Ah, Natsume Yuujinchou – you’re so damn good when you stick with what you’re best at…
I’m seriously worried about sounding like a broken record when it comes to Natsume Yuujinchou. I know I absolutely repeat myself when it comes to this series, but I can’t help it – the same pattern repeats itself over and over. And it seems like more and more over the past couple of seasons, Natsume has cleanly broken down into the two types of episodes I’ve discussed so often – more so than in the first three seasons, where they were more often integrated (though more youkai-focused on the whole).
Listen, I know this episode was derivative of earlier Natsume episodes – just as the best episodes of this show often are. But I don’t care, and this is what I’ve discovered after a lifetime as an anime fan walking the narrow path with Natsume Yuujinchou – I don’t need convention from this series. I don’t need it to innovate, or to break new ground, or to often up compelling conflicts (in fact I think it’s expressly better without conflicts). I don’t need it to do any of the things I normally need a series to do to keep my interest – I just need it to be itself. It’s the familiarity and warmth and bittersweet emotion that I love best about it.
The thing is, I think it’s somewhat paradoxically the youkai episodes that tell us more about Natsume himself than the ones focused on his human circles. The story here can be seen as a parable of Natsume’s existence in a sense. We have a little mushroom youkai named Mitsuzara (who’s insanely cute when he’s wearing his “cap” but looks oddly like Eric Cartman without it) who Natsume almost crushes to death when fleeing a Shel Silverstein-refugee hungry to devour the owner of the Book of Friends. You know how this is going to play our of course, but that’s the charm of it for me – Natsume will get caught up in the little youkai’s plight, and wind up trying to help him.
As is so often the case with these youkai episodes, this is a tale of longing to be with someone despite the fact that they live in a different world. Often that tale is of a youkai and a human, but here it’s between the tiny and humble youkai and a spiritually powerful being named Shuon – an ayakashi following a clearly Buddhist-driven “narrow” spiritual path”. Shuon saves Mitsuzara from a hungry wolf, and the eternally grateful little sprite latches onto him. Shuon gains something from the relationship as well – amusement and a personal connection as a respite on the austere path of devotion he’s chosen to follow. But he knows he must return to that journey and soon, and that Mitsuzara can’t possibly go with him.
The story is of Natsume trying to help Mitsuzara join up with Shuon when his party passes close by to the forest where he lives (I was reminded very much of Kaguyahime no Monogatari watching Shoun disappear on a cloud, leaving Mitsuzara behind), but in truth, the echoes of it can be seen in Natsume’s own life. As Nyanko-sensei says, Mitsuzara and Shuon exist in different worlds. But Natsume dreams that this applies to himself and the Fujiwaras, and this is of course the central pillar of Natsume’s existence – he lives in two different worlds, but never feels truly a part of either one. The youkai and humans he meets often face the divide between their existences, but for Natsume, the divide is his existence itself.
There are some somber elements here, especially given that dream of Natsume’s. But things end on a hopeful note, as Mitsuzara resists the urge to offer up Natsume as a gift to Shuon’s party, unable to bring himself to betray the Child of Man who’s been so kind to him. It’s this, I suspect, that convinces Shuon to give Mitsuzara the chance to endure the spiritual trials necessary to join him – and perhaps it’s a sign that Natsume’s relentless kindness will be its own reward. Next time it seems we’re going to see a glimpse into the Fujiwara’s past, and perhaps just as last season ended with a focus on Natsume’s birth father, this time it will do so with a focus on his spiritual parents.