…identifying it helps us work out an appropriate response…” (Foster, 27–28).
We turn to metaphor, analogy, even dreams and nightmares as a way to make sense of our experiences and connect to others in a way that helps them understand and empathize as humans. And in turning to otherworldly phenomena, it becomes easier for us to convey aspects of ourselves that we may keep buried within, as they manifest our intangible anxieties.
Natsume’s Book of Friends uses yōkai to tell an implicit metaphorical story that exists in the people on the margins of society. The beauty in using yōkai as the central metaphor for the humanity of humans and yōkai themselves is the multi-faceted ways in which this manifests throughout the series; not just as a metaphor for queerness but also one for found families, self-actualization, overcoming mental illness, and so many other sectors of humanity.
Since the themes of the show are so wide-ranging across six seasons, multiple OVAs, and a movie, I’m going to focus on the relationship between Natsume and Tanuma particularly between seasons four through six. This will then be expanded into a Part 2, which looks into the parallel relationship between Natori and Matoba as well as the eye/visual motif present throughout the entire show. And, quite frankly, there is so much to say about the entirety of Natsume’s Book of Friends that I will inevitably write multiple pieces about it (will I ever write about a show without turning it into a series?!).
On Tanuma and Opening Up to Queerness
Introduced in episode three, Kaname Tanuma is the son of a local priest who possesses a degree of spiritual power; he’s hyper sensitive to the presence of particularly powerful yōkai and is able to see vague shadows of them. Upon meeting Natsume, they quickly discover that they are true kindred spirits — they’re both transfer students who grew up isolated and lonely and find comfort and safety in one another to share secrets they were forced to hide in the past.
Tanuma fills an extremely important role in Natsume’s life, in that he grounds Natsume to both human and yōkai worlds. This gives Natsume the confidence and assurance to pursue a path of creating a happier life for himself, one that his grandmother Reiko and exorcist friend Shuuichi Natori were never able to accomplish for themselves:
Since Natsume and Tanuma traverse similar liminal spaces, their bond as confidants and friends also allows them to feel truly seen for the first time in their lives — they complement and fill their missing gaps while also balancing each other’s personality traits.
Where Natsume is impulsive, rash, and has a conditioned response to trauma, Tanuma’s gentle demeanor and thoughtfulness levels Natsume out and gradually pulls Natsume out from the darkness he’s lived in for so long. And similarly, Tanuma’s keen sensitivity to yōkai presence balances Natsume’s over-reliance on his “sight”, which eventually allows them to rely on one another more in times of crisis.
Between their intrinsic mannerisms and the setting of Yatsuhara’s quiet countryside, they’re able to explore their need for peace and security while also sharing a mutual desire to grow closer to one another and the world around them.
We’re shown this primarily when they’re opening up to each other and gazing at the scenery — on hills overlooking sunsets, watching reflections of koi fish on the ceiling, or on verandas:
The visualization of these tender moments coupled with their innate desire for quietness gets at the heart of why they’re always seeking each other out as confidants. Where neither of them felt tethered to the isolated homes of their past, they’ve now found a place to put down roots together in a sleepy countryside town, and as the series progresses, we see them increasingly glued to each other even on group dates:
Midorikawa sought to write a supernatural story with less emphasis on romance, despite the fact that many of the story arcs have implicit and explicitly romantic themes tied to them, which are often used to tell parallel stories with the people in Natsume’s life. And as we see in episodes utilizing yōkai possession, the need to connect to the person emotionally and/or physically distant, protectiveness, or revisiting and closing doors to the past, Tanuma plays a central role in them:
There’s a steadily growing intensity in their relationship throughout the show that inches closer and closer to being one of “shinyuu” (親友). In the episode “What the Mirror Shows”, we see the story of a clearly romantic heterosexual yōkai “friendship” paralleling the burgeoning queer love between Natsume and Tanuma, that is moving from friendship into something decidedly “more”. In this moment of Tanuma being possessed by a yōkai who is trying to save her dying “friend” (read: lover), Natsume is terrified of Tanuma coming to further harm, which is when we hear that perfect euphemism of “taisetsu na tomodachi” (大切な友達):
Natsume never refers to anyone in his life as anything but “yuujin” (友人), which includes The Dog’s Circle, yōkai he’s particularly friendly with, and Natsume’s other friendships. This single moment elevates Tanuma from “yuujin” by using “taisetsu na tomodachi”, and if the anime was even more explicit, I bet we’d hear him use “shinyuu”. Natsume is cagey and understandably reluctant to let his guard down and allow someone to get close to him. By even using “taisetsu na tomodachi”, we’re clued in that Tanuma is around for the long haul.
The queer overtones, their clear devotion to one another, mutual desire to protect each other, while simultaneously feeling as though their relationship is still missing an intrinsic something, is one I interpret as the growing closeness of queer love. They both suffer from serious tunnel vision when either of them is in danger (even when they’re in danger together!), injured, or sick and will throw caution by the wayside at the slightest inkling that the worst may come to pass:
Incredible how after this, Tanuma avoids Natsume for a full week because they shared an intensely romantic moment together in the woods. Tanuma, your crush has been out in full sight for three seasons now, you’re not fooling any of us!
In the manga, Midorikawa includes an author’s note surrounding the events of the season five opening episode “Unchanging Form”, which is the first time Natsume actually tells Tanuma about Reiko; before this, Tanuma only heard a secondhand mention of her in the season four episode “The Gap Between Humans and Yokai”:
(Fuanteinasekai, “Tanuma Kaname and the Anime Problem, Part 2: Counterbalance”)
“Natsume is close with the Fujiwaras but he can’t really talk to them, so Tanuma was the first person in this town who Natsume could actually talk to about the things he sees, and even though Tanuma can’t see them he could understand. I think it would be good for Natsume if he could talk to Tanuma, not just about yōkai but about other things, and work through some of his shit that way.”
-Translation by Rebecca Black
It’s another major turning point in how much Natsume confides with those in his life — before this, the only people who knew about Reiko were his relatives who viciously gossiped about her (the Fujiwaras are a distinct exception — they’d actually fuck up anyone who speaks ill of Natsume or Reiko), other exorcists who mostly knew her as an isolated, aloof and spiritually powerful person, or yōkai she bested and/or knew about The Book of Friends. Natsume has always lied about or kept mentions of Reiko hidden from the people in his life, including his relatively trustworthy exorcist pal Natori. Only until he opens up to Tanuma about her (are you sensing a pattern here) is Natsume able to gain a calm, settled confidence when he later confides in other people, too. Tanuma listens to Natsume without judgement and provides quiet support when Natsume becomes agitated while talking about how his relatives badmouth Reiko. Tanuma is able to see that Natsume earnestly loves his grandmother, genuinely wants to learn more about her, and is the only other person (or, er, cat) who tries to understand Natsume at his core:
*brushes tear from eye* fuck, this scene affects me a lot.
Natsume truly wants to protect everyone in his life (including enemies and people he disagrees with) from getting caught up in his struggles and encounters with yōkai; Tanuma, however, holds a special place since he is actively sought out by Natsume for help to an even greater degree than his other friend Tohru Taki, who is capable at written magic to interact with yōkai. Plus, Tanuma is acutely aware of what Natsume experiences, having seen it for himself firsthand, and is haunted by nightmares of Natsume getting eaten by yōkai:
When Natsume leaves after confiding in both Taki and Tanuma about the latest yōkai mess he’s involved in, Tanuma privately confesses to Taki how deeply his curiosity runs in all things Natsume-related. Taki is initially unperturbed after hearing Natsume’s story and we see Tanuma immediately tense up as she comments that he’s starting to rely on them. Even after scolding Tanuma for being so bluntly straightforward with Natsume, she only realizes the gravity of what Natsume is saying, or rather how Tanuma explains as to what Natsume’s not saying that she looks back at Natsume with worried astonishment.
The subversiveness of having Tanuma, instead of Taki, as the emotionally sensitive and hyper present friend and confidant to Natsume, makes their relationship more firmly a queer romance. If this were written as a heterosexual romance, it would position Taki as the love interest for Natsume; they’re able to discuss yōkai interactions, both are attractive, and get they along for the most part. This doesn’t work, however, since there’s an imbalance in their relationship with Natsume maintaining a certain distance from Taki that reveals itself increasingly throughout season four and thereafter.
From the etymology of her name to her mannerisms, Taki has more of the stereotypical masculine traits of being emotionally tactless or at times insensitive to Natsume’s anxieties, particularly to the more violent side of yōkai interactions, and wears rose colored glasses on anything yōkai related. This wide-eyed naivete prevents Natsume from divulging more about what he experiences every day — if Tanuma didn’t insert himself into the hidden parts of Natsume and push him to open up, Natsume would continue lying about traversing the “other world”, especially to those who have the capacity to understand more.
In a show that puts so much importance and weight on the power of names (The Book of Friends is literally filled with the real names of countless yōkai), the meaning behind certain characters’ names shows clues us into the importance of their roles in Natsume’s life. Tanuma’s name (田沼要), in particular, indicates a key word play moment in the emotionally charged episode, “The Gap Between Humans and Yokai”. When Natori talks Natsume down from a panic attack after seeing an injured Tanuma, Natori emphasizes that Natsume needs “that feeling” and to not “abandon it”:
The term he specifically uses is “hitsuyou” (必要) and stresses the term twice in this scene and it even repeats again at the very end of the episode. When I first watched this part, something struck me as being somewhat off. Yes, what they’re discussing has to do with being strong enough to walk a balanced path of living in both human and yōkai worlds, but why emphasize the term “hitsuyou” in relation to Tanuma?
If you’re squinting at the kanji for both terms, then you’re likely already putting the pieces together: By using the word “hitsuyou”, which includes the same kanji as Tanuma’s first name, Kaname (要), Natori is indicating to Natsume that what he needs and should not abandon is Tanuma in his life (Fuanteinasekai, “Tanuma Kaname and the Anime Problem”). “Hitsuyou” also has the implication that whatever is attached is not only necessary or indispensable, but must be used and not simply be relegated solely as a need. And “Kaname” on its own even means “cornerstone”, which people who understand Japanese would’ve realized was Tanuma’s underlying role and is a legitimately life-changing, necessary, and significant person in Natsume’s life.
In an author’s note about the events of “The Gap Between Humans and Yokai”, Midorikawa gives some additional context into how this arc is a major crossroad Natsume faces in relation to having Tanuma in his life:
力になりたいと頑張ってもやはり出来ない・かなわないということはあって、前向きに行動をとればとる程それにぶちあたってしまう田沼。話したいけれど話すと、そいうジレンマに田沼がおちいるとだんだんわかってきた夏目。それを見て、それ見たことか！と言いたいけれどそうとも言ってしまえない不思議な可能性に、口から出る言葉が変わっていってしまう名取。と、それぞれの立場のズレあいが描けてとても楽しかったです。普段描けないような夏目の表情が描けた先生ナツメもワクワクしながら描けました。あらためて夏目は表情とぼしい奴だなと実感しました。(Fuanteinasekai. “Tanuma Kaname and the Anime Problem”)
‘For Tanuma, no matter how much he wants to help or how hard he tries, there are things he just can’t do, and the more he gets involved the more he has to confront that frustration. For Natsume, as much as he wants to talk to Tanuma he’s come to realize that when he does so he puts Tanuma in that position. Natori, seeing this, wants to say “I told you so!” but mysteriously can’t get the words out, so the words that come out of his mouth are different. I was happy to be able to depict the tensions between their various positions. I was really excited to be able to draw Natsume with a different expression from usual. Once again I felt like “man Natsume is an expressionless guy.”’
-Translation by Rebecca Black
As I’ll discuss extensively in my next post, Tanuma’s breakdown after they leave the Omibashira mansion wakes Natsume up and forces him to make a concrete decision about wholly allowing Tanuma to be in his life. The frustration and anxiety Tanuma kept bottled up so as to not overwhelm Natsume finally breaks open, and Natsume ultimately decides to take the next step forward with Tanuma.
From how Natsume reassures Tanuma that they’ll talk the next day at school, cluing him in that Natsume isn’t going to run away or put distance between them, to Natsume passing out in the genkan while hearing Natori saying “you need it” one more time, further solidifies the choice Natsume has finally made. This climactic moment in their relationship sets them apart from Taki, who remains a close friend of Natsume’s but is kept on a separate playing field; Natsume and Tanuma, however, view each other as partners who will walk a path together.
And even within these subversive gender roles between Taki and Tanuma, we see how yōkai in the series view gender (particularly for humans) as something ill-defined or in another sense, of relatively little importance:
This is most apparent with the near comical number of yōkai who cannot tell that Natsume is Reiko’s grandson.
Natsume, for his own part, is consistently annoyed that he isn’t seen as a man, largely in thanks to his classic bishounen face and soft, distant smile that makes everyone double-take. He consistently uses the masculine“ore” (俺) as his pronoun as a way to offset his more feminine features. It’s also fun to see how every person who can interact with yōkai is uncommonly (and unfairly, quite honestly) attractive:
*briefly zones out*
Despite how annoyingly attractive all the yōkai adjacent people in this show are, each of them exists on the margins of society: Ostracized for seeing the unseeable, shunned by other yōkai exorcists for having too much power, not enough power, seeming fanatical, and the bitter loneliness that can stem from existing in two worlds. These characters show different paths Natsume could follow in traversing and finding peace within human and yōkai worlds — whether they are cautionary tales or ones that give some semblance of hope, and until he meets and opens up to Tanuma, none of them are able to show him the way to feeling at ease as himself.
Komatsu, Kazuhiko. An Introduction to Yōkai Culture: Monsters, Ghosts, and Outsiders in Japanese History. Translated by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, Shuppanbunkasangyōshinkōzaidan, 2018.
Foster, Michael Dylan. The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. Illustrated by Kijin Shinonome, University of California Press, 2015.
Fuanteinasekai. “Tanuma Kaname and the Anime Problem, Part 2: Counterbalance.” 不安定な世界, 16 Feb. 2019, fuanteinasekai.tumblr.com/post/182839554327/tanuma-kaname-and-the-anime-problem-part-2.
Fuanteinasekai. “Tanuma Kaname and the Anime Problem.” 不安定な世界, 8 Feb. 2019, fuanteinasekai.tumblr.com/post/182646939106/tanuma-kaname-and-the-anime-problem.