When it comes to me and Natsume Yuujinchou, time is an elastic concept.
OP: “Takarabako“(タカラバコ) by sasanomaly
There’s nothing in my life, anime or otherwise, quite like Natsume Yuujinchou. Over the years I’ve noted certain similarities between this series and Mushishi, to the effect that Natsume is the warm side and Mushishi the cool side of the same coin. There are many common traits between these shows, I would argue, but perhaps a sense of timelessness is the most important. It’s many-faceted with Mushishi, and much more literal. With Natsume Yuujinchou it manifests itself most strongly for me on a personal level, in that the series always manages to take me back to the same emotional place no matter how much time has passed. This is one of the first anime I loved, and I’m always that same fan whenever I watch it.
Some things have changed with Natsume Yuujinchou, in fact. Director Omori Takahiro has left Brain’s Base for Shuka, taking its signature franchise series and most of its key staff with him (he’s promoted Natsume veteran and Gin no Saji director Deai Kotomi to a co-director role on “Go”). And perhaps the animation isn’t quite at the same level it was in earlier versions, though given that Omori and his team are still in charge and that Shuka just delivered its finest work by far in 91 Days, I’m not much worried about substance. And the series took some different turns in Natsume Yuujinchou Shi, focusing more on Natsume’s human relationships and becoming more conflict-driven.
For all that, the experience of meeting the series again with this premiere is very much stepping into a time machine. Omori and longtime Natsume writer Murai Sadayuki have chosen to open with a very low-key and quintessentially “Natsume-rashii” episode, focused on a youkai named Kayatsubo who lives inside a clay pot (which may actually be her body) and goes to sleep every day when the sun sets. Like so many youkai we’ve met over the first four seasons she mistakes Natsume for his grandmother Reiko, whom she calls “Reiko the thief”. She demands Natsume return what Reiko stole from her – her “treasure” – or she’ll take away Natsume’s own treasure (which is of course Touko and Shigeru).
We’ll get back to that story, but I want to talk about the subtext for a minute because I suspect that was the clue as to what the main thread of this season might be. Reiko has always been a major presence in Natsume Yuujinchou (sometimes more literally than others) and the tea leaves say that something we’ve been slowly building towards is finally going to happen. Namely, Natsume is finally going to seriously try and learn more about Reiko’s life – and death. He actually approaches an adult from his dark days when he spots her on the street to ask for information, despite his obvious discomfort. And we learn than Reiko gave birth to Natsume’s mother out of wedlock, and that the whole family was considered “not right in the head”. I suspect Reiko’s past is going to be a major theme of “Go”.
Still – one thing that Natsume Yuujinchou (like Mushishi) is remarkably good at is telling complete little stories every week. Each of these self-contained episodes has an arc – a beginning, middle and end, and themes all to themselves. The vary in quality of course, but the best of them are truly remarkable and they almost always feel complete and satisfying. And so it was here, as Natsume learns the truth of the interaction between Reiko and Kayatsubo and meets a couple of helpful youkai (large and small) who help him get to that truth. We also see Nyanko-sensei turn fiercely protective when the Fujiwara house comes under threat, further evidence he’s come to think of it as a home every bit as much as Natsume does.
In the end, it all boils down to this – it feels wonderful to go back to the place Natsume Yuujinchou (and only Nastume Yuujinchou) takes me. I must especially praise Inoue Kazuhiko – one of the best ever generally speaking – because his performance as Nyanko-sensei/Madara is one of the very finest and most layered in anime history. We also get a little glimpse of Kogitsune in the OP, which makes me dream that we might just get another “Little Fox” episode at long last (I can feel the tears welling up already) – he has a couple of appearances in the manga that haven’t been adapted yet and hope springs eternal…
ED: “Akane Sasu“(茜さす) by Aimer