「幼き日々に」 (Osanaki Hibi ni)
I’ve said it before, but one of the hardest things in any writing is to be simple and profound at the same time. One of the little miracles of Natsume Yuujinchou is that it manages to do that almost every week.
The template for this show is amazingly uncomplicated. The chapters almost always follow the same basic structure, a small story set at the intersection of of our world and the one hidden from us. In the process of the telling they illuminate the lives of the main character and the beings he meets while, at the same, time, they shed a little light on the human (and youkai) condition. But despite reusing the same basic formula in nearly every story, the impact seems to grow over time, not dull, and the stories almost always spark an emotional reaction in a way few series can.
What I loved about this week’s episode was the way it focused so heavily on the unnamed tree youkai (Oura Fuyuka, in a brilliant performance), really giving an idea as to the angst that goes along with being a nearly eternal being surrounded mostly by short-lived humans. Boredom is a common theme amongst youkai both generally and in this series specifically – while ageless and often wise beings, in a way they’re like children (or cats) in that so much of the trouble they get into comes from having nothing to do. I also loved the way the seemingly off-hand conversation between Natsume and Mrs. Fujiawara was artfully tied in to the story of Natsume and the youkai, just when you’d forgotten about it.
This third season of Natsume Yuujinchou seems to have taken the approach of illuminating the changes in Natsume’s life in the present by looking back into the past. This was the longest flashback to his childhood yet, though much of it was through the memory of Tree Youkai. By showing us how much he suffered in the past, director Omori-sensei is showing us just how far Natsume has come. It’s a real testament to just how uniquely kind he is that Natsume remembered his encounters with Tree Youkai not with anger, but with a sense of guilt over not having said his good-byes properly. Through the kindness he’s received from the Fujiwaras and others, he’s come to understand that Tree Youkai was being kind to him, in her awkward way, and when the memories came back to him he saw her as the young man he is now, not the lonely, frightened boy he was. Whether he knew the cat was her at the time, I don’t know (though there’s no question he did when she hugged him) but he certainly remembered the regrets Mrs. Fujiwara held in looking back at her own childhood in deciding to seek Tree Youkai out.
I could certainly see where some would consider this series too overtly sentimental, but that’s one of the reasons I love it (if you read my “Appreciation”, you’ll know that). It’s all about the nexus points where Natsume intersects with these youkai, meetings that are really never supposed to happen. They’re generally awkward and sometimes dangerous, but somehow in the end both parties really are trying to do the right thing by the other – they just don’t know how. There’s something especially poignant about that lonely youkai turning into a cat when she finally wants to touch someone in the human world, and how meaningful those small moments of contact are for both parties. I guess it’s Natsume’s gift that he’s not just able to see youkai, but able to see through their alien nature to their true selves – foreign, often angry, but usually good in the end.
A quick word really needs to be said about the music, and the way it contributes to the atmosphere in a series where atmosphere is everything. Each piece of BGM is a theme not of a character, but of a mood, and when it plays it transports you to that mood almost immediately. While most of them are familiar as old friends, I don’t seem to recall the guitar/piano piece that played in the beginning – I suspect it’s new, but it did a great job setting the tone of the start of a lazy summer. The ED always seems to kick in just a few beats before the end, a coda for the story and a bridge to the next one. And yes, a word about Nyanko-sensei too, who seems to be cuter than ever this season, if a bit less formidable. I know how you feel, Nyanko-sensei – I get that way when someone mentions ramen too…