If you’ll forgive me for saying so, this was one of the oddest episodes I can recall in four seasons of the series. Not in a bad way, mind, but still off – for “Natsume” is a series that always seems to retain a very recognizable feel to itself in all of it’s shadings and styles. This ep was by far the coldest, most distant and disquieting of any I recall. Even the visual style was different, featuring more still camera shots and a more minimal cinematography. There was less BGM than normal, too, and the quiet was a presence in and of itself. It was a very unsettling experience for me, as this is normally a show that thrives on familiarity and consistency.
To say this was different from what I was expecting coming off last week’s heart-melting trip into the past is an understatement. In a sense, this was Natsume being forced to confront everything that he hates and fears – about himself, about his gift, and about the impact he has on others. Imagine being a child whose monster under the bed was real – and then being forced as a teenager to confront it again. This was deeply uncomfortable for Natsume and thus, for us – it’s very easy to understand why he’s always so reluctant to even think about that part of his life. It was already something we were aware of intellectually, but I don’t think we’ve ever been forced to feel it so viscerally. I won’t say it was enjoyable, but it was powerful.
The thing is, as always, there are kind people trying to do the right thing, and the relatives Natsume must visit to get the key to his father’s house are such people. Miyoko was a little girl jealous of the strange little boy who stole kindness from her parents and frightened of his odd behavior, and her parents quite simply kind but unprepared to deal with the baggage Natsume brought with him. In that way he was really a special needs child who was bounced from relative to relative, and not only was his “condition” undiagnosed but he couldn’t even admit it. In this case specifically there was the added complication of the Mushikui, the shadowy bug-eater youkai living in their house, one of the creepiest creatures in the Natsume Yuujinchou lexicon. In addition to forcing the child – and adolescent – Natsume into odd behavior, it tries to coax him into drawing it a mouth so it can devour the relatives living in the house. Nyanko-sensei saves Natsume, but being who he is, he can’t leave his relatives to eventually succumb to darkness at the creature’s instigation, and he draws it away with him despite the risk.
We don’t hear about it enough, but Inoue Kazuhiko’s performance as Nyanko-sensei is truly one of the marvels of modern anime. If this is the series that sets the bar for consistency, then his work her is the performance that does. We take it for granted that his Nyanko is probably the funniest week-in, week-out role in anime – it’s a given. But Inoue-san brings so much to this role, so many subtleties and shadings and so much depth. The scene where he goes into full-on “cat mode” to save Natsume from the mushikui without revealing Natsume’s secret is subtly, quietly an amazing piece of acting. Only seconds later Nyanko transforms into Madara, and Inoue-san nails the gravity and dignity and power of that mythical ayakashi’s presence. He’s hilarious when he pleads for udon, wise and grave when concerned for Natsume’s well-being. This is a great seiyuu giving a great performance week after week, and I hope people realize just what a miracle that performance is.
Now we’re left with one episode before our next break, and Natsume in some trouble – after apparently having been attacked and/or possessed by the mushikui. I hope we do finally get to his father’s house, and we’re able to see the impact that experience has on Natsume. This series has always elected codas to end seasons rather than cliffhangers, and I see no reason to expect them to change that now, with no date set for he first and possibly final season. While this episode certainly showed off the range of Omori-sensei and the Brain’s Base team, this isn’t the sort of mood piece that would serve well as a season-ender, and I hope next week’s finale returns to a more traditional feel.