There was a bit of a tease factor here, knowing we were going back in time to the heyday of Natsume Reiko’s “reign of terror” over the local youkai community. Reiko is something of a holy grail for fans, a character who must be near the top of the list for anime characters most discussed while being least seen. But present or past the series took the same approach, alluding to her frequently, but using her only indirectly in the story. Instead the focus remained on Nanase, Matoba’s subordinate, and it’s digging pretty deep into the character bag to build an ep around her. She’s well-down the second tier in terms of screen time and importance to the story, and hasn’t exacted been a terribly sympathetic figure either.
I won’t claim this ranked as one of the most compelling episodes, but in telling Nanase’s story it did manage to cast her character in a new light by showing us the difficulty a young exorcist faces emotionally. Set in a time when Nanase (played as a young girl by Nagata Yoriko) in an exorcist-in-training about 14 years-old, we see a very different Nanase from the one that exists in Takashi’s time. She’s still struggling with the emotional attachment to the youkai she interacts with, despite the urgings of her father (Bifu Hitoshi) to be all business. This softness of heart causes her to release an evil youkai from a trap when a small tengu with butterfingers (Ueda Yuji, Sanoksuke from Rurouni Kenshin) is inadvertently caught as well. Things are looking grime for chibi-Nanase until a strong exorcist named Mikage (Kiuchi Hidenobu) shows up to save the day.
What follows is a pretty orthodox Natsume Yuujinchou fable about how blurry the lines between good and evil, and the human and youkai world, can be. In the present-day both Nanase and Kotengu’s thoughts have turned to Mikage, who turned out to be a youkai who was created from a chunk of jade who absorbed the evil of the youkai he sealed until he could no longer control it, and he begged Nanase to seal him after Reiko refused. Nanase and Nyanko-sensei meet at the bottom of an old well where Mikage purified the youkai he sealed, looking for Mikage himself, now a hunk of jade again – but Kotengu has already found him and dropped him, and seeks Natsume’s help in retrieving and ultimately freeing Mikage from his burden.
If anything this seems like yet another allegory about Natsume’s possible futures, increasingly the preoccupation of this season. Young Nanase, like Takashi, curses the gift she’s been given but can’t help feel an emotional connection to the youkai she meets (a connection which still exists in her despite all the terrible things she’s done in Matoba’s service, as witness her concern for Mikage). She chose a darker path and ultimately became the woman her father probably hoped, but Natsume still must forge his own way, with many different models to offer guidance (and warnings). It was an effective episode considering that Nanase is not nearly the charismatic lead that Natsume is, though perhaps this show is a victim of its own track record here. After an absolutely stellar run of episodes to start the season, the last month’s have only been average by Natsume Yuujinchou’s elite standard – interesting and involving, but not touching the soul the way this show can at its best.