One of the real miracles of Natsume Yuujinchou is that the “fillers” are so amazingly good – it does them no justice to use that disdainful term for them, in fact. Over the course of the series we’ve seen episodes like “The Little Fox’s Watch” and OVAs like “Itsuka Yuki no Hi” stand as some of the very best material Natsume Yuujinchou has ever produced – and this anime-original (I think) OVA joins the parade. It really shows just how well the Omori Takahiro creative team understand the material – they’ve given this series one of the most attentive and tasteful manga adaptations in anime history.
The essence of great anime-original material, surely, is that it’s true to the spirit of the source material. And this story of the old youkai couple Hizuchi and Hatsuna certainly is that. Natsume seemingly runs across them quite by accident – he saves little Hatsuna (the wife) from a nasty chick-unicorn hybrid youkai. But the fact is that the old couple is here because they were hoping to see Natsume Reiko, the first human they’d ever spoken to. Hatsuna and Hizuchi’s life is traveling the world making the “One Night Cups” – miraculous sake cups that impart a glorious taste to whatever (usually sake) is drunk from them but then turn to dust after one night. Given that Reiko was underage when they met and this is anime, they never had the chance to share a drink with her and were hoping to correct that.
Once again we see the hand of Reiko reach back through time to impact Natsume’s life. She influenced so much while she was alive, just through the sheer force of her personality – not just the youkai she met, but the perception of humans among all the youkai in the region. Hatsuna and Hizuchi are an adorable couple – constantly bickering good-naturedly but clearly loving their life of sharing sake and stories, and each other. But the power to make the one night cups is fading as the youkai themselves fade, and while they’ll surely be around for quite some time in human terms, it’s clear (Nyanko-sensei tells us so anyway) that they’re in the final stages of a very long journey.
This is the sort of tale Natsume Yuujinchou is best at, and better than almost anyone else at that. No conflict, really – this is a love story of many facets. I love the moment when Shigeru reaches automatically for his teacup before it’s actually in front of him, and Touka slides it into place seconds later. Natsume sees this of course, and sees so much of the old youkai in his surrogate parents. Their love for each other is just as deep, and they’ve come to love Natsume too – and he them. Ultimately though, this is the story of Hizuchi and Hatsuma more than anyone. When an opportunity arises (through enchanted spring water that comes to the surface once every twelve years) to weave their magic a little longer Hizuchi’s desire is to use it to (at last) makes cups for himself and his wife. They’ve spent a lifetime sharing their gift – now the old man wants to use what magic remains to him to enrich the life he shares with the woman he loves most.
Natsume Yuujinchou is, almost without fail, better the less it tries to do. Simple is best, as Pokemon Sun and Moon tells us – just a whisper of a plot to weave a symphony of emotion around is all this series needs. I think one of the reasons the original material can be so strong is that Natsume Yuujinchou isn’t driven by plot, or even by characters, but by emotions and ideas. And when the writers understand those emotions and ideas, they can create magic with them – as they’ve proved so often in the past, and do one more time here.