Natsume and his human friends begin this episode by visiting a massive dam constructed over a former village. The mere fact of Natsume’s presence on this trip implies things have changed for him – from largely being known as that weird, quiet kid who seems to see things, he’s now got stable friends who invite him on stuff like fishing trips. Natsume is growing up, both through his experiences with youkai and his experiences with all the humans around him.
Unfortunately for Natsume’s friends, a lack of rain has left the dam dry. In the mud and silt at the bottom, the three of them can see the remains of Futaba Village, which was covered over to allow for the dam. The village is an inherent reminder of the fragility of the old world, and is immediately linked to the presence of youkai. In one of the show’s more visually evocative sequences yet, Natsume’s recognition of a youkai down below leads directly to his possession, marked by the blustering wind, birds in flight, and a feather falling from the sky above.
Natsume’s trip ends in him collapsing with what’s presumably heatstroke, but he soon finds his trip to Futaba has made him some new friends. After dispensing a few more names, he learns the truth of the spirit who possessed him, who was lead to do so by her desperation to find some human. Apparently, this youkai was once a demon, but the human Taniozaki left her food every day. His kindness and eventual disappearance tether the power of the natural world to Natsume’s other core theme – Taniozaki managed to establish a connection with the youkai Tsubame, but all our connections are ultimately fragile things.
Natsume’s conversations with Tsubame seem quite different from his previous youkai-assisting quests. From her appearance to her feelings and personality, Tsubame seems closer to humanity than Natsume’s other charges, and Natsume responds to this relatability by becoming far more vulnerable and attached himself. Tsubame treats him with slight deference, but is still willing to actually trade barbs with him (“you’re so kind. That’s why people take advantage of you”). And Natsume finds himself stumbling over his words, regretting poorly phrased ideas in a way that demonstrates he actually wants to become closer to this woman.
Tsubame’s full story naturally reflects the ambiguity and difficulty of connections across worlds. Born as a sparrow, she fell from her nest, but was rescued by a human. Unfortunately, the human scent on her made her parents abandon their nest, and so she and her siblings eventually starved. Reborn as a demon, her connection with Taniozaki helped her find peace. And now, with Taniozaki gone, she’s tethered to the lake bed, captive to the shifts of human constructions even as she yearns to reunite with the human who helped her.
Natsume ultimately leads Tsubame to a reunion with Taniozaki, but feels unfulfilled by her attempts to get the attention of her youkai-oblivious savior. This, too, is a shift for Natsume – from the bitter rejection of his gift at the start, he now feels frustrated that other humans can’t see the creatures he can. Natsume is no longer simply looking for someone to share his painful experience; he wants other people to be able to connect with youkai for the simple reason that these connections are meaningful and worthwhile. And so even as Tsubame accepts her sad fate, Natsume works to truly let the two reunite.
Natsume gets his chance with the Festival of Futaba, where youkai meet to drink, gamble, and compete in a grand race. The winner of that race gets a yukata that allows them to take human form for one night, and Natsume is determined to win it. Though it turns out the youkai who invited Natsume to the festival actually wanted to eat him, Natsume just can’t help but make more friends – his passion reminds his guide of Reiko’s own confidence, and Nyanko can’t help but assist his charge in grabbing the yukata. Like Natsume, Nyanko also seems to be falling into another world in spite of himself, drawn by the natural allure of coming to know another.
In the end, Tsubame finally does succeed in spending time with her human. Learning his plan was a success, Natsume actually breaks out in tears, demonstrating the closeness he felt during his brief friendship. Much of Natsume’s experience so far has been defined by loneliness, and by a desperation to find anyone who can relate to his feelings. But in his friendship with Tsubame, it seems Natsume may be finding a new way forward – a confidence that even if no one is precisely like him, he can still reach out and connect with all the wondrous people around him.
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