Anime: Natsume Yuujinchou / Natsume’s Book Of Friends
Studio: Brain’s Base
Original Run: Jul 8, 2008 to Dec 21, 2016
Genres: Slice of Life, Supernatural, Drama
Ever since he was young, Natsume Takashi has been able to see youkai, spirits and demons that are invisible to most humans. Ostracized because of his ability and passed on from relative to relative, Natsume has little love for youkai and a desperate need for a place to belong. However, his new home seems to be rife with youkai, most of whom are after Natsume for the Yuujinchou, a special book that he inherited from his grandmother, Reiko.
A meeting with a powerful sealed youkai leads to Natsume finding out that the book contains the names of youkai Reiko, who could also see them, defeated and formed contracts with.
Despite his dislike of youkai, Natsume sets out to return the names in the book so that they can be free. Accompanying him is Madara or Nyanko-sensei, a wolf-spirit who has proclaimed himself Natsume’s bodyguard.
Keep in mind that this is a review of the first five seasons of this anime.
Let me be honest, I have no idea if my words can properly capture what makes Natsume Yuujinchou so damned good. It’s the kind of story that needs to be seen to be believed. But I’ll try my best.
The focal point of the show is Natsume Takashi, a lonely high schooler who’s had a rough life and as a result has no idea how to connect with people despite wanting it rather desperately. It doesn’t help that it’s not just people he needs to deal with but also youkai, sprits that are usually attracted to Natsume because he can see them. In fact, this ability is what made is childhood hell and it’d be completely understandable if Natsume was a bitter jerk because of it but as it is, the boy’s just too nice and easily convinced to help even the creatures he doesn’t particularly like. It’s hard not to fall in love with the series when the protagonist is such a sweet, earnest soul. Natsume feels real; his fumbling attempts at connection, his fear of losing the home he’s always yearned for, his moments of hesitant happiness – they all come together to form a well-rounded person who’s a little broken but trying to fix himself. Natsume is the star of this show. It’s easy to love him and get caught up in his adventures.
The greatest thing about this series is that it’s constant, consistent and delicious emotional food. It typically has a youkai-of-the-day format, often interspersed with both relevant and peripheral appearances by his friends and family, but it never becomes boring or tiresome. While each of the mini-plots is simple in their own right, their real impact lies in the emotional punch they pack. Natsume Yuujinchou is rife with human emotions that in turn pull intense responses from the viewer. It’s rich with friendship, pain, joy, sorrow, longing, but mostly love of a very wide variety. It’s easy to cry while watching this anime, and while most of those tears are likely to be bittersweet, some may be from pure happiness or pure pain. It’s just that kind of show; slow, sweet and poignant.
The majority of the episodes and their content have this laid-back feel to them. That’s not to say that they’re not rich on feels but they progress at their own pace which suits them perfectly. However, there are occasional moments of excitement when a youkai decides that Natsume would make better food than a confidant and inevitably gets punted across the room for its trouble.
For the most part, the episodes are self-contained on a technical level. Natsume stumbles across or is sought out by a youkai/human and is drawn into some problem that he’ll bleed his heart out trying to help. But the experiences Natsume accumulates through each such encounter contributes to his growth as a person throughout the series. It’s slow and subtle to the point that it’s somewhat surprising to see how different the Natsume at the end of season 5 is from the one at the beginning of season 1. That’s some excellent writing right there.
I don’t really have any complaints about this series. Sure, it made me hate children more than I already do and that is quite an accomplishment but I don’t think that counts as a flaw. The individual episodes vary in quality and intensity but on a whole, Natsume Yuujinchou is a truly excellent show.
Natsume Takashi is the heart of this anime. He spent most of his life distanced from both peers and adults due to his ability to see youkai. Other children ridiculed him, branding him a liar, while the families that took him in were unsettled by what he said and sought to be rid of him as quickly as possible. Naturally, the end result is a young man who’s lonely but socially awkward and closed off. Natsume undergoes a phenomenal amount of development in the course of the series. He’s utterly alone in the beginning, isolated from humans as well as youkai.
But as the story progresses, he begins to develop warm and trusting relationships with them both. Natsume is notable for how his less than ideal life didn’t make him bitter but rather made him want to be a kind person like the rare few that were nice to him. Compassion comes naturally to him and it’s his large heart that wins over the affection of the majority of youkai he encounters. His relationships with his human family and friends are more complicated. His inability to open up is an important part of his nature and it’s through overcoming the automatic tendency to lie and keep his worries to himself that Natsume grows as a person.
The deuteragonist who shares almost as screen-time as Natsume is Madara/Nyanko-sensei, a very powerful wolf spirit who’s been sealed in a maneki-neko. Madara is freed by Natsume and decides to tag along so that he can get the eponymous Yuujinchou once Natsume dies. But for all that he claims to stick around solely for the Yuujinchou, it becomes clear early on that Madara is attached to Natsume. In fact, Natsume’s unique ability to charm others is never more clear than in the case of Madara who acts like a cat-shaped tsundere most of the time. He takes on the role of friend, confidant and protector, even if he fails on the latter one as often as he succeeds. Madars is the opposite of a respectable youkai and is a complete goof most of the time but he does have hidden depths which make themselves known at opportune times. His odd relationship with Natsume is undeniably a highlight of the show.
There are a plethora o other characters and even the ones those are present only for an episode or two are fleshed out and sympathetic. Recurring faces include the heartwarmingly kind Fujiwara couple, Natsume’s cheery trio of ‘normal’ friends, Taki and Tanuma who share his involvement in the world of youkai, Natori who takes on the role of a mentor figure and Matoba who takes an unsettling interest in Natsume. Each and every one of them are fascinating, particularly in their relationships and interactions with Natsume.
Art and Music:
Soft, warm colors dominate Natsume Yuujinchou’s palette, perfectly fitting the overall tone of the anime. The quality of the art evolves with each season. Both human and youkai designs are quite simple but have a distinctive flair to them.
This show’s music didn’t quite suit my tastes for the most part but once again, both lyrics and melodies work well with the narrative. The first season’s OP, Issei no Sei by Shuhei Kita and the final season’s ED, Akane Sasu by Aimer, are the ones that stood out to me.
A heartwarming show that serves as perfect emotional food. It’s realistic but also unwaveringly optimistic and will undoubtedly evoke a wide range of feelings. Smiles and tears mix well in Natsume Yuujinchou.