Like an old friend you love dearly, Natsume Yuujinchou is always missed terribly, even if the parting is as short as this last one was.
OP: “Ima, Kono Toki” (今、このとき) by Hiiragi
One thing struck me about the premiere for this fourth season, and that’s how incredibly busy this episode was. I’m not sure I can ever recall a “Natsume” ep where so much happened – the pacing seemed quite a bit more rushed than I’m used to, and that coupled with the fact that the events of the episode were so, well – eventful – made the whole exercise rather disconcerting in a thrilling sort of way. Heck, we’ve even opened a season with a two-parter (at least) and those have been pretty rare in the history of this show.
The re-introduction to things was rather brief, a wise choice and probably a reflection of the fact that this hiatus was by far the shortest the series has had at only one season. The impression is one of a new season that will be very much in line with the third rather than the first two. What does that mean? More focus on the humans in Natsume’s world, and less on the youkai. More confrontational storylines, both between Natsume and the youkai he encounters and more generally between humans and youkai. And more storylines, period – the trend has been away from the wistful and episodic style of the first two cours and towards a more traditional three-act narrative structure with action, conflict and resolution.
What we did see quite a bit of in this premiere was the Book of Friends itself, which was AWOL for most of “San”. In fact it was crucial to the plot, as a band of monkey-faced youkai tried to kidnap Natsume in order the steal the Book of Friends from him. Nyanko-sensei came to the rescue just in time (is it me, or does he look fatter than ever?) but these youkai behave differently than most Natsume (and we) interact with. They band together, working as a unit to try and capture Natsume and the Book. They don’t think twice about marching right into Natsume’s classroom and attacking him. And when they finally do succeed in abducting him, they tell him that they need the Book for their master, so he can restore their forest.
Things get more complicated when Matoba arrives on the scene, scattering the youkai and capturing one. It really seems as if Matoba is going to be set up as a true recurring villain this season, something that was hinted at in “San”. I’m not sure Natsume Yuujinchou needs a traditional top boss but it looks as if it’s getting one, as there’s talk of a larger plan to capture both powerful youkai and humans for some sort of master plan whose details are not made clear, though Nyanko does mention that the exorcism business seems to be in a recession like the rest of the Japanese economy. Matoba is even revealed to have a secret base deep in the woods, but there’s no Menma or Poppo here – just a lot of cages and servant youkai and Matoba’s human servants (including Nanase) prowling the halls of the old mansion, to which Natsume and Nyanko have been taken as prisoners.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how all this plays out, as this felt quite unlike any episode to date. Matoba’s arrival cast the monkey-faced youkai in a somewhat different light, as it appears their master needs the Book of Friends to try and fight him, and the moral subtlety of the human-youkai relationship that’s so crucial to the series at least looks to have survived. Natsume has certainly retained the welcome closeness he developed with his human friends, even relying on Taki and Tanuma a little. Tanuma even reveals that he asked Natsume directly why he never told the Fujiwaras his secret, and the answer is heartbreaking if not surprising (this has the feel of foreshadowing the series ending). It’s interesting to note that the OP focuses mostly on Natsume in his elementary-school form, even pairing chibi-Natsume with Nyanko-sensei. Is this purely symbolic, are does it foretell a greater role for flashbacks (and an unsuspected meeting) in the series? Kogitsune is in there too, which is a good sign. I’ve heard nothing to confirm my suspicion that “San” was scheduled so soon after “Shi” so that the anime and manga might end simultaneously, but this first ep certainly had the air of grave and conclusive events to come.
ED: “Takaramono” (たからもの) by Marina Kawano