「割れた鏡」 (Wareta Kagami)
It’s back to a more conventionally plot-driven style for Natsume Yuujinchou this week. And once again, this series seems to be disproving the axiom that canon is always better.
Over the course of three seasons Natsume has consistently delivered superb examples of what is generally referred to dismissively as “filler”. Except that the filler for this series – such as the previous two episodes – is very often among the best the show has to offer, whether anime-original or not. That’s obviously a credit to Brains Base, director Omori-sensei and the various writers who have worked on the last three seasons.
I’ve tended to find the more plot-heavy episodes less interesting this season, manga material or no, and this current arc is no exception. It’s good – this series is never less than good. Plus, it’s awfully nice to see Nyanko-sensei feeling better and back in all his snarky, cuddly-badass glory (like waving bye-bye to Tanuma – how cute was that). But the story – broken mirror and the youkai who possesses Tanuma in order to get it back – left me about as cold as any Natsume Yuujinchou story has. It’s not that I dislike Tanuma and Taki. They’re fine, and quite important as they’re the only two close friends with whom Natsume can be honest about what he sees. I just don’t find either of them as engaging as some of the other regulars, and frankly a lot of the youkai.
In addition to the matter of the youkai whose mirror was broken in the lightning storm, there’s at least one other youkai after the mirror – a shadowy, gaunt figure who carries a hammer to smash mirrors (and bihsounen’s heads) with. There’s also the most overt bromance we’ve had in a show that’s known for it, and some snuggling between Taki and Nyanko-sensei (on the prowl for squid, as always this season). It’s interesting to see Natsume and Tanuma more concerned with trying to protect the other than themselves – Natsume in unique in that he always wants to protect others, yet possesses a quality that always seems to make others want to protect him. Some sort of shoujo mystique, perhaps.
But for me, I think a review of the series’ run would show that in most cases, the best and most memorable episodes have something in common – a memorable youkai guest character. In fact, most of them are sympathetic and often tragic youkai. Kogitsune, Kai, the Tree Youkai from earlier this season, the forest guardian Gen, the chick Tatsumi – the list goes on and on. This show always works best for me when it focuses on the intersection of the human and youkai worlds, and gives voice to the lonely youkai who often enlist Natsume to help them in various ways. The episodes that introduce “threat” and don’t have an engaging youkai presence somehow lack the warmth that’s this series’ best feature. And of the episodes that do focus on the human element, the ones with the Fujiwaras in a central role have the most heart – and often work the best.
It’s hard to watch a series you love change even a little bit, I suppose, and there’s certainly some positives that have come of that change this season. I do enjoy seeing Natsume’s ties to the human world grow stronger, and his discomfort and distance with people grow less. And this episode – last last week’s (which I preferred to this one) – shows further evidence that Natsume is becoming even more rooted in the human world. That’s a good thing, but a little depressing, too.
Like Christopher Robin growing up and losing touch with the Hundred-Acre Wood, perhaps it’s a natural process that Natsume’s world will become more and more entwined with his own kind, and less with that of the youkai – in fact, there’s been nary of mention of the titular “Book of Friends” or Reiko for over a month, unless I misremember. That’s healthy for Natsume but a little sad for me, and not a good sad in the same way a great Kogitsune or Tatsumi episode is. But that’s just my being sentimental I suppose, though I admit I’ll be rooting for a final arc this season that’s cut from the heartwarming cloth this series does best, rather than a fast-paced dramatic one.