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.
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?
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.