「夏目遊戯帳」 (Natsume Yūgi-Chō)
“Natsume’s Book of Play”
Now that’s the Natsume Yuujinchou I love.
It’s great that season three ended with what I think even the harshest critic would call a superb episode. But it’s as if the gang at Brain’s Base had a direct line to my brain, because they used a story for the finale that tackled all the issues I’ve been kvetching about all season head-on. If the first two seasons were mostly about the past and this season mostly about making the most out of the present, it’s only fitting that it should begin the segue to the fourth (and I suspect final) season with an episode that focused on the future.
If it had done nothing else, I would have been grateful to Omori-sensei for devoting most of the final episode to the youkai in Natsume’s life and for finally bringing the Book of Friends back into play. Whatever else you may think about this season, the youkai – especially as friends of Natsume – have been less important than in the first two seasons. As well, I was pleased to see a large role for Nyanko-sensei and Madara here, in all of his phases and moods. Nyanko-sensei too has been more of a supporting player this year, and Madara has rarely shown his teeth.
There’s an unbroken line of time that connects everything in the short lifespan of a human, and even as Natsume is thinking about what he might do after high school he can’t help but recall his past, and how different his current situation is. The first part of the episode – as has much of the season – served to remind us that Natsume has grown tremendously in his dealings with humans, and even developed something like a “normal” life with normal friends. Even as Taki states her desire to explore his connections to the youkai world, he focuses on what he and his muggle friends (well, and Tanuma) are going to do for fun now that exams are over.
But the bulk of the fun here comes from Natsume’s “dogs”, the ranks of mostly low-level youkai that put up with his meddling and complaining, as well as come crying to him when they’re in trouble. They decide to throw a party for him at an abandoned shrine, and Nyanko-sensei firmly pushes the reluctant Natsume to attend (which is an interesting thing to consider in and of itself). Lots of old friends drop by – Benio (Watanabe Misa), Misuzu-sama (Kuroda Takaya) and even the kappa (Orikasa Fumiko) who Natsume always has to bail out on hot days by pouring water on its plate. Sake is consumed in great quantities, though not by Natsume – ever the good boy – and eventually the gathered youkai become curious as to what humans do for fun during such gatherings. This leads to a highly spirited game of shadow tag and to some of the strongest emotional moments of the season.
What really struck me was the moment when Natsume considered, just for an instant, running away once all the youkai had scattered to hide from him as he was “it”. The flashback was to all the times when human children had refused to allow Natsume to join the fun, and I think this was a hugely important acknowledgement both for Natsume and the series itself. In his darkest hours, youkai were less judgmental of him than humans had been. And these youkai were truly, genuinely his friends and his protectors. Rather than running away (symbolism much?) Natsume joins in the game and has a grand old time with the youkai. We even get to see a drunk Madara lose control of himself a bit when he gets too high-spirited, reminding us of the two-edged sword that even the best of youkai friends are. But when Natsume (who undeniably has a talent for such mishaps) falls down a hole, it’s Madara who gently lifts the boy to safety. Grand slam home run.
What a season it’s been for Brain’s Base. The first cour of the difficult but brilliant Mawaru Penguindrum, the smart, sassy, sexy and spectacular Kami-sama Dolls, and another strong season of Natsume Yuujinchou. We’re talking 2007 Production I.G. level brilliance there, and with the decline in the batting average of studios like I.G., GAINAX and BONES, I’m not at all sure Brain’s Base isn’t the best studio in the TV anime business these days. They just don’t miss lately.
Objectively, I think this season has been every bit as strong as the first two for this series. Subjectively, I don’t love it as much as the first two. The dichotomy is simple really, because the show has made a perfectly legitimate shift in focus that happens to be in a direction I’m slightly less entranced by. Much more than in the first two seasons this one has focused on Natsume’s growing connections to the human world – both through exploring the trials that world has given him and the joys that it currently provides. As a result, while most of the youkai in the first two seasons were lonely, sympathetic figures whom Natsume was able to help in some way, most of them this season have been plot devices to show Natsume’s growing connection to humanity or outright antagonists. There’s been more of an "Us vs. Them" theme this year, and I just don’t personally find those episodes as engaging as the heartwarming ones where Natsume and the youkai have their paths cross briefly and bond. It’s like watching Christopher Robin getting ready to leave the Hundred-Acre Wood.
That said, Natsume absolutely deserves happiness and it’s totally valid for both Midorikawa-mangaka and Omori-director to show the growth and maturing of his character. For many fans that’s the best part of the series, and I suspect this season will have been their favorite. My favorite episodes of “San”, by contrast, have been the ones more reminiscent of the first two series – the anime-original “Little Fox’s Watch”, and the early run of eps that dealt strongly with memories of Reiko and helping tragic youkai figures deal with their pain as a way for Natsume to deal with his. Because most of the season has been about the present, the future and the human world, Reiko and the Book of Friends have been all but forgotten.
With the announcement of a fourth season in January, many interesting questions come to mind. It was never in doubt that we’d get a fourth season – Natsume Yuujinchou continues to be a powerhouse in BD/DVD and merchandise sales. But the fact that this turnaround is so much faster than the last two leads me to wonder if the timing is due to Midorikawa planning to finish the manga, and if a plan is in the works to have both anime and manga end simultaneously. In any case, for much of the season it’s seemed to me that Midorikawa had telegraphed where things would eventually end – with Natsume choosing the human world over the youkai, and eventually saying goodbye to Nyanko-sensei (a possibility I believe is hinted at by Natsume’s forlorn “So if you step on my shadow, it’s over?” in the finale). While for two seasons the story seemed to endorse Natsume’s worldview in terms of youkai, I think this season has hinted that it might be Natori who was right all along – that Matoba is far too cruel, but that Natsume is too naïve.
With the finale, though, it’s very hard to say. Natsume’s last words of the season – “Right now, both humans and youkai are equally dear to me” – are both moving and extremely ambiguous, and I wonder if we might be headed for a “have the cake and eat it too” kind of ending. It’s a real dilemma for me, because of course I want Natsume to grow and to be happy, but he’s such a good kid that I really don’t want him to fundamentally change. There’s also the huge question of when and if he’ll finally muster the courage to tell the Fujiwaras about his true nature, not to mention the great unknowns of Reiko’s death and Natsume’s birth parents’ identity.
It’s just a big plateful of mysteries and possibilities waiting for us in the fourth season. I’d have been anticipating it anyway, but both the quality and tone of the final episode heighten my excitement greatly. I’d been fairly confident I knew where things were headed, but now it’s a thrill to be quite unsure about it. And really, any season with Natsume Yuujinchou is a good deal better than one without. Even if this wasn’t my favorite season, I still loved the series and it holds a special place at the heart of who I am as an anime lover.