「偽りの友人」 (Itsuwari no Yūjin)
If it’s Natsume Yuujinchou it must be a tear-jerker, and so it is with the third episode. And the title of this manga arc adaptation, “False Friend”, is surely meant ironically.
If you’re new to this property you may be asking yourself by now, “Is there a larger plot here or just individual stories every week?” Well, there’s the occasional cliffhanger and there are a few recurring characters (Natori Shuichi comes to mind) who seem to carry “plot” along with them. But mostly, this is what Natsume Yuujinchou is. It’s snapshots from the life of lonely, often doomed humans and youkai passing through this life, and the impact their brief moments of interaction – and those with Natsume himself – have on them. There’s comfort in these small moments of connection, but it rarely lasts. Ultimately, even youkai leave this world as they come into it – alone.
For all that, as we’re now at 29 episodes there are new themes emerging. I thought the indelible line this week was Natsume’s “I don’t lie as well as I used to.” A lifetime of loneliness as a defense mechanism is starting to break down, and the bonds of love are taking hold in his life. The wrinkle this week is that Natsume is forced to confront his old self when a classmate from his elementary school days, Shibata (Hosoya Yoshimasa, Rat from NO. 6), shows up looking for him. Shibata was one of Natsume’s tormentors, a bully (as most of his peers were) but now he wants help from the strange boy who claimed he could see things other kids couldn’t. Shibata has met and fallen in love with a strange girl he’s met in the park, but he senses there’s something off about Murasaki (Orikasa Fumiko).
The girl fools even Natsume at first, but she can’t fool Nyanko-sensei. She’s a tree youkai, and her yamafuji tree is dead. She’s opportunistically decided to try and stave off her own demise by posing as a human and feasting on some young human flesh. When she threatens to eat Natsume – his “emergency ration” – Nyanko-sensei intervenes directly.
But as ever, there’s more to this tale than it first appears. Turns out Murasaki has had ample opportunities to eat Shibata already, and somehow was having so much fun with him that she never got around to it. What she wanted in the end wasn’t to consume Shibata in hopes of survival – she simply didn’t want to die alone. And by intervening, Natsume does as he so often does – allows the youkai he interacts with to capture a measure of dignity and grace, but there are no miracles to follow. In the process, he manages to make himself another friend, and another anchor connecting him to the rest of the world.
It may just be me, but it seems that Nyanko-sensei is even more irresistible this season. He’s having a harder time disguising his affection for Natsume, and indeed his affection for many things in the human world – as Natsume is becoming more connected, so is he. Industry legend Inoue Kazuhiko has totally nailed this role, bringing Nyanko-sensei to life in a way readers of the manga would scarcely have hoped possible.