Natsume’s twelfth episode opens with a shot of a half moon, hanging silently in the sky. We’re given no context for this moon at first, but eventually, it comes to feel like a kind of clock, ticking away Natsume’s remaining hours with each slice removed. In this episode, Natsume is cursed by a youkai, and his arm branded with the “Five Day Mark.” Natsume must fight back against a creature that only wants to destroy him, and must enlist new allies to survive his trial.
Natsume’s usual mode is a kind of peaceful, meditative fantasy, where youkai engage in warm personal stories much like any other character drama. For this episode, the show moves back into its secondary mode of fantasy horror – something that, in the past, has been hampered by the show’s generally mediocre visual execution. That’s not really a problem with this episode – not only is this an inherently engaging story, but the visual execution also feels up to the task of illustrating some of Natsume’s most evocative ideas yet.
Some of this episode’s strength comes down to its excellent management of atmosphere. The fantasy grove where Natsume is first cursed offers a fine example. After parting from his friends, Natsume finds himself wandering in unfamiliar foliage, with a stark shift from fall colors to dark greens implying lurking danger. The show’s usual light soundtrack cuts away, and all we hear is the croak of a frog trapped in a spider’s web. The fundamental dramatic variables of the sequence imply danger and consequence, as if to say that Natsume freeing this frog means he must now take its place. It thus feels totally natural and almost inevitable that Natsume is then cursed by a lurking youkai.
That sense of tragic inevitability carries through into the overall plot of the episode. As the curse drains more and more energy from Natsume, he finds himself followed by a dark shadow, the youkai’s grim representative. In contrast with the awkward action sequences of the haunted school trip, Natsume’s shade presents a visceral sense of lurking danger. This show can’t really handle ambitious visual setpieces, but using visual touchstones like this shadow to create a sense of consistent, inevitable threat is an effective alternative.
It also helps that this episode understands Nyanko and true danger are pretty much incompatible variables. Natsume has established and consistently reiterated the fact that Nyanko is a real powerhouse of a youkai, effortlessly able to dispatch most threats to his companion. In a more dedicated action or horror show, Nyanko’s power would be a serious detriment to the drama, but Natsume’s Book of Friends normally manages that by presenting Natsume with emotional and personal conflicts that can’t be solved through force. Here, in an episode where force actually is the answer, Nyanko ends up getting shrunk into uselessness by the curse. “All-powerful when it’s convenient for the plot, useless when his strength would actually be meaningful” is probably the best approach for the story to take for Nyanko’s character.
Of course, this wouldn’t be Natsume’s Book of Friends if there weren’t also some meditations on loneliness and companionship. At this point, Natsume has so clearly established a strong social circle and bonds with his adopted family that emphasizing his theoretical loneliness feels a little hollow – so instead, this episode mostly just emphasizes the weight of Natsume’s bonds in the margins. Natsume is forced to lie to Touko in order to protect his family, a choice that always feels uncomfortable. It’s the very fact that Natsume has established ties with these people that makes many of his choices here hurt, but the show understands that this pain is actually a good thing. In the end, Touko’s extremely warranted scolding is framed as itself a kind of happy ending – the fact that Natsume hurt this woman, and is now getting yelled at for it, reflects just how much they care about each other.
All in all, this was a strong episode of Natsume that was perhaps most notable for expanding the show’s theoretical dramatic reach. Natsume has stumbled when moving outside its dramatic wheelhouse before, but it’s clear this world and these characters have the potential to illustrate all manner of stories. I hope the show continues to marry Natsume’s personal growth to its own narrative ambition, exploring all the dramatic possibilities of Natsume’s magical world.
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