While not one of the very best stories that Natusme Yuujinchou has to offer, “Shigure and the Girl” will always be a memorable episode for me. First of all, it is our official introduction to Sasada Jun. She’s quite smart, observant, and outgoing, but unfortunately often comes off as nosy, bossy, and annoying. Much to his dismay, she takes a considerable interest in Natsume. First and foremost, he’s the cute transfer student that she’s crushing on. But beyond that, she also appears to have noticed his peculiar behavior, drawn her own conclusions, and set out to solicit his help in contacting a youkai she met years ago. That youkai’s name is Shigure, and I think he is a beautifully written character and an excellent addition to this episode. This episode offers a perfect example of one of my favorite storytelling techniques employed by Natsume Yuujinchou: using the featured youkai as a way to develop or explore its protagonist’s character.
But before I get into the more substantial aspects of this episode, I’d like to give a shout out to some of the little moments that I can’t say a lot about but that I found amusing anyway.
- Nyanko-Sensei’s human form. Enough said.
- Sasada’s TOTALLY NOT OBVIOUS crush on Natsume. Unrequited love is certainly no joke (just ask any of the Monogatari girls), but for some reason Sasada’s obsession with Natsume will never not be hysterical to me. Maybe it’s because in a typical high school anime the confident, outgoing class president and the shy, quirky transfer student would instantly fall in love, but I’m pretty sure that Natsume is more annoyed and frightened by Sasada than he is of most youkai. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I find their doomed relationship so amusing, but it never ceases to entertain me.
Beware of Generalized Hatred
I think what this episode is really about, at its core, is the dangers of letting ones anger and hatred become generalized. By “generalized”, I am referring to what happens when dislike for one specific thing, person, or experience becomes expanded into a loathing for every item in a specific category. Both racism and sexism are forms of this: prejudice is harbored against any individual who belongs to a certain group explicitly because (s)he belongs to that group and most often not for any other reason. Importantly, this way of thinking has been shown time and time again to be extremely harmful, both to the people in the group being hated and to the individual who despises them. For a perfect example, just look at Shigure, the spiteful youkai haunting the abandoned school building in this episode.
A long time ago, Shigure was enamored with the human race. He would even routinely don a human form simply so that he could frolic among people. Then, a greedy merchant locked him away in a dark basement. Utterly miserable and lonely, it makes perfect sense why Shigure would come to hate his captor. It’s a healthy, understandable, and fully justified reaction to being cruelly imprisoned. However, Shigure let the darkness and pain inside him grow until he became convinced that all humans were wicked and cold creatures. He generalized his anger from a specific human who had done him wrong to the entire human race, refusing to consider that the one bad experience he had might have been an exception. After his transformation into an evil being, Shigure’s hatred causes strife for the innocent humans whom he exacts revenge upon; I thought his insistence that he would never release Natsume or his kidnapped classmates because “I wish to witness your parents’ grief” was especially dark expression of his spite. However, his anger seems to cause Shigure himself just as much discomfort and unhappiness.
When you choose to hate something or someone based on impulse and assumptions alone (“She is a human so therefore she wants to hurt me”), you are precluding any possibility that you might be able to have a meaningful connection with that thing or person. By deciding that all humans are irredeemably evil, Shigure is ensuring that he will always feel miserable whenever he comes in contact with one. Of course, not all humans are saints, and he if he is too trusting it is likely to get hurt by one at some point. However, there is also a strong chance that the human in question will not mean to do him harm, and may actually bring him a great deal of joy and comfort. Shigure justifies his spite towards humanity with his belief that it protects him from having another painful experience. But what he doesn’t realize is that his generalized hatred actually eradicates any chance of a meaningful connection and therefore guarantees that every interaction he has with humans will be miserable. He has eliminated the torment of unpredictability, but the constancy that he has found is actually far more unpleasant of an existence.
And yet, Shigure loathes the creature that he has become, the monster that his anger and spite have transformed him into. He hates the fact that he is full of hatred, so to speak. He explains that his cursed spirit prevents him from interacting with humans–”Impure things such as myself cannot touch that which is pure,” he says. It’s impossible to tell whether his hatred for humans is similar to the fox and the sour grapes–he believes his impurity prevents him from interacting with them so protects himself by disdain for what he cannot have–or whether he insists that he is impure because it is an excuse that supports his initial hatred for humanity. Regardless, Shigure’s situation is truly a tragic one: he is miserable and utterly alone, and has no hope of improving because he has sworn off the only thing that could alleviate his pain (human contact) out of spite.
What Natsume Could Become
I am so glad that Shigure was in this episode, and not just because I thought he was an interesting character with a fascinating story. Rather, the real reason that I love Shigure as a youkai is that he serves as the perfect foil to Natsume’s character. Well, perhaps not so much of a foil as a warning example of what Natsume could one day turn into.
Takashi Natsume is incredibly vulnerable. Not just in the physical sense (it’s heavily implied throughout the series that he is underweight and often sickly), but in the emotional sense as well. Despite his best efforts, he wears his heart on his sleeve. He attempts to maintain detached and stoic, but he usually cannot help getting involved when he sees someone else in pain. This boy desperately wants to trust and be trusted, care and be cared for, love and be loved.
Just like Shigure, we also get the sense that Natsume is in love with humanity, is in awe of kindness and compassion that we humans are capable in our best moments. But the humans Natsume has encountered have been anything but kind and compassionate. At each new foster home, Natsume almost drove himself into the ground trying to please his new relatives and neighbors; did everything he could to fit in and belong. And yet, inevitably at every home he would end up being made to feel useless, selfish, strange, before receiving a complete rejection and being moved to another household. “Your dreams about your childhood are always nightmares,” Madara points out in this episode, and it’s heartbreakingly true.
Just like Shigure, Natsume has experienced some of the most extreme examples of human selfishness and cruelty. However, unlike the youkai who let anger and bitterness consume him, Natusme fights to keep his heart open and forgiving. Despite his past failures, he keeps trying to make friends, keeps trying to find a place to belong. He is still able to distinguish between the specific people who have done his wrong and humanity as a whole. Unlike Shigure, he has not regressed to the point of holding a grudge against a new acquaintance just because they are human. He still has hope that each new person he meets could become his friend–just look at how intrigued with and protective of Tanuma he was before they even met. (Natsume’s problem is the just the opposite–he attributes all the blame and responsibility for his misfortunes to his own shortcomings–but that’s a topic for a different post.)
But this is an incredibly hard fight, and with each humiliation and each rejection, Natsume creeps closer and closer to letting his fear of specific people become generalized to the entire human race. We can see that he is incredibly cautious and guarded around his new classmates, almost too timid and afraid of rejection to want to build a genuine relationship with any of them. Piece by piece, he is building a wall around his heart. And just like Shigure, he believes that this barrier will is necessary because it protects him from getting hurt again. But as we can see from Shigure’s story, this only leads to an endless cycle of longing, loneliness self-loathing, and unhappiness.
Luckily, at this point in the story, Natsume has not quite given up on finding his place. Although he may be quickly losing faith in his ability to get along with others, he still has at least some affection and compassion for other people. “What will we do about the others?” he asks Madara when the youkai wants to take Natsume to safety and leave his classmates as Shigure’s hostages.
“Leave them. You don’t even like people. Your dreams about your childhood are always nightmares.” Here, Madara is trying to convince Natsume to close off his heart for good, to let any bitterness or contempt he has become generalized to the entire human race. It’s important to remember that Madara is not intentionally trying poison Natsume with this harmful way of thinking. As we can tell from his haughty and stiff attitude, he honestly believes that emotional detachment is the best way to live (seems like someone else could learn from Shigure’s example).
But like I said, Natsume is not ready to surrender hope just yet, and Madara’s advice is not enough to sway him. “Well, that may be true,” he admits, “But…I still can’t just leave them. I want to help if I can.” And I stand up and cheer, because Natsume has proven that he still has hope, still has compassion, still has empathy. He hasn’t become like Shigure yet.
I think Shigure’s story is incredibly important. It is a perfect reminder for Natsume–and us the audience–that one bad experience should never color our perception of an entire population. Although keeping an open heart and an open mind may puts one at the risk of experiencing heartbreak, closing oneself off completely guarantees a miserable existence. Shigure’s story is a reminder to Natsume that the only way to overcome his loneliness is by continuing to trust, forgive, and love, no matter how much it may terrify him.
However, there may be hope for Shigure as well as Natsume.
Just Once Is All I Ask
Probably my favorite moment in this episode came when Natsume was given a glimpse into Shigure’s memories. I love this scene because it is a perfect example of how Natsume Yuujinchou can be incredibly emotional without ever feeling heavy-handed or melodramatic. How it can make me understand a character perfectly in a just a few, simple, and seemingly inconsequential lines of dialogue.
After Shigure helps Sasada find her good luck charm, she returns to the abandoned school building every day to try to find him and give him her thanks. When Natsume returns Shigure’s name, he gets a glimpse into Shigure’s memory of one such day. “Ah, she’s here again,” he thinks when he sees Sasada. “What an irksome girl.”
“Just once, simply to make her leave…I helped her. And every day thereafter…Without fail…What a peculiar creature,” he muses.
Desperate, Sasada begins pleading with him. “Please! Just once is all I ask!”
“Ah, I see now.” says Shigure. “If I reveal myself to you once…you will never come again.”
Shigure hates all humans, or at least he claims to. Furthermore, he sees himself as unworthy and incapable of interacting with them on account of his perceived “evil” or “impurity” of his being. But in this brief moment, we get the sense that his bitterness and spite is only skin deep. It becomes clear that the deepest, purest, most essential part of his soul still harbors a love humanity. He surrounds himself with hatred as a means of self-preservation, but his initial spark of love for humanity remains uncorrupted. We can hear this in his fascinated observations of Sasada–he may refer to her as “irksome” and “peculiar”–yet he continues to watch her every time she returns. And when he realizes that she will disappear if he does reveal himself to her…he sounds a bit disappointed and hurt.
In the present day, Sasada admits to Natsume that she has yet to give Shigure her thanks; therefore, we can be sure that he has never once revealed himself to her. From this, we can infer that, although Shigure may have sworn off human companionship, he cannot deny the central part of himself that first fell in love with humanity in the first place, the part of him that wants and needs to love and be loved. We know that he believes that letting Sasada thank him once will result in her leaving his life forever, so the fact that he refused to let her see him is really telling for his character. If he truly hated her and wanted to go away, all he would need to do would be to begrudgingly accept her thanks. He will never admit it himself, but the actions that he takes (or in this case doesn’t take) prove that he is undeniably touched by Sasada’s dedication to him. He knows how to stop her from coming, so the fact that he explicitly avoids that action shows us that he enjoys her attention.
However, Natsume Yuujinchou tells us none of this. Instead, it lines the pieces of the puzzle up perfectly so that it is relatively easy to fit them together. I think this more subtle, abstract approach results in an incredibly more effective and emotional experience. First, it respectfully gives us room to breathe and develop our own thoughts about what is happening on screen rather than clobbering us over the head with someone’s precise interpretation of what we are expected to feel. But more importantly, I believe that this type of subtle delivery makes the revelation feels more genuine. This is because it is highly dubious whether Shigure himself actually has any understanding into his own motivations or feelings, making it nearly impossible for him to convey those insights to us. If Shigure were to spell out his feelings for us, I think the delivery wouldn’t just fall flat, it would feel jarring, awkward, and unnatural. But instead, Natsume Yuujinchou trusts that we are keen enough to decipher Shigure’s character on our own. Respect is mutual: Natsume Yuujinchou’s respect for my intelligence as a viewer is what makes me respect it as an anime.
Reasons to Lie
Sasada is remarkably clever and observant–as any good class president should be, I suppose. Furthermore, she appears to be quite intrigued by Natsume. After all, I think any high schooler would naturally take an interest in such a
gorgeous and mysterious addition to their classroom. After just a few days of observing him, she comes up with an explanation for his eccentric behavior that most others would scoff at as an impossibility.
“Tell me something…you can see them, can’t you? Sometimes, you act kind of strange. Like freaking out when nothing’s there…Or talking to yourself…Tell me, what do you see? Is it things that aren’t of this world?”
Natsume is shocked, and understandably so. After all, this girl was able to discover his biggest, most well-protected secret, one that not even his adopted parents have been able to figure out. But what’s even more surprising is that Sasada appears willing to entertain the idea that otherworldly creatures might in fact exist, and her classmate might be able to see them. To our knowledge, not one of the humans Natsume has previously encountered was able to accept his claim that he could see youkai. Not only does Sasada suspect that Natsume has supernatural abilities, but she is willing to believe him if he confirms that he does. This is what makes her an important character and gives her a unique role in Natsume’s life.
Natsume has never been in this situation before, because no ordinary human has ever believed in his ability see youkai (Tanuma doesn’t count, because he also has spiritual abilities). Panicked and unsure of how to respond, he avoids her question for as long as he can. Eventually though, she is able to corner him in a dark stairwell. “Can you really not see them, Natsume-kun?” she asks.
Natsume drops his gaze to the floor, and is quiet for a long time. “Yeah,” he finally says, in a barely audible whisper.
Why didn’t Natsume tell Sasada the truth? Should he have told her? There are several factors that could have determined Natsume’s choice to lie to Sasada. And just like in real life, it’s nearly impossible to single out any one of these factors as more important than the others, or even to distinguish the factors from one another. And we get the sense that Natsume himself doesn’t completely understand the complexities of his own reasoning.
First, lying about his spiritual abilities is something that Natsume has done his whole life, something that he learned to do from a young age after discovering that revealing the truth only led to punishment by rejection, disbelief, and mockery. Covering up his supernatural power made it easier to get along with others, so he kept doing it. As they say, old habits die hard. Lying to Sasada could have been more of a conditioned response than anything else, something that he did automatically without thinking.
Second, Natsume must have been worried that Sasada would spread his secret around the school. “I won’t tell anyone,” she assures him, but Natsume has no way of knowing whether she’ll actually keep this promise. He barely knows Sasada, and thus has no idea whether she is trustworthy or not. On one hand, she has presented herself as fairly straightforward and honest, giving him reason to believe that she would keep her word to protect him. However, secrets can be incredibly hard to keep, especially one as intriguing as Natsume’s, and especially in high school years. She seems like a nice, smart girl, but in the past Natsume’s involvement with the spirit world has gotten him in trouble with even the most open-minded and well-intentioned people. If he starts acting especially peculiar around school, would Sasada be able to resist spreading gossip about the weird transfer student’s juicy secret? Malicious intent aside, Natsume must know that there is a considerable possibility that Sasada could someday let her guard down and let his secret slip by accident. It’s something that can happen to even the best and most loyal of people.
We have no control over the actions of other people, and thus telling anyone else about protected secret always comes with a risk that they will spread it. Natsume was willing to take this risk with Tanuma, after putting a considerable amount of thought into his decision and, more importantly, revealing his secret when, where, and how he felt comfortable doing it. With Tanuma, Natsume was in control. During the test of courage, however, it was clear that Sasada had the upper hand in the situation. She was forcing him to tell him her secret on her terms, not his. This was understandably frightening and stressful for Natsume, and thus it makes sense why he would be reluctant to share such an important part of himself with her.
Third, he must have realized that her motives for asking him were quite self-serving. Immediately after she asks him if he can see otherworldly creatures, she asks if he would be willing to help her contact the youkai she encountered years ago. We get the sense that Sasada only asked Natsume if he could see youkai because she needed to in order to ask for his assistance, and and we get the sense that Sasada is only interested in Natsume’s powers because she realizes she can use them to her advantage. Related to this, her approach to asking his assistance is quite confrontational and aggressive. When he doesn’t answer right away, she demands an immediate reply. “Well? You can see them, can’t you?” she asks impatiently. She seems completely unaware of how uncomfortable she is making him, and she continues pressing him for answers despite his obvious reluctance.
Natsume understandably views his ability to see spirits as extremely sensitive personal information, and as such he is only willing to reveal it to people who he thinks might genuinely care about him and how his strange capabilities affect his life. Sure, she was nice enough to invite him to the test of courage and spends half the night running after him and making sure that he isn’t hurt (“Natsume-kun! Are you okay?), but overall her motivation for these actions come across more as “I want the cute boy to pay attention to me” rather than “I want the cute boy to tell me how lonely and scared he is so that I can support him.” In a way, her crush is very self-centered at this point: she wants him to notice her more than she wants to actually get to know him. Natsume must have sensed this on some level, and decided that he’d rather not tell Sasada about his spiritual power if she was only asking to satisfy her curiosity rather than genuinely trying to understand him.
Now that we have some idea of why Natsume lied to Sasada, the question becomes whether he should have told her the truth.
She’s offering him an incredibly opportunity: a chance to talk about his spiritual abilities with an ordinary human being. She at least claims she’ll protect his secret, and shows that she is willing to accept and believe in his supernatural abilities. Of course, the way she asks is pushy and confrontational, but Sasada’s aggressiveness and lack of sympathy for Natsume could easily be explained by her desperation. She only has one night left to speak to Shigure, and therefore she feels that she can’t waste any time with pleasantries if she wants to achieve her goal. After her first confrontation with Natsume, Sasada appears to realize that her behavior was frightening and distressing for him. “This place is being demolished, so this is my last chance. Sorry for the way I spoke earlier,” she says. Sasada’s insightful apology makes me wonder if perhaps in a different situation, she would be more patient and gentle with Natusme. And maybe if she had the time, she would really want to listen his troubles and offer her support.
Personally, I believe that not telling Sasada the truth was the right decision for Natusme. I think it’s important for Natsume to begin sharing his secret with others, but I think it’s equally crucial that he does so in the way that is most comfortable and constructive for him. This boy is incredibly fragile and broken after years of emotional abuse, and as such his healing process quite delicate and must be approached with the utmost care. If his journey to recovery becomes too stressful or painful, it’s entirely possible that he could decide to give up and remain shattered for life.
However, I don’t think there is any “correct” answer to this question, as either choice that Natsume made would have affected his life in different ways–some positive, some negative. Sometimes, a bit of a push is needed to get someone who is too scared or reluctant to begin gaining confidence and strength.
So now I’ll turn it over to you. What do you think? Should Natsume have told Sasada the truth? I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts.