CONTENT WARNING for discussions of ableism and emotional trauma.
SPOILERS: General references to plot points in Natsume’s Book of Friends and Masamune-kun’s Revenge.
In an inclusive world, everyone would understand people with disabilities as a valuable source of social diversity. This world would be materially and socially accessible and barrier-free. This world does not yet exist, but there are ways to imagine what it would look like. Anime, as a medium with the potential for radical reimaginings of society, is one way we can anticipate alternatives to current ableist environments.
These environments have constricted me from childhood. At age five, after my mom noticed my legs would frequently tighten up, I was diagnosed with a neuromuscular condition. The true horror appeared when the doctors told me that my muscles would fall apart if I overused them. I had to avoid fatigue at all costs, or I would grow weaker and lose the use of my legs.
Here on, I learned to pace myself at every moment, to avoid this overexertion. This meant taking breaks and resting, even if it drew questions. Even if I could not maintain my energy and socialize like my peers. But this was necessary so that I could maintain the ability to walk.
I learned disability as not just a simple medical diagnosis, but as a personal reaction to the material and social rejection of my body. This dual rejection is exhausting to maintain, forcing me to dissociate to momentarily escape my current space and time. Put in another light: my goal of avoiding fatigue induced its own drain on my energy.
For years, I doubted whether I was allowed to feel tired, until my fear of losing the ability to walk fully ensnared me in Fall 2012. I was unsteady to the point where I needed a cane. The mental stress eventually became so great that I struggled to walk at all. The trauma wrapped around me like a black wisp, transforming me into what I could only see as monstrous.
After a great struggle, including years of physical therapy, I reclaimed strength under my own conception, including the ability to walk. Still that shadow lingers, endearing me to depictions of human trauma that echo with sincerity and vulnerability.
And, in anime, I have found two characters who resonate strongly with me: Natsume from Natsume’s Book of Friends and Neko from Masamune-kun’s Revenge. The relationship between these characters’ disabilities and the unique insight it brings them powerfully demonstrates how anime can imagine the world as inclusive for people with disabilities, especially the traumatic experiences that so often accompany disability.
Natsume, Trauma, and Community
I met Natsume, the titular protagonist of Natsume’s Book of Friends, in 2016 during my time of continued vulnerability. Clad with the gift of power known as the Book of Friends, Natsume is able to draw upon his experiences of childhood trauma and his supernatural ability to see youkai to develop a positive meaning of life for his world.
A recurring theme in the Natsume anime involves Natsume being ostracized for his ability to see youkai. As another AniFem writer has described in detail, he was isolated and abused for years before the events of the series. In most stories, Natsume’s physical differences—his ability to see youkai—would be treated as a lauded superpower, something that can vanquish evil demons. Here, though, they far more closely reflect my experiences with disability.
The Mirror arc at the end of season three and the Matoba arc at the beginning of season four especially complement a disabled reading of Natsume. The Mirror arc represents the support Natsume’s friends offer, while the Matoba arc represents Natsume’s struggle with his trauma juxtaposed against his journey to protect others from physical and emotional harm.
In the Mirror arc, Natsume’s friends Taki and Tanuma help him find invisible pieces of an enchanted mirror that can only be located through sheer determination. When near a piece, Natsume becomes briefly overwhelmed by a sharp pain in his eye, allowing him to locate the general vicinity of a shard but not to obtain it.
Taki and Tanuma must help Natsume instead of remaining bystanders, which positions the youkai-seeing Natsume as their leader. Before this moment, Natsume only rarely involved his friends; now we see a change of heart where he begins to see that his friends can both understand his situation and support him directly.
In disability, whether in emotional trauma or chronic mobility limitations, feelings of helplessness hold concrete power. In Fall 2012, I felt chained to this idea that I was a monster. By involving his friends, Natsume is directly dismantling the forces that bind him tightly and isolate him from others.
While this process seems simple, Natsume carries a heavy burden that becomes increasingly apparent to the viewer. As the trio collect the shards, they must also deal with the looming danger of a violent hammer-wielding youkai. Since Natsume’s the only one who can see it, the responsibility for keeping his friends safe sits squarely on his shoulders.
As the wielder of the Book of Friends, the youkai perceive Natsume as a powerful figure while also being human, which draws immense attention to him. Despite this, due to his past trauma, Natsume wants to use his power to protect others, not to vanquish youkai. We see this through his worry for his friends and his deep gratitude toward them.
By finding a supportive community who understands his trauma and emotional needs, Natsume is able to refocus his traumatic experiences into a strengthened ability to work with those around him. Increasingly, Natsume explicitly recognizes his relationships with humans and youkai as a source of simultaneous strength and protection.
Natsume continues to process his trauma throughout subsequent seasons, even as it brings him great mental fatigue. In the Matoba arc at the beginning of Season 4, he must develop a precise position in the supernatural world he has become intimately involved with while acknowledging his experiences with trauma. This process of acknowledgement, rather than thinking of his trauma as solely negative, transforms his repeated dilemmas into a tool to improve his world.
The arc takes its name from Matoba, a ruthless exorcist who views youkai as objects to dominate rather than as potential friends. As Natsume’s opposite, he becomes a recurring antagonist. Given his legendary stature, Matoba acts as a principal agent of the society in which he thrives. Through his past trauma, Natsume has come to a much different understanding of the relationship between youkai and humans.
Their conflict, defined by this theme of youkai as foes and friends, begins when Matoba’s exorcism disrupts a community of forest-dwelling youkai. The youkai turn to Natsume as the famous wielder of the Book, but Matoba uses his own powers to lure Natsume into a trap. Matoba demands the Book of Friends, but Natsume, not wanting the Book to be used to hurt others, adamantly refuses.
At first, this position could seem like naivete, especially as Matoba insists that he could take the Book off Natsume’s hands and release him from his burden—free him from worrying about the world of youkai altogether. Natsume, horrified, is taken so aback he does not immediately respond.
For the first time, Natsume must confront the question of why he continues the hard work of exorcism. He realizes that he does it because of the kind, supportive community of youkai and humans he has met and now wants to use the Book’s power to protect.
Natsume, having experienced and overcome his own pain, wants to give back to those who supported him and avoid facing it again. He resolutely denounces using the Book for power like Matoba wants, transferring his trauma into a uniquely positive view of how the world can and should operate.
In confronting and driving back Matoba, Natsume triggers the healing of the forest, restoring the youkai community. At the river bank near Natsume’s home, a youkai from that forest thanks him and says the youkai would help him even without the Book, cementing Natsume’s highly respected status that comes not from aggression like Matoba, but from his strength of willpower.
This underlines an important point about normative constructions of mental health. Contrary to common understanding, trauma and other deviations from normative mental health offer the potential for radically positive views of the world, even coming from a place of stigmatization and pain. This has been intimately reflected by my personal experience as well.
Neko, Isolation, and Hope
Like Natsume, Neko from Masamune-kun’s Revenge rests close to my heart for offering support to my sense of self. Though Neko, who has an unspecified condition requiring surgery, may seem to represent very different aspects of disability than Natsume, she expresses the same desire for a supportive community.
Living with an invisible physical disorder forces Neko to hide her experiences, short of an admonishment to consider one’s health, from other people, much like Natsume hiding his ability to see youkai. And, also like Natsume, Neko seeks happiness that can be shared with others.
Her character arc begins with her meeting the titular Masamune and his small group of friends, giving her people she can rely on. We learn of her condition directly from her admission to this friend-group only after they’ve earned her trust.
I personally understand her reluctance to talk about her illness. As Neko later shares, a classmate once invited her out for an evening of tennis and horseback riding. As she waited for a response, cold silence unfolded to a melancholic piano track—until her other classmates pulled the student aside for making the social gaffe of inviting a person with a disability.
I have had almost identical conversations in real life. Avoiding overexertion has controlled much of my life, especially internally. However, that makes someone else deciding my abilities for me immensely cruel; instead of feeling considered, I feel my struggles are publicly exposed and thrust against me. I imagine Neko feels similarly.
Living with a disability, even an invisible one, requires not only correcting one’s limitations, but navigating others’ perceptions of disability when it becomes known. In my experience, this often means being left out of social events altogether.
The rationalization goes like this: Neko is too frail to ride horses or play tennis, let alone the combination. For me, I have been left uninvited on account of obstacles such as hills or stairs because of my difficulty with walking. This is rooted in well-intentioned ableism—a vague sense of wanting to protect the disabled person—but it’s based on unspoken assumptions that activities cannot be fundamentally changed.
According to this unspoken rulebook, I, like Neko, would also be excluded from horseback riding. The fact that I have fallen off a horse, let alone ridden one, is a point of pride for me in the face of these ableist expectations.
But beyond those assumptions, I also personally see a tremendous lack of desire to make activities inclusive. The double-act of disability, beyond instilling a severe despair, instills in me the message that I do not belong in those environments while simultaneously not being worthy of companionship. This saps my bodily energy, even though my condition is not solely a physical experience. To add on activities that will not be bent, even slightly, to accomodate me is even more draining.
There is an implied rule, in life and much of fiction, that people with disabilities must vanish from society. In media, this often leads to such characters getting greatly reduced screen-time—which is one more reason why Neko’s and Natsume’s stories are especially important to me.
Neko successfully receives surgery and returns to the cast a couple episodes later. Rather than face doubts over her sickness, her friends welcome her back graciously and naturally. This creates a standard whereby Neko belongs in this space equally as their friend, not someone to be pitied because of her condition. Natsume, as the central figure of his series, similarly is shown as an essential person to the setting of his story.
Finding a Better World through Fiction
Both Natsume and Neko face isolation and ostracization because of their physical differences. When placed into that world, one can either lose hope, confronted by powerful forces of ableism, or continue what becomes a brave act of seeking fulfillment.
In 2012, I deeply feared the prospect of losing the ability to walk because of my own physical overexertion; though ultimately unfounded, this thoroughly shook my confidence. Like Natsume, I felt that the support of others was critical for me to conclude that what happened was not my fault.
Through years of physical therapy since then, I have reassessed my strength, through ambulation and other activities, and come to define my own unique sets of abilities. This therapy, much like my connection with Natsume and Neko, has played a formative part in my own healing journey.
Looking back, these difficult experiences have encouraged me to believe that, even with the current existence of barriers, that a better, more inclusive world is possible. This is what that radically positive imagination coming from trauma feels like to me.
Like Natsume and I, Neko faces her trauma by concluding that being alive is a wonderful thing, even with its sorrows. Her position comes from experiencing those sorrows, those traumas, and finding the strength to move forward. To me, the below image represents this: the elysian sun illuminating the tear tracks on Neko’s face with the rest of her face in shadow, even as she smiles in the brave act of living while facing social exclusion.
Materially, trauma is deeply harmful, caused and exacerbated by environmental and social rejection; however, the tremendous shift in one’s frames of reference can lead to genuine, new understanding of the power structures, especially ableism, that encircle people. Through the stories of Natsume and Neko, hope emerges for a truly accessible world that can be created from a barrier-ridden one.
Through presenting these narratives, and ones like them, anime as a medium has the power to both comfort those facing the trauma of disability and broadly widen the net of who can be fully recognized as human. This widening would include the younger me who feared implicit exclusion from their community.
Natsume and Neko’s stories assure us that a sincerely enriching life can follow trauma. This hope pulled me through the most difficult time of my life so far.