「帰る場所」 (Kaeru Basho)
“A Place To Go Home To”
Natsume Yuujinchou gives us its strongest episode since 08 with its penultimate effort, a nice hybrid of the themes of the third season with the emotional tug of the first two. But whether I was supposed to or not, I felt a little conflicted about events at the end of the episode.
Given the focus on Natsume’s developing ties with the human world this season, it was only natural that the anime reach into the manga for an origin story – in this case the tale of how Natsume came to live with the Fujiwaras. Given that Natsume’s guardians are easily my favorite of his human companions and that the episode also featured a compelling youkai story, it was an overall winner for me.
We’ve certainly had glimpses of Natsume’s painful childhood before, but never this long or this detailed. A run-in with an old youkai nemesis has left Natsume laid up in bed with a fever, dreaming of old days. Mostly he dreams of the last family he lived with before the Fujiwaras took him in. They seem like decent enough folk, especially their biological son (played by Sakurai Takahiro unless my ears deceive me) who seems genuinely sympathetic towards Natsume. But like all the others before they grow frightened by the boy’s odd outbursts and strange terrors, and the fact that he’s not their son doesn’t help matters. Through a one-eyed youkai who sees Natsume as a potential “pet” we learn that things have sometimes been even worse – parents beating Natsume, or “forgetting” to feed him.
Well, there’s few things more heartbreaking than a lost boy and Natsume certainly qualifies. It’s hard to see him in that state, isolated and lonely despite his kind heart. Into this dark place like a beam of light shines Fujiwara Touko, a distant relative who has suddenly taken an interest in Natsume’s welfare for reasons that aren’t made clear. She and husband Shigeru are Natsume’s anchors in the human world, straightforward and kind and patient, and it’s wonderful to see at last how they came into his life. It begs the question of whether he’ll ever find the courage to trust them enough to reveal the truth about himself.
That said, there’s a sadder element to this story and that’s the youkai whose arrival at the start of the episode put Natsume in a sickbed. Originally she saved him from another youkai, and took an unhealthy interest in this strange and lonely human child. I certainly recognize why Natsume was afraid of her, and why it was so important to him to escape from her before going with the Fujiwaras. So he seals her using an old pit trap, which is sort of sad even if necessary – and no doubt the reason why she was so pissed when she somehow escaped and found him at the Fujiwaras. But when Nyanko-sensei (apparently) destroyed her, I couldn’t help but be a little sad – because in part, I think her initial interest in Natsume was driven more by her own loneliness than anything else. It also makes me a little sad because it continues the “Us vs. Them” motif that has taken center-stage this season, with the youkai more often in a straight adversarial role than being tragic temporary allies as so often in the first two.
We reach the end next week, with what looks like a light-hearted manga omake adaptation. I know this isn’t a wistful story about youkai-human interactions, the Book of Friends and Natsume coming to understand Reiko anymore. But as Natsume Yuujinchou steps away again for another couple of years, I hope it leaves us with an episode that honors the spirit of the story it used to be. Natsume deserves to move forward, but it’s important to honor the past, too.