Possibly my favourite episode of the third season of Natsume Yuujinchou was the flashback episode to Natsume’s childhood, just before he got taken in by his caring aunt and uncle. He had all but given up on the world of humans and ever feeling love, deciding instead to hand himself over to a yokai that was only intent on using him as a plaything. Long story short, he rejects the yokai and goes to live with his caring aunt, blah de blah lovely story. What made the episode work so well though, is when he sees this yokai again in the future, and it has become this pathetic creature living in the past. It highlighted how much Natsume had grown since the start of the series. He now knew the love of both humans and the love of yokai, putting him far above his past self where he only knew loneliness.
It was also rather telling, though, that the best episode of the third season required them to flashback to Natsume’s past.
Let’s backtrack for a second here. I don’t think Natsume needs yet another bloody season. But since it’s getting one, they might as well evolve the story. Yes, it is an episodic show, where a single plot gets introduced and resolved within that one episode. But underlying the show is Natsume’s story. The one about how Natsume, one who knew only loneliness in his childhood, has grown under loving foster parents to become a more confident and happier man. His relationship with yokai changed when he discovered his grandmothers Book of Friends, showing that he could interact with these creatures rather than running away from them and causing him harm. The key difference between Natsume and his grandmother is that Natsume actually befriends the yokai rather than controlling them. The flashbacks to Reiko have the same sense of loneliness, that Reiko tries to control her surroundings because she’s angry at them.
That key part to Natsume Yuujinchou is how Natsume sees the yokai differently to everyone else. Comparing his approach to those of the exorcists has been a running plot thread so far. The exorcists see them only as tools, creatures to be controlled. While Reiko at least saw them as people in a sense, she still tried to exert her control over them like they were her followers, rather than just tools. Natsume is the first person to see them as equals. That’s the direction I want to see the new season go in. I’d like to see more confrontations between the ideals of the exorcists with what Natsume has learned over the course of the series. It would be a natural progression of his story. He has now learned to be ‘real’ friends with yokai (rather than what the Book of Friends gave him), so now he has to use this newfound knowledge to directly challenge the head of the exorcists.
To pre-emptively strike at manga readers, I don’t care what actually happens in the manga next. The manga is not a holy grail of what should happen in the series and whatever it says is correct. This is the direction the series should go in. Continuing the standard Natsume stories of him confronting a yokai and learning to trust his friends or his family or easing the loneliness of another yokai to learn further about how they have feelings too, we know all that now. That story is over and covering it any further gets boring, as the third season started to do. If the manga does continue with these types of stories, Brains Base should know to skip over the less interesting ones and cover those that advance the underlying conflict between Natsume and the exorcists. I’m willing to be surprised if they take the story in a new and more interesting direction, but as far as I can see, the usual Natsume story is over. Let this story develop naturally, or else this fourth season will do nothing but stagnate.