One of my favorite things to do in Japan is to wander the countryside, stopping at every Shrine I see. The mountainsides and forests of Japan are dotted by tens of thousands of tiny Shrines of the type shown in this episode of Natsume Yuujinchou, and while a few of them are similarly neat and well-maintained the vast majority of them are overrun and possibly forgotten. Both types have their story to tell, and for me it’s impossible to look on such places and not have the mind wander, trying to imagine their history. The sense of mystery and the endless span of time is palpable in those moments, and I’ve never felt its like in any other setting.
One of the many contradictions of Japan is that it’s one of the most secular countries in the world in most respects, yet one – even in Tokyo – where ancient spiritual traditions are interwoven almost subconsciously into everyday life. This is true even in modern metropolises like Tokyo, but it seems most alive in rural places – which is why Natsume Yuujinchou sets so many of its stories in such places. Youkai are obviously much more in their element there than in a modern city (when they come to human civilization many problems arise, in fact).
Another thing I love about Japan is how the place names always tell a story. One of my proudest moments when I was a Level I student in Japanese, riding the Chuo Line through Ochanomizu and seeing the sign for the hundredth time, and suddenly thinking “I wonder if there’s some famous water used for tea here or something”, and being right (it was where water for the shogun’s tea was sourced). So when you see a place called “Four Mask Hill” you can bet there’s a story there. Sometimes these stories are lost to time – place names can go back over a thousand years, especially in Western Japan – but surprisingly often they’re still known to this day.
The four masks in this instance belong to the four servants of a mountain Goddess who fell in love with a human man (in the world of Natsume Yuujinchou, the more things change the more they stay the same), and retreated in isolation to the mountaintop. Three of the servants eventually lost their power and faded away, and made masks of their faces so the Goddess would not be further saddened at their demise. But those three are the only masks inside the local Shrine, despite the name – the fourth (I’m almost certain played by Ono Daisuke, who presumably just stuck around the studio after recording Episode 8) still roams the mountainside, and its owner remains behind to protect his mistress.
All this matters to us because Natsume and his schoolmates have gone to an old school on the mountain for a study retreat (Nyanko-sensei has come too, once again stowing away in Natsume’s bag, so he can search for a sake spring). This is not one of those Natsume episodes driven by conflict or threat – there are a few moments of uncertainty when the fourth mask makes its way onto the faces of Natsume’s teacher and a couple of the students (including Nishimura), and the long-haired women floating by in a boat, head submerged, is pretty creepy. But they’re both just looking for something – the hairpin that’s the last remembrance the Goddess has of her long-dead lover, washed away in a torrential rain the night before.
All in all this is one of the simplest Natsume Yuujinchou episodes of them all – but then, this series is often at its best when its at its most simple. Nyanko-sensei spends much of transformed into his piglet guise (and hiding from Taki) and there’s some interaction between Natsume and his friends. But it’s really just the story of that sad Goddess and her final lonely follower, and of the Priest that still comes to keep her Shrine in perfect kit. My favorite moment comes when Natsume asks Tanuma how many masks he sees in the Shrine – I was convinced it would be four for a moment, but the faithful servant has stayed behind once more. The trend this season has been positive relations between humans and youkai, and this episode continues it – but it looks like the two-part finale is going to focus on Natori’s attempts to steal the Book of Friends from Natsume, so things could get considerable more conventional.