Natsume’s Book of Friends got intense this episode! After three episodes of melancholy pastoral fantasy tinged with slight danger, this episode dipped directly into horror and even action territory for the first time. The results were as uneven as you might expect, but I appreciate the show branching out, and doubly appreciate an extension of the central cast. Loneliness might be one of Natsume’s fundamental themes, but Natsume doesn’t need to be lonely all the time.
The episode opened with chirping cicadas, that well-worn indicator of summer heat. As Natsume walked to school, he ran into a kappa baking in the sun. Apparently, kappas in this world aren’t really as dangerous as the traditional kind – Natsume didn’t seem particularly worried about having his intestines dragged out through his anus, and instead just poured water on the poor creature’s head (at least the “must keep their head-pool damp” part of the legend seems intact). But Natsume’s confrontation with this creature was observed by Sasada, the class representative, and the episode quickly turned to her pushing Natsume to join his classmates on a test of courage at the run-down school building.
From then on, basically the entirety of this episode took place inside the dilapidated schoolhouse. Natsume has had exciting moments before, but the combination of time/spacial constraints and lurking danger meant this was the first episode with a consistent sense of suspense and urgency. It’s to Natsume’s credit that such spices haven’t felt necessary until now – like Mushishi, the fundamental wonder of the spiritual world and the ways spiritual concerns reflect on human nature are more than enough to keep the show stuffed with rewarding material.
In contrast with prior episodes’ ambiguous but often friendly spirits, this episode was haunted by a legitimately malevolent ghost. Old staples like the long shot down the school hall or the silent student lurking in the corridor created a strong sense of creeping horror, as Natsume’s fellow students all ended up abducted by the building’s master. And as it turned out, Sasada basically already knew the whole truth – confronted with her accusations, Natsume was only saved when Nyanko smacked Sasada in the head.
Pratfalls and convenient knockouts honestly feel pretty out of place in Natsume’s Book of Friends. The show generally has a low-key tone and a consistent sense of dramatic consequence, so letting Natsume get away with his secret on the basis of cartoon logic felt like a bit much. On top of that, it felt a little unbelievable that Natsume would be so desperate to keep Sasada from knowing the truth. Natsume has clearly been scarred by the many people who’ve abandoned him in the past, but that hasn’t expressed itself as a fear of new connections. In fact, Natsume spent basically all of the previous episode seeking someone he could truly talk to – but apparently, merely sympathizing with his powers isn’t enough to convince him someone can be trusted.
This episode was also hamstrung by the fact that the show simply doesn’t have the visual resources to convey any sort of intense visual drama. Natsume and a classmate tumbling down the stairs was conveyed through a single shot of the stairs being shaken up and down, along with a shot of the ceiling being spun in circles. Nyanko’s later dramatic rescue was conveyed through a single frame, oversaturated with light and held for far too long. Working within your means is a frank necessity of anime production, and as long as Natsume’s Book of Friends can’t rub more than a handful of key frames together, it’s not going to be able to create a convincing action highlight.
That said, Sasada’s story still reflected on Natsume’s core themes in a satisfying way. Apparently, Sasada once participated in a test of courage at the same building back in middle school, where she lost a precious charm. Returning to the building alone, Sasada was ultimately helped by the spirit Shigure, and now wished only to thank him. Sasada’s story echoed the trials of episode two, though the consequences here were much more dire. Confronted with the selfishness of mankind, Shigure wished to actively kill humans – and was only stopped by recognition of Sasada’s undeniable wish for emotional connection.
In the end, what most struck me about this episode was Natsume’s apparent growth. Natsume has been a charitable person all through this series, but there’s always a hint of bitterness in his actions, and none of that appeared here. Being put in a legitimately threatening situation seemed to bring out the best in him – not only did he risk his own life to help his classmates, but he demonstrated sound judgment in tense situations from start to finish. It seems like Natsume may actually be growing into someone worthy of bearing the book of friends.
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