Dammit, Natsume Yuujinchou – don’t you ever get tired of winning?
Yes, I was a little biased in favor of this episode, as it used a couple of my absolute favorite pieces of music from the splendiferously great Natsume Yuujinchou soundtrack. That includes the rarely-heard “Daidaiiro no Toki” by Yoshimori Makoto (which may be my favorite piece of anime BGM of all time), who was basically the house composer for Brain’s Base for a decade. We sometimes forget how important the music (much of it by Yoshimori-sensei) is to the magic of Natsume Yuujinchou, an anime that relies on atmosphere as much as any in recent memory.
Even setting that aside, though, this was a real winner of an episode. It’a always nice to see episodes focused on Reiko, who’s such a huge part of the tapestry of this series, yet is rarely seen. It’s interesting that we’ve had several episodes this season which have focused on characters other than Natsume, certainly more than usual. It plays into the growing feeling I’ve had for some time that Midorikawa-sensei is laying the groundwork for the endgame of Natsume Yuujinchou, taking pains to place everything in the mythology into context – though at this point that’s based purely on my supposition and not on hard evidence.
We’ve certainly had more than our share of youkai who came searching for Reiko in order to eat her and/or get their name back – and indeed, this episode started with an enormous one intent on doing just that. But for all her rough exterior, we’ve already seen ample proof that Reiko’s relationship with youkai was no less nuanced than Natsume’s. And when a youkai shows up looking for her the next night, a cute little forest-dweller named Gomochi who’s come not for his name or his fame, but simply to thank Reiko. And he proceeds to tell Natsume and Nyanko-sensei the tale of why.
It’s impossible, even now, not to be struck by how different in personality Reiko and Takashi are. She’s all bravado and disdain, he’s as kind and deferential as it gets. But their connection to the youkai world is equally strong. I think it’s been long-established that the reason Reiko compiled the Book of Friends was to give herself a connection to something – because she certainly has no connection to anyone and anything in the human world (at any point where we’ve seen her that is, which is before she met Natsume’s grandfather). She seeks out youkai, in effect picks fights with them, then exits when the connection threatens to grow too strong (I think the saddest moment of the ep came when she told Gomochi she “can’t feel relaxed in a forest where she knows people”.
As you’d expect, the children of the forest are surprised that this child of man who can see them keeps coming to their forest and bossing them around. But one of them, Gomochi, is a brave little soul and asks Reiko to help with a crisis – the two most powerful youkai in the forest, Senki and Hyakko, are feuding (and destroying the forest in the process). Tsundere Reiko is reluctant to wade in but Gomochi wears her down, and when she does she realizes that the two ayakashi are holding the beautiful Kibune as a prisoner – with the stronger of the two to marry her (which is what they’re fighting about). So she challenges them to fight, with the stakes being Kibune’s freedom if she wins, and Reiko being eaten if she loses.
We’ve seen Reiko outsmarting youkai before – which is what happens with Senki. But with Hyakko, it’s something different – Reiko is outsmarted for once and boxed into a match she can’t win, collecting lucky three-nut chestnuts. So she has to rely on the humble youkai of the forest to help her, and on persuasion rather than coercion. This is without question the most connected we’ve seen Reiko in any of the flashbacks – it’s clear to see an attachment has formed between she and the locals, who come to her aid by collecting bag after bag of chestnuts for the competition.
What’s the larger message here? Well, apart from Takashi getting a rare chance to hear about his grandmother (and in a wholly new light) perhaps it’s that the way forward for Natsume is through preserving his connections with the youkai world and making new ones, not by retreating into the human one. The other reason Gomochi has come is to tell Reiko that he and Kibune have fallen in love while searching fruitlessly for Reiko, and are to be wed. And seeing Natsume and Nyanko-sensei attend the wedding – where Natsume gets a chance to bask in the bonhomie and happiness Reiko was responsible for – is a truly upbeat way to end this heartwarming and optimistic episode.