There’s not another manga writer out there with the emotional accuracy of Midorikawa Yuki, and no director better suited to communicate her vision than Omori Takahiro.
When I say “miracle of consistency” as regards quality, I mean it. In 52 episodes, there’s never been a bad one – they range from good to very good to excellent to life-changing – but while some are forgettable, they’re never poor, and most are genuinely powerful. The themes of the show have evolved over four seasons of course – there’s more of a focus on Natsume’s past and his human connections over the last two seasons – but the feel of the series has been remarkably consistent. It’s an episode show, this one, but the spine of the story is Midorikawa’s keen eye at exposing the emotional heart of what makes us who we are.
If pressed, it would be hard to pick a favorite season. I think I liked the third – “San” - the least of the four by a small margin, and perhaps the first just a hair better than the second – but these are small gradients, truth be told. There were moments of epiphany in every season, and this one is certainly no exception. If anything stands out it in this one it was the somewhat odd nature of “Shi”, which started and ended very strongly with a string of mediocre (by this high standard) episodes in the middle. I do tend to prefer the standalone heartwarming episodes where Natsume’s path intersects with the youkai world to the “canon” eps focused on the human world, which tend to be more plot-driven - and there were fewer of those this season. But the episodes focused on Natsume’s past really provided a new depth of exploration for the character, and his all-important relationship with Nyanko-sensei.
In addition to the first and third parts of the concluding arc, I especially loved the story of the lonely youkai who impersonated a human to spare the human woman he’d fallen in love with from hurt, the conclusion of the story of the twin Gods whose matsuri has been forgotten by the humans that once worshipped them, and the hilarious episode where Madara impersonated Natsume – a fabulous showcase for the limitless talents of Inoue Kazuhiko. I would have loved to have seen a Kogitsune episode of course – even the anime-original episode featuring him have been superb – but alas, the Little Fox appeared only in the OP this season. But that’s a small quibble, really – and a reminder that one of the incredible things about Brain’s Base’s adaptation is just how seamlessly the original material had fit in with the adapted. This is that rare case (Masahiko Ohta’s work with the first season of Minami-ke is another) where a director captures the feel and spirit of a manga perfectly, yet manages to make it even better. Brain’s Base gives us beautiful art and beautiful music that make the pages of the manga feel more alive and more pitch-perfect than ever.
I think sometimes we – and I include myself in this – take Natsume Yuujinchou far too much for granted. It’s not easy to do what this series has done for four seasons – no real letdowns, and consistently profound emotional connection with the audience. I’ve been a fan of this series since the very beginning (a love letter to it was one of my first posts on this blog) and it would be hard to overstate the level of affection I have for Natsume, Nyanko-sensei, and this amazing world they inhabit – a cross between the Hundred-Acre Wood and the youkai folk tales of Japan’s long history. If the manga isn’t completely adapted by the amazing talents at Brain’s Base, that would make me very sad – but as this is one of those happy instances where stellar quality is rewarded with popularity, I think it very likely that whatever Midorikawa writes will eventually see our screens. I hope the wait isn’t too long until “Natsume Yuujinchou Go” – for a powerful meeting of art and the heart, there’s just no substitute.