This may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you, but I’m actually a pretty big fan of Natsume’s Book Friends. It’s a long story, maybe I’ll tell you about it someday….
But I wasn’t exactly hooked on it from the very first episode. It was a fine first episode as far as they go, but a little dry and clumsy with the overbearing exposition. Natsume’s brilliance lies in the understated and gentle way it probes at the core of human existence. It’s a calm and meditative experience that subtly builds up without you noticing. For me to actually realize I was dealing with something special, it would take all the way to episode 2 and the introduction of Tsuyukami.
Tsuyukami is a Yokai and quite literally a little god. He seeks out Natsume, as most do, in an effort to get his name back before it’s too late. As a divine entity, he holds a certain cache in Japanese society. A culture deeply seeped in mysticism, they have one of the most elaborate and far ranging parthenons which changes and evolves constantly. Tsuyukami is just one tiny voice in the fray but he still has his temple and his follower and his pride.
Being the second episode (or second manga chapter, they’re very similar) we haven’t had the chance to get to know many Yokai yet and those that we have seen were all a mix of menacing and silly. There’s a a frustration and bitterness that runs through the Yokai at having their world slowly usurped by unknowing humans who can’t even acknowledge them.
But Tsuyukami is different. He’s generally calm, patient and understanding. He explains himself clearly and is reasonable in his expectations. There’s a sort of measured stillness about him, a gentle understanding that guides his actions. It becomes easy to see why one would choose to worship him.
In time, we find out that he was a travelling Yokai, turned out from his home by encroaching urban sprawl, who came to take refuge in the temple many years ago. This changed him as the weight of human faith bound him to the place and role.
It gave him a measure of power at a heavy price. In time, as his following dwindled and the fickle interests of humans turned away through no fault of his own. When he saw the humans he had always loved from a distance turn away from him, he saw not only that power taken away but his very substance. Humans who had carelessly taken his home were know chipping away at his existence without so much as a thought to spare for him.
And yet, the Tsuyukami we meet is cheerful, inhabited by a certain blissful assurance that the world is beautiful. A creature without malice or resentment, he shows nothing but ongoing fondness for humankind in all its heedlessness and neglect.
What’s more, as someone who truly does believe in the goodness of others, he never once even mentions it. He trusts that humans will find that same beauty by themselves.
In the closing scenes, as Natsume suddenly realizes that, having lost his last follower, Tsuyukami is about to flicker out of existence, and desperately tries to help by offering to come worship him as well, Tsuyukami simply answers that he can’t be a follower because they’re friends and he’s now really looking forward to getting to know his other followers as friends.
That’s it, no great revelation, no dramatic speech. Graceful and joyful acceptance the changing times and hope for the beauty yet to come.
I don’t know what happens to Tsuyukami after. Not knowing is kind of the point. I don’t know if this little god, stripped of his powers and reduced to a mere whisper of his former self, ever got his simple wish of forming a true connection with someone. I don’t know what hope there is for gods once they are alone and forgotten.
He may still be around though, because I certainly remember him. Tsuyukami reminded me that strength is about a lot more than power. He showed me that life is just better when you greet it with love. He did all of that without ever saying it. And he opened my eyes to a series I cherish.
I’m ill equipped to talk about gods in general, but I do know these are gifts I will be grateful for, for a very long time. And if you think so too, maybe spare a little thought for Tsuyukami and all the little gods out there that make the world a little softer and nicer for all of us.