It’s a bit of a cliche (by definition) to say “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, but it really applies to Natsume Yuujinchou. This franchise just keeps rolling along, year after year. The manga remains a huge seller, the anime does remarkably well on disc considering how many sequels it’s generated, and the feelings it engenders never really seem to change all that much. Every time I watch an episode I’m transported back to being the anime fan I was when I first watched this show, all those years ago.
I’m not certain whether this is an anime-original episode, though it seems likely as most of the OVA/specials have been, but even here the remarkable record of consistency Natsume has built up holds. There’s been a range of quality with these (peaking with the sublime “Yuki no Hi”) but as with the anime-original TV episodes, they’ve tended to be every bit the equal of the canon material. This Kakurenbo-themed story maintains the tradition – it’s not quite the emotional powerhouse the first “Go” OVA was, but it’s still excellent.
I thought the thread of this ep was going to follow Nyanko-sensei as he attended his special banquet. It was a rare thing indeed that he invited Natsume, and I was rather disappointed that he declined – and pleased that he seemed to change his mind. But while trying to catch up to Nyanko-sensei Natsume wanders into an old mansion called “Kaiyuutei“, seemingly deserted but clearly occupied by youkai. It turns out that a powerful youkai named Yuuzuru (Okamoto Nobuhiko, a rare big-name contemporary seiyuu in a guest starring role in this series) is conducting one of his periodic “games” – a kakurenbo challenge with control over the valley at stake (he never loses). On a whim he invites Natsume to play along, with rather exhausting results for the child of man.
There are definitely some creepy moments here, especially when Yuuzuru stalks Natsume in his dreams, but never a sense that he’s truly evil – just mischievous. With his protector missing the Dog Circle takes over Natsume’s bodyguard role, and this is highly amusing (I don’t remember Hinoe ever being quite so aggressive, but I guess Madara’s absence emboldened her). Most interesting here is the way they encourage Natsume to take Yuuzuru up on the challenge and fight to become the local boss – it’s couched in humor, but there’s clearly a subtext. Natsume is a being of exceptional spiritual power, and my most standards he’s kind of wasting it. And if he ever decides to exert it, it would probably be desirable to be in his good graces…