Natsuyuki Rendezvous: Bodies and Souls in Transition

Natsuyuki Rendezvous, a reclamation of the virtues of josei storytelling for the Noitamina block, goes beyond standard love triangle cliches to closely examine just how people move on—as opposed to get over—their grief. The emotional gravity of the show lies there rather than in the romance that sets it off.

Ghost stories endure, even in our disenchanted age, because they are potent metaphors for how the deceased never quite disappear from the lives of the living. As William Faulkner quipped, “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” However, the focus of the story is usually on the ones being haunted and not the one doing the haunting: Teiichi is the protagonist, not Yuuko in Dusk Maiden. Menma is a catalyst for the rest of the living characters in Ano Hana. But in Natsuyuki Rendezvous Atsushi Shimao, the late husband of female lead Rokka, we are granted a great deal of insight into his subjective state: his regret at leaving her behind, his enduring love that boils over into jealousy and selfishness, and in recent episodes his conflicted pain as he inhabits his “rival” Hazuki’s body and ends up making her fall in love with Hazuki all the more. Atsushi, despite being a jerk at times, thus becomes a remarkably sympathetic character in his own right. He seems much more “alive” than many anime characters.

So much of the anguish in this series draws on the unique nature of the love triangle. It’s far from balanced. Rokka has no inkling, until the most recent episode, that her husband is still an active presence; she’s only competing against her memories of him and her own grief. Hazuki does sense Atsushi, and makes multiple romantic mistakes because of it, but of course he cannot tell her why; he has to pretend it’s just his awkwardness. Atsushi is in the worst position of all: only he is aware of them both, but he is physically helpless as a ghost and can only “move” in the body of another—and thus must always be mistaken as that other. Anything he does in Hazuki’s body helps Hazuki, not himself. He is also stuck with the burden of knowing that there is no possibility of his marriage ever continuing: the “death do us part” bit has happened as he notes early on, and so there is literally no hope for him. Even his theft (there’s no other word for it) of Hazuki’s first kiss and first sexual experience is an act of desperation; he wants to cling to her even though he really can’t. The only way he can “win” is if Rokka remains stuck in her grief, unable to form relationships with others like Hazuki, a fate that no loving husband should wish on his wife (and which he tried to make real with divorce papers just before his death). All he can do is just figure out what is keeping him lingering between life and after-life so he can be at rest.

The mask slips, just briefly.

Standard ghost story stuff, in many ways: they always seem to be about spirits who can only rest when some task or some emotion is resolved. But what a powerful, heartbreaking portrayal this is of longing and regret, a spiritualization of the experience of watching former lovers and spouses move on and grow happier without you. The way Atsushi’s soul/consciousness is disconnected from any physical presence—except when it lives in someone else’s—is a fine way of expressing how sometimes we wish could have power over things, change the past or change other people’s lives, but we know we can’t. It even reminds me of how sometimes when I look back on what I was like ten years, even five years ago, it almost seems like remember the memories of a different person.

This conceit, along with the body swapping arc of Kokoro Connecct, seems to assume, as many ghost stories do implicitly and as Kylaran has pointed out at The Nihon Review, a dualistic understanding of the body and consciousness (soul, psyche, mind, what have you). In a nutshell, your “real you” is immaterial and can continue regardless of whether you’re in your body, someone else’s, or in none at all. We’re all Ghosts in Shells. Whether one believes in such a sharp distinction or not (the ancient Hebrews didn’t cleanly separate body and soul, for one), there’s a reason why it’s such a useful explanation. Our consciousness seems continuous, but our bodies change: they get bigger, mature, age, and eventually die. (Whether they continue beyond that: well, that’s a theological question. :)) We go through enormous changes in appearance and feeling, but most of the time we still feel like we’re still, well, us. We’re the same, but different. If that’s the case, couldn’t we still be ourselves in a totally different body altogether? Or continue when there’s no body left at all?

Iori-as-Aoki explains it all.

Natsuyuki Rendezvous takes this idea to one logical conclusion: Atsushi is an active mind with very little to no agency, and can only borrow someone else’s. But as Iori-as Aoki tells Taichi in Kokoro Connect episode 2, people are still going to treat you like what your body identity is, even if you know otherwise. Unlike in Kokoro Connect, Rokka doesn’t know this swap has taken place, and thus lives out Iori’s warning by thinking it’s Hazuki all this time. The show portrays this choice as tragic and misguided, and that’s because as much as one might believe body and soul are distinct and even separable, there’s also a sense that they still belong together too. Things go wrong when the unity between body and soul is severed. Hazuki misses out on romance; Atsushi’s progress to move on spiritually is actively hindered by pretending to be someone he’s not, by being in someone else’s body. It’s only going to cause more pain.

Interestingly enough, this actually comports with traditional Christian ideas about the soul and body; with its emphasis on bodily resurrection, Christianity has always insisted on the necessity of both and promises that body and soul will be rejoined at the end. The presence of death, where body and soul are severed, is a sign of Something Deeply Wrong. We see this in literal terms in this story too, where grief and death hang over everything and will continue to until things are fully addressed. And yet it is also written that love is as strong as death, and if a believable and genuine love can come out of even this mess, then there’s hope for us all.

Who is he?

7 thoughts on “Natsuyuki Rendezvous: Bodies and Souls in Transition”

  1. “In a nutshell, your “real you” is immaterial and can continue regardless of whether you’re in your body, someone else’s, or in none at all.”
    I read that and immediate thought Ghost in the Shell… then magic.

    “people are still going to treat you like what your body identity is”
    A long discourse could be made over this.

    1. Ghost in the Shell—the conception there is a more modern form of dualism, where the true self is really not so much spiritual as it is, well, data. Data that can be hacked and manipulated, copied and transferred, or even spontaneously generating over the internet. I actually took a class where we took a look at some of the latest neuroscience and talked about the implications of discovering more and more mental and consciousness functions being tied to brain chemistry. It’s a really fascinating field and might actually give rise to a new sort of “physicalism” which, ironically, is not far from the ancient Hebrew view after all.

      People do judge books by their covers, and Kokoro Connect even plays around with that in a later episode where one person only pretends to have switched bodies with another, and acts so convincingly that it fools another.

  2. I didn’t know body also resurrects in the end. I thought body perishes forever once dead, only soul would go to heaven.

    Japan’s traditional view is that if soul wanders off from body, it gets unhealthy. The Emperor does soul-seating ritual once a year at the end of the year, winter solstice, so the lost soul would seat in the body where it should be, and then the nation would be stable for the next year. So body and soul connection is crucial to nation’s well-being.

    On the other hand, Buddhist view is that once died, a human would break up into the five elements, so it’s not possible to keep identity or soul like Atsushi. So, Gautama taught us not to get attached to self.

    Yeah, like Memma attained moksha and nirvana, Atsushi is trying by borrowing Hazuki’s body, but going opposite. Maybe need to see a wandering shinto priest like an elementary school girl from Bakemonogatari?

    But if Atsushi is skinshipable to Rokka like Yuko-san to Teiichi, he wouldn’t need Hazuki’s body. Nor Yuri-action of Whoopi Goldberg and Demi Moore!

    1. It’s always astonished me that even few churchgoing Christians understand that the “afterlife” is of a new heaven and and a new earth. It’s not disembodied souls flitting around the clouds, playing harps or what not—or worse, the way some preachers have taught it, a neverending church service. (The text specifically says there will be no temple or church, because there’s no need for one if God is already there!) It’s new life, not afterlife. I think Renaissance art has ruined a lot of things for us theologically sometimes :) The picture of “heaven” in the Bible is really a restoration of the way earth was supposed to be, and more. The idea of a purely spiritual existence is way, way more Platonic than Christian. (The Neo-Platonist/Gnostic salvation picture is us being freed from our inconvenient, dirty bodies so our eternal divine souls, the sparks of divinity, can be reunited with the One by leaving behind the surly bonds of earth.) A great book about the subject in plain language is theologian NT Wright’s book Surprised By Hope.

      The traditional Japanese view seems to fit with the story’s point here too, yes. I wonder if the specific ritual the emperor does is also related to the ancient idea of sacral kingship, where the actions of the ruler have a direct bearing on the nation’s fertility and prosperity—hence him doing it in the winter solstice, to make sure the year goes well. And I suppose if one wants to read Atsushi’s situation in a Buddhist way, his intense desire for his wife is keeping him from Nirvana and the state of No Self, and once he learns to shed that then he will no longer need to be a presence.

      Anyways this is one of my pet topics so apologies if I ramble too much :)

      1. I see, very interesting. So, it’s a Greek influence that sees body as just a shell, so only soul would go to heaven. But early Christians thought that a human as a whole would resuscitate then, so new life rather than afterlife. So the meek inheriting “the earth” is actually heaven then.

        Sacral king, yes exactly, or I should say “shaman king.” The oldest recorded shaman ruler of Japan was a shaman queen, Himiko (sun female shaman, “miko” female shaman, e.g., otaku’s miko-fuku fetish). According to Kyubey, Himiko was also a puella magi. So, probably Magatama was Himiko’s soul gem, if Himiko was considered historical Amaterasu.

        Himiko’s alternative name was possibly Himeko, and Hime (princess) originally meant “sun daughter.” And Inaba’s given name is Himeko!

        Yes, that is making him still enchained to this world: attachment to woman and property, his wife and his flower shop, despite not “his” anymore. Yes, no self extends to no sex and no possession. But Atsushi’s soul is not possible in Buddhism, so Natsuyuki is very much a mixture of Shinto and Buddhism, that ambiguousness is general Japanese spiritual view.

  3. Great article, Mike.

    I think Ghost in the Shell can be read two different ways; after all, the original Gilbert Ryle text attacks Cartesian dualism, which was Descartes’s leading argument for the existence of God and the self in the Meditations. The implication that our personalities can be downloaded through the net, but be affected by physical data, straddles the line between a dualistic physicalism and a completely materialistic view, but never really adopts either.

    Let’s say, for example, that your personality is 100GB to download into a new body. Your data is stored over the internet, a collection of computer nodes talking to one another, so it’s not physically present in one place or another. Only when it is manifested in one single physical entity–an android body perhaps–does the personality arise. As you said, this can be seen as supporting the idea that there’s a unity of both body and soul required, in a sense. Which seems to be something that most people can swallow, and I think is a view that is gaining more and more ground in academic circles as well (transhumanist arguments on agency, for example).

    The main problem with this view is that, despite the inclusion of the body as being a necessary part of the equation, the problems of dualism remains. Take the above example, where your personality is 100GB. What happens if you unzip a file to only 99% completion, or the download is partially corrupted so that you only have 99% of the data? Do you still, in effect, have your personality? Even if you’re missing, say, a major memory from your childhood when you were born into a physical body? What if we reduce that number down to 95%? 90%? Where do we draw the line?

    You reach a point where the argument becomes fairly arbitrary, and that’s the real problem with dualistic physicalism: it doesn’t quite provide a logical solution to when exactly our personalities will “exist” even if we attempt to quantify it.

    I think there’s also a slight difference in the handling of the philosophical material in GitS depending on the director involved. Mamoru Oshii certainly seemed to have a different perspective on the topic in the films compared to SAC by Kamiyama Kenji. The ambiguity of the scenes also contributes to the feeling that the series doesn’t really provide the viewer with an answer, but instead simply poses questions.

    Coming back to the conversation about Natsuyuki Rendezvous and Kokoro Connect, I don’t really feel like either shows is about… well, philosophical matters. I think they’re primarily romance shows, which occasionally draw from rather naive notions of the soul to produce somewhat plausible dramas that any layman could understand. And like you said, it’s fairly common for many people to mistake official theological doctrine due to misunderstanding (with your example being the notion of Heaven without the necessity of the body).

  4. We hesitate to make any concrete conclusions with two very important episodes remaining that could change our whole perspective, but we will say this: we agree that Natsuyuki Rendezvous is a welcome return to quality, mature storytelling; it’s head-and-shoulders above everything else we’re watching this Summer season; and we hope for future Noitamina series like it, equal to if not exceeding it in quality, if not in themes (alas, it’s all about the ratings).

    We admire and revel in any series that can create as momumental a jerk as Atsushi (considering everything he’s done to Hazuki) that we nonetheless sympathize with, if not root for. But he’s as much a hostage to his overwhelming feelings of greif and loss as Hazuki is to his urge to become closer to Rokka in spite of the obstacles Atsushi puts up.

    As to those obstacles: a big chunk of the series now has Hazuki trapped in a metaphysical purgatory as Atsushi literally has his way with Rokka in Hazuki’s body. In the perhaps by-nature repetitiveness of his scenes in “the sketchbook”, we agonize over his powerlessness to stop Atsushi and find ourselves rooting for him to break free – which episode after episode he fails to do.

    But these are our own hopes projected upon this series. Perhaps we misread a series about Rokka dealing with loss as a series about Hazuki gaining her heart. But there’s still time for it to be both. For that, Hazuki needs to get out of limbo and regain control of his body. In any case, that only eight episodes of this series has inspired so much analysis and introspection proves the merit of this series.

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