“The Courage to Speak”: Mental illness and recovery in Natsume’s Book of Friends

By: Caitlin Donovan September 28, 20180 Comments
Natsume and Reiko stand in a forest, looking at the camera and smiling slightly.

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of mental illness and child abuse. SPOILERS for selected episodes of Natsume’s Book of Friends.

I first watched Natsume’s Book of Friends, an anime based on Yuki Midorikawa’s shoujo manga of the same name, about two years ago. I was in tears throughout most of the experience and it quickly became one of my favorite anime of all time. I was charmed by the characters and blown away by the gentle beauty and warmth of the world.

The story spoke to my own experiences and feelings in a way that was hard to understand. It was as if the series had given me this hug of reassurance I didn’t realize I needed. Some wounded part of me I’d never fully recognized had been soothed. I was surprised that the show could speak so much to my reality, because it’s premise is pretty fantastical.

Natsume sits pillowed against Nyanko-sensei in his larger, wolf-life yokai form. Two soot sprite-like creatures are behind him.

The story follows Takashi Natsume, a teenager who has the rare ability to see yokai (supernatural beings from Japanese mythology). When the series begins, Natsume is an orphan recently taken in by the kindly Fujiwaras.

Before he met them, he was passed from relative to relative. He never got to stay anywhere long, because wherever he went, his caretakers and peers became disturbed by the “strange behavior” he exhibited when he saw yokai. Though now in a loving family, that past still weighs on Natsume. He struggles to interact with people and often wonders if he can really be part of the human world.

Natsume, with a bandage around his head and his shirt scuffed up, looks down morosely. Subtitles read "but sometimes, they said, he was a little unstable."

Looking at this narrative as a whole, I began to see why I had connected with it. This is a story about coping and recovery. There are a lot of parallels to the experience of a mentally ill person.

Natsume is a boy who’s felt alienated and isolated for years; who was perceived as unstable and strange and has a lot of anxiety around other people as a result. But slowly, with support from his friends and family, he’s making progress and becoming comfortable with a part of himself that he used to loathe.

Natsume stands on a path, looking up, with Nyanko on his shoulder.

I’m also in the midst of that journey and will probably always be. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety for most of my life. My world and feelings have always been unstable and weird and hard for others to understand. I freak out about things others don’t “see.” I struggle to navigate simple social situations. I’ve been through relationships where I was attacked and belittled, and sometimes I feel unworthy of love because of that. Learning to trust myself and others is a difficult process.

The more I thought of it, the more parallels I saw between “people who see yokai” and “people who are mentally ill” in Natsume’s Book of Friends. The way Natsume was treated by his peers and relatives recalls the societal prejudice that haunts many mentally ill children.

He was seen as a liar who’s intentionally making trouble. He frightened adults, and other children were encouraged to stay away from him. One parent said to her child, “When he was little he would make stuff up and he acts weird and he hurt the other kids. …Don’t get close to him.”

Natsume in a hallway with sun filtering through windows, shown from a distance. Subtitles read "He just screams sometimes. It's creepy."

Seeing yokai is also hereditary, like many mental illnesses are thought to be. Reiko, Natsume’s grandmother who shared his ability, is also an important part of this story. Her plight specifically touches on how society perceives mentally ill women.

Reiko was a single mother who seemingly never married, so Natsume’s relatives constantly gossip about how her man must have “abandoned her” due to her “not being right in the head.” With Reiko, there’s a sense that her family feels she’s a failure as a woman because of her rambunctious behavior and apparent mental illness. She’s so “crazy” that no man would ever want her and thus, she failed at her obligation to marry and raise a family the “correct” way.

Natsume admits he’s afraid to ask about his grandmother’s life because it hurts him to hear people tear her down. He’s also terrified of her story not having a happy ending. He wants Reiko to have found peace, because he wants to believe it’s possible for him, too. As someone with mentally ill relatives, it’s a desire I can sympathize with as well.

Reiko shown from behind, with a cherry blossom tree in front of her. Subtitles read: "I was scared to hear them say something bad about her"

Book of Friends is not the first narrative to use supernatural abilities as a stand-in for mental illness, but it’s the only narrative of the type that ever actually resonated with me. Perhaps this is because most of these stories focus on the protagonist’s struggle to prove they are not actually (gasp) mentally ill. “Wrongfully trapped in an asylum” narratives are popular. As someone who is legitimately mentally ill, these stories are obviously alienating to me.

However, in Book of Friends, that’s not really a concern. Natsume’s struggle to accept himself is at the forefront, not whether others believe him. He never really doubts that the yokai he sees are real, but he doesn’t try to prove that they exist to others either.

Instead, he laments his own failure to ignore what he sees and “act normal.” When he upsets his foster family by chasing after a yokai, he thinks, “I should have just ignored that little yokai. Nobody else can see it. Nobody understands. I’m an idiot. I never learn.”

A closeup of Natsume's face, eyes covered by his hair, mouth frowning. Subtitles read "and not quite well in the head."

Another thing that makes Book of Friends stand out is that it doesn’t just address mental illness through metaphor, but also directly explores mental health issues. A large part of the show deals with the anxiety and trauma that plague Natsume thanks to the years he spent being abused. He shows several symptoms throughout the series that will resonate with many who have dealt with anxiety and depression exacerbated by emotional abuse.

Natsume has recurring nightmares about people calling him a liar that cause him such distress he wakes up crying. He’s also very anxious around other people. His friends note that he seems constantly on guard and his “face tenses up suddenly sometimes.”

A group of shadowy figures against a murky background. Subtitles read: "I've been dreaming about that a lot lately."

His friends and family also notice that he often acts detached and distant. “Sometimes his eyes are empty, as if his heart isn’t there, and he’s looking far, far off to the distance,” his foster mother notes at one point. “How does he see us with those eyes? Will he ever open up to us?”

Another time it’s noted that “Natsume laughs a lot, but it feels false somehow. His words and actions, they feel kind of fake.” Detaching from the world and putting on a facade of happiness to avoid getting hurt is reminiscent of mild dissociation as a coping mechanism.

A closeup of Natsume's eyes, looking distant. Subtitles read "as if his heart isn't there."

He’s overly accommodating and eager to please. He constantly fears being a burden and is uncomfortable accepting help from others. He’s shown multiple times to be paranoid about losing the family and happiness he’s finally gained, lamenting: “Warm fun days. But that means that lately, it makes it seem like the littlest thing could make it all disappear.”

All that said, Book of Friends is not simply about Natsume’s suffering. It’s about his journey of recovery and the people (and yokai) who help him recover. And perhaps that’s what makes the story so special.

A young Natsume hugs a kitten at sunset.

I’ve consumed plenty of narratives that revel in the angst of the worsening trauma, abuse, and mental problems its characters face, showing scenes of torment in lurid detail. Recovery is glossed over, at most getting a few lines at the end of a story, as if it’s “boring.”

But Book of Friends is far more interested in exploring the recovery process than in sensationalist depictions of abuse. The show recognizes that someone struggling to adjust to a safe and accepting environment after years in a hostile one is a compelling story in itself. The many conflicts and setbacks a person faces in their struggle to cope and “get better” are just as worthy of attention as the more “dramatic” parts of a traumatized or mentally ill person’s narrative.

Natsume and his two guardians sit at the dinner table together. The cat, Nyanko-sensei, is on the floor. Subtitles read: "I can just forget all the pain now."

As much as the show emphasizes hope and healing, it’s also sure to stress that “bad” and “negative” feelings have their place and are a boon rather than an obstacle to recovery. It artfully explores how repression of trauma can worsen anxiety using both its supernatural and more realistic elements.

This is particularly apparent during one storyline that deals with Natsume attempting to repress his grief and bad memories, which leads to something akin to a nervous breakdown. He says of his grief: “Remembering it hurt, so I tried as hard as I could to forget. Then, sooner or later, I did. So I’m okay now.”

Of course this isn’t true, and while denying his feelings, Natsume falls prey to a yokai who invades his mind. The yokai paralyzes him, causing uncontrollable shuddering and eventually a complete collapse—it’s very similar to a panic attack. Natsume watches his bad memories play out and eventually concludes, “They’re a part of what makes me who I am. No matter how much they hurt, they’re important to me.”

Natsume surrounded by darkness, looking frightened.

Another great example of how the show incorporates the supernatural in its exploration of depression and trauma is in Episode 38, “A Place to Go Home To.” This episode shows how Natsume came to live with the Fujiwaras.

Before moving in with them, Natsume lived with a family that found him troublesome and often neglected him. A yokai who finds sad hearts “delicious” is attracted to his loneliness.This yokai reads strongly as a personification of depression, as demonstrated in a powerful scene where the yokai looks into Natsume’s mind and reminds him of all the times he’s been mistreated.

Like many victims, Natsume excuses his abusers and blames himself. He claims they were all nice at the beginning. “Why aren’t you loved then, I wonder?” the yokai asks. “Of course they don’t want to let a freak into their family!”

A closeup of a one-eyed yokai, its eye turned up in a smile. Subtitles read "I like the lonely ones."

Natsume finally screams in response. The yokai forces him to verbalize a thought he can no longer keep buried: that he is “broken,” that he is inherently unworthy of love and will never find acceptance.

It is then that the yokai encourages him to disappear with her. He worries about the trouble his sudden disappearance will cause, but she tells him that if he doesn’t do it, she’ll harm the people around him.

There are strong parallels here to the mindset of someone considering suicide.  A suicidal person can be aware that their death will “cause trouble,” but still ultimately decide they would bring much greater harm to the people around them if they stuck around.

Natsume looks down, eyes closed as if in pain, and says "No, they really are nice."

Thankfully, Natsume soon meets the Fujiwaras and finds out they genuinely want to be his family. Initially, he’s skeptical and he fears they’ll inevitably be “disappointed or scared” by his strangeness. But when he sees that they’re serious, his hope overwhelms his fear and despair. The Fujiwaras give him a reason to go on.

He decides he will confront the yokai rather than let it take him, declaring “I’m not going to disappear! I’m scared…but I want to go.” This works very well as a fantastical representation of a tough decision many people are faced with: do we accept the uncertain, frightening future that contains the possibility of finding happiness, or embrace the certain oblivion offered by the voice that tells us we’re unloved? Book of Friends gently encourages us to keep hoping and fighting.

Natsume blushes while his two guardians stand on either side of him, smiling.

It’s no accident that the Fujiwaras are an essential element to Natsume’s journey of recovery. The show recognizes that support from others is necessary for someone to truly heal, and repeatedly emphasizes that people must actively work to aid and understand “kids with problems” rather than dismiss them.

When the Fujiwaras notice Natsume is not being treated well, they cross serious social boundaries to remove Natsume from this neglectful environment. “We almost got into a fight with the family he was staying with and some relatives weren’t happy about it, but Takashi-kun ended up coming to our house,” Touko Fujiwara recalls. The series represents this intervention as a good and necessary thing that saved Natsume’s life.

Natsume sits in a hospital bed, crying, while his two guardians lean forward to comfort him.

This is pretty unusual to see in media, especially anime. There’s still a sense that child abuse and neglect are private family matters that outsiders shouldn’t poke their noses into.

In stories about abuse, it’s usually up to the victims to fight to expose their abuser. Only then can they be rescued. But Book of Friends shows that responsible adults can and should take action on their own, even if it means “being nosy” and “upsetting people.”

The Fujiwaras recognize that Natsume has suffered a lot and can be “a little unstable.” They don’t completely understand him or what he’s going through, but they accept him, work with him, and appreciate the efforts he makes. “I worried,” Touko admits. “ But when I saw him trying to smile, even if he was awkward…The two of us want to protect him.”

Natsume and his two guardians sit at a kitchen table with a meal in front of them, looking happy. Subtitles read "even if he was awkward."

The importance of accommodating those with “special problems” is also repeatedly demonstrated through the relationships Natsume has with the few friends who know he can see yokai. Natsume has difficulty discussing his experiences with yokai because he dislikes making people feel “uneasy,” but his friends repeatedly encourage him to open up and tell them when something’s going on.

In one episode, Natsume can’t see the fireworks at a festival because a yokai is blocking the way. He lies and says he can see them, but his friend sees through it, encourages him to say something next time, and suggests they go somewhere he can see.

It’s clear this hadn’t even occurred as an option to Natsume because he’s so used ignoring his unique problems to make other people comfortable. But he doesn’t have to do that anymore. The simple, beautiful relief of finding loved ones who will make an effort to not only understand, but accommodate your needs is sharply demonstrated here.

Natsume glances to the side and says "It's hard to talk about being scared or uneasy."

Natsume’s Book of Friends repeatedly emphasizes honest communication as essential for true recovery, but it also recognizes that this can be difficult for people who are used to having to hide. Anxiety is not something that can be easily overcome. “I’ve been afraid for so long, it’s become normal,” Natsume acknowledges. “But someday, I’ll find the courage to speak; to show the people I trust my true heart.”

Rather than shutting himself off from others because of his bad experiences, Natsume is determined to reach out to others who are suffering and spread understanding and kindness. His crusade to help people and yokai alike does not always go smoothly, but every day he still tries.

Natsume sits in a hopital bed with his friends gathered around him. A girl is hugging Nyanko to her chest. Subtitles read "The fact is, the people I want to protect are protecting me."

Maybe that was the most powerful thing I took from Natsume’s Book of Friends. Like Natsume, I’m trying my best to move forward and become less afraid. Like Natsume, I want to be able to grow and give back to the people who support me and reach out to others having a tough time.

Being rescued from a terrible situation was not the end of Takashi Natsume’s story, but the beginning. And that’s the case for everyone—our stories are never over, and our journey of recovery is worth so much more than a footnote at the end.

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