There’s no doubt that the highlight of this week’s Natsume Yuujinchou was the preview, but that’s more of a comment on how great the preview was than a knock on the episode itself. And we’ll get to the preview in a minute…
These “canon” episodes are always a bit problematic for me. Not canonical in the sense of being taken from the manga, but in the sense that they follow the spine of a story that runs throughout the manga, but – like vertebrae – only occasionally makes itself felt. I don’t begrudge the series the right to follow conventional plot structures every once in a while, but I do miss the episodic, sad and heartwarming episodes that make Natsume Yuujinchou the masterpiece that it is.
While those elements are certainly missing, this is about as exciting as this series gets, with as much sense of genuine threat. While Natsume in continually in the position of being torn between the worlds of human and youkai, it’s rare that his choice is made so stark as it is here – and that he must choose the youkai world. But that’s the influence of the Matoba gang, a pretty cutthroat exorcist family that practices methods Natsume finds abhorrent. It’s worth remembering that Natsume disapproved strongly of Natori’s methods when they first met, which begs the question – has Natori become more sympathetic to youkai because of Natsume’s influence, or does the cruel nature of the Matoba methods make him look moderate by comparison?
The irony of this two-parter is that Natsume is once again caught between two worlds, but in this instance it’s two spiritually powerful humans using youkai for their own ends. A witch (Seto Saori) formerly in the employ of the Matoba is seeking revenge for the death of her servant as “bait”- the winged youkai we saw in episode 11 of Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou. Natsume tried unsuccessfully to save that youkai, who it turns out had a relationship with the witch that was much more than servant and master. It’s she who’s been collecting the youkai blood, not Matoba – all in an effort to awaken a powerful youkai which she hopes will devour Matoba, drawn by the promise of another powerful demon that might serve him.
The most interesting element of the confrontation for me was seeing Nyanko-sensei in situations somewhat different to what we’ve seen before. Even as Madara he’s generally in control, but here he was angry at Matoba to the point where he certainly would have killed him for the pleasure of it – had he not been grievously wounded by Matoba’s arrow. This is also the first time we’ve seen Nyanko-sensei hurt this badly in defending Natsume. Ironically it’s Matoba himself who ends up saving Natsume when the youkai awakens, for his own selfish reasons, and those reasons are the lasting import of these events. Natsume and Nyanko-sensei have piqued Matoba’s interest, and that’s a bad thing. Matoba is a dark soul, and Natsume’s interests are not of great import to him.
Also of note here was the new BGM introduced in the latter parts of the episode, because we so rarely get new BGM with this show (and the old BGM is so good that I’m not complaining). It’s a very interesting, very Japanese-sounding string theme that suits the melancholy mood of the scene. And then there’s the real news, that preview – because my favorite supporting character in a series with amazing supporting characters is coming back, the little fox boy (yes, he’s a boy) from Season One! Fox-boy may in fact be the most kawaii character I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few (not least in Natsume Yuujinchou). I was wondering if Brain’s Base would choose to bring him back – he was a mere bit player in a manga omake but proved immensely popular in the anime. After two pretty grim and joyless eps it’s perfect timing for the little kitsune’s return, because any ep he’s in figures to crank the heart-tugging up to 11. I’m not too proud to admit that I shed manly tears at the end of S1, Episode 7.