All in all this might have been my favorite “exorcist episode” of Natsume Yuujinchou. It seemed to capture the inherent pathos of this thread of the series as its predecessors have generally failed to, without getting too bogged down in the conventional plotting too common to this face of the show. Straight-ahead conflict-resolution, good/evil storylines don’t show off Natsume Yuujinchou at its best as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what most of the exorcist arcs (especially featuring Matoba) have been.
Not this one, though. The one-off story itself was excellent, but it also highlighted the unique and tenuous position Natsume finds himself in. He’s balanced between worlds in a way no one else in this cast is. He’s certainly not an exorcist, yet they’re the only large bloc of his own species that can truly understand what his existence is like. But for all the sympathy he has with youkai – and for all that they’re drawn to him and his power – he’s certainly not one of them either.
I would argue that Natsume’s sympathies perhaps lie more with youkai than humans, but he’s still an outsider in their world – the problem is, he’s an outsider in the human world too. And those sympathies may lead to an eventual confrontation (or at least falling out) with the human closest to being his mentor, Natori-san. Matoba is easy to dislike, because he makes no bones about his callous disregard for youkai. Natori is different – he puts a smiling face on the world of exorcists, but make no mistake, he’s one of them. His loyalties lie with them, and his demeanor if anything makes him that much more dangerous both to youkai and to Natsume.
I find Natori’s declaration that he wants Natsume to live a “normal” life quite chilling. In many ways I think the most fundamental question at the heart of Natsume Yuujinchou is simple: would Natsume give up the ability to see youkai, given that choice? At one time he certainly would have – but now? Would Takuma-san wish to have that ability back, if he could? Takuma’s story is a sad one in its own right, but I think he’s a quite intentional parallel with Natsume. Takuma’s problems stem from the fact that he’s lost the ability to see youkai. His daughter’s decision to put up talismans (clumsily) has left one of her father’s familiars, Ginro, trapped inside the house while the other two, Jinbe and Benihimo, are trapped outside.
This is pretty heartbreaking, really. Ginro has dedicated herself to protecting Takuma, but the other two are more simple-minded, and have mistaken the situation to mean that Takuma has decided they’re no longer useful. Natori – ever the exorcist – has defaulted to the idea that they want to kill their former master so they can be free. But Natsume looks deeper and sees the truth – even the two familiars locked out of the house just want to be able to talk to Takuma again, and to be useful. Jinbe is only calling disaster down on the house because he’s convinced himself that if he shows Takuma he’s powerful enough to dispel it, Takuma will allow him back into his world (and his house).
This is pretty touch and go for a while. Natori argues that Takuma should allow the two familiars to be exorcised, as they represent a threat to his daughter. And his words are seductive, because he’s offering the easiest path. What makes Natsume who he is, though, is that he doesn’t choose the easy path but the right one (which in his case is invariably more difficult). He takes it upon himself to build trust with Ginro, and then to perform the Ritual of Release – a spell which Natori has warned him not to attempt but which Nyanko-sensei informs us is easy for someone with Natsume’s power.
This is not such a happy ending, really – freed, Jinbe and Benihimo find it too painful to be around a master who can no longer see them, and depart. But they’ve been given a choice – by Natsume, who recognizes that they have every bit as much right to exist and be free to choose as their master does. Ginro, of course, stays – and will, until Takuma’s death frees her. And Natori, not content to have counseled the crueler path and been proved wrong, reveals to his familiars that he suspects Natsume is in possession of something of great power. You can interpret that in a number of ways, but the essence of it is that he’s planning to steal the Book of Friends from Natsume – for Natsume’s own good, of course. People like exorcists can always twist morals around to make themselves seem as if they’re righteous, but the truth of the matter seems pretty stark to me. And that truth is that Natori and his ilk are far more unfit to possess the Book than Natsume – in fact, I can think of few more fit to possess it…