There are definitely times when I worry about the production capacity of Studio Shuka, despite the fact that they’re starting to amass a nice body of work. I loved 91 Days, but as you know if you watched it, not only did it feature an unscheduled recap episode but also some alarming lapses in production quality. And last week Natsume Yuujinchou Go offered up a re-airing of the unexceptional 2013 “Nyanko-sensei to Hajimete no Otsukai” OAD (which I blogged). I have no idea if that was planned or not, but one-cour anime based on existing source material really shouldn’t need mid-cour breaks under normal circumstances.
If one goes back and looks at the earlier Natsume Yuujinchou material from Brain’s Base, there’s no question that the fluidity and consistency of the animation and background detail has taken a bit of a hit under Shuka. It’s not drastic, and this is still Natsume Yuujinchou under the hood (where it counts), but it is noticeable. I hope it’s not the sort of thing that puts off the disc-buying public (with this series it’s mostly a female audience, who tend to be less focused on animation and more on content than male fans on the whole), because Natsume has been an alarmingly consistent seller from the first season on, and I really want to see this series have a conclusion in anime form once the manga wraps up.
This week’s episode is kind of an interesting hybrid, something of a stylistic mix between the two personalities which dominate Natsume Yuujinchou. It was definitely a youkai-centric episode, but it had a linear conflict-resolution plot we’re more likely to see in the exorcist-driven eps. This time around Natsume, Tanuma, Nishimura and Kitamoto take a trip to the mountains, where Tanuma’s family is renovating an onsen ryokan they’ve purchased. The first half of the episode is dominated by whimsical humor, as his family and a local woman named Ito-san embarrass Tanuma by calling him “-chan” (as Yahiko would tell you, boys hate that), and Nyanko-sensei gets up to his usual scene-stealing.
This is fun stuff – I especially connected to Ito-san and the candy, because I found old ladies in the Japanese countryside to be curiously obsessed with giving youngsters (to them) candy. But things do take a somewhat more serious note, both in the concern everyone has for Tanuma after what was clearly a frail and lonely childhood, and when an uninvited guest shows up at the inn (where the boys are helping out with the renovation). My first thought was that it might be a Zashiki-Warashi, but it turns out to be a spirit who steals one of the masks which hold the key to power during the upcoming shrine matsuri.
Ito-san is really the key to this story, and she’s kind of a classic Natsume Yuujinchou character. A guardian spirit attached to the shrine, she’s taken on human form to make it easier to blend in and watch over the local area. She’s kind of scary (she threatens to eliminate Natsume and anyone he tells of her existence) but in fact, she very much cares for the locals – especially Tanuma. It’s yet another case of a human and youkai not quite able to bridge the divide in their existence – Tanuma thinks so much of Ito-san that he’s come back mostly to show her that he’s OK now and has friends, but she never reveals the secret of her true identity to him.
It’s only after Natsume helps get the mask back and swears that he’ll never tell that Ito-san seemingly agrees not to leave the town to protect her identity, but perhaps even she doesn’t realize that Tanuma has begun to suspect the truth about her. As is so often the case with Natsume Yuujinchou, the moral of the story is that kindness is not bound by identity – humans and youkai are capable of being just as good to each other as they are to others of their own kind, and even coming to love each other. I still feel that’s what the series will settle on, whenever Midorikawa-sensei is really to spin its final tale.