If there was one element to this week’s ep that stood out, it was the chance to see Natsume through the eyes of another – something quite rare in the 3+ seasons of the series, though “San” dealt quite a bit with Natsume’s past. In this case that “another” was Ogata Yuriko (Itou Shizuka, wonderful as always), a classmate of Natsume’s sometime during his middle school days. We’ve seen this story play out in general terms, mostly last season, but it was interesting to see it through Yuriko’s eyes. Natsume arrives as a transfer student, carrying an unjustly bad reputation with him, and his odd behavior soon isolates him from his classmates, gets him in trouble with the school and turns his guardians against him.
Yuriko is the variable in the tale this time, both in the narrative structure (she narrates the first half of the episode) and in the story itself. Yuriko’s first impression of Natsume isn’t good – she finds him sleeping at a shrine and when he wakes up, he screams and kicks her. But Yuriko – while a terrible student (she goes to shrines to pray every time she flunks a test) – is an empathetic and curious girl, and she sense both Natsume’s kindness and his pain. As she gradually gets to know him, Yuriko realizes that Natsume has something strange that follows him, and even comes pretty close to putting the pieces together.
As for Natsume, he’s troubled in this phase of his childhood by a youkai he calls “Black Scythe”. When Natsume saves a tiny youkai he calls a clingbug (Nyanko-sensei later identifies it as a suneko) the infuriated youkai puts a curse on Natsume, telling him that he or someone close to him will die, but if Natsume can hide from him for thirty days the curse would be lifted. This is the cause of much of the odd behavior witnessed by Yuriko and the others, and while it’s fairly obvious to the audience that the youkai is toying with Natsume and the “curse” is probably bogus, Natsume is a gullible and beaten-down middle-schooler, and he refuses to flee the town and let the curse fall on another. It’s only when he’s about to be shuffled to yet another guardian that Black Scythe reveals the truth – there is no curse, and he was merely bullying Natsume because ha hates humans as it was part of his duty as a Shrine Guardian to take human misfortunes unto himself.
While the overall episode was very low-key and lacked the elegiac quality of the last two, it was still a novel twist on the Natsume Yuujinchou and had its powerful moments. Yuriko was a likeable character, and it was nice to see there was more to Black Scythe than an evil youkai. In fact, it seems very obvious that he was the one who saved Yuriko from being hit by a truck in the episode’s first scene – though whether he did it as part of his duties or because his encounter with Natsume – during which he saw Yuriko – softened his heart just a little. Given that he’d told Natsume that he “used to be” the Shrine Guardian, my guess is it was the latter – another youkai life touched by Natsume’s kindness in a small way, and a human life saved as a result.