Natsume's Book of Friends
All through his life, Takashi Natsume has been able to see spirits and other supernatural beings, which only served to get him ostracized by everyone around him. Moving into the countryside for a fresh start, Natsume swore to keep his secret just that; a secret.
Which proved to be a bit of a problem, because the local yokai had already run into his grandmother, Reiko, who promptly defeated them all and put their names into the "Book of friends", an item now sought after by quite a few of them.
When I read the synopsis to Natsume's Book of Friends the first time, I admit I rolled my eyes and muttered "I can see dead people" before moving on to wondering just how close to shows like Bleach this would end up being. And if not that, how big of a Gary Stu would our main character end up becoming. It took Natsume's Book of Friends one episode to shatter those perceptions completely and another one to grab my windpipe in a chokehold so fierce, tears were almost literally coming out of my eyes.
In a way, the synopsis is just about all the show has to offer, at least insofar that Natsume's Book of Friends doesn't really have any main overarcing story to its name. It's the day-to-day events in the life of a young man who just happens to be able to see more than he is comfortable with. Yet despite this, Natsume is actually a rather unassuming teenager, mostly normal when it comes to mannerisms and general behavior. The show does halfway set him up as a bit of a victim, partially through the memories of his grandmother, Reiko. But despite all this, Natsume just want to live a normal life with his friends. Which he probably could, if not for the fact that various yokai wants him badly -- in fact, that's how the show start; with a chase scene through the local woods -- either so that he can return their name or so that they can take the Book of Friends from him. We also get glimpses into Reiko's past through various flashbacks scattered throughout the show, obviously meant to show how alike the two are. It made me wonder, though; if Reiko was so alone all through her life to her very premature death, how did she eventually end up marrying and siring a child who would end up becoming one of Natsume's parents? (The anime doesn't say which one, nor do we really get to meet any of them.) All we really know is that Reiko passed away young, and that Natsume would rather keep his abilities secret from his friends and the family he lives with. Added to that is the fact that the local yokai regularly mistakes him from Reiko, mostly due to their shared abilities and, apparently, that yokai generally don't consider the issue of gender all that important, even if most of them are clearly defined as being either male or female.
You might actually argue that the yokai themselves make up most of the main cast of this series, and they come with a large variety of shapes, sizes and personality traits; from the little male kitsume who wants to be strong so he can get by, to the guardian deity known as the "Dew God" who tied himself to a shrine so that human worship would give him powers. A lot of the yokai also have animalistic traits on humanoid bodies, while others took on human forms after dying as an animal. There are some real oddballs out there among the yokai, like the twoesome that made me suspect that the creator of Natsume's Book of Friends is a fan of Ren and Stimpy. And there are also some who would just as well eat Natsume on the spot just because they were hungry.
The human cast fares a little worse. While there are definitely some colorful personalities among them; like Natori the exorcist and Kaname Tanuma, who has powers similar to Natsume, if vastly less effective at that. You might say they form the anchor of Natsume's human side whenever he needs a break from all the yokai shenanigans. They are also possibly the only two who know about Natsume's powers, which allows him to let it all out once in a while. Sadly, most of his other friends are pretty dull, seemingly only there to show the audience that he does indeed lead a somewhat healthy human life. Even his would-be girlfriend doesn't have much going for her. (Unless, of course, she's only in it for the whole yokai business.)
And then, there's Madara. I'm not entirely sure whether he's meant to be something specific. Most of the time, he takes on the form of a tubby cat, slightly reminiscent of the cat statues you sometimes see in anime. His real form is a good deal larger, stronger and more omniscient, though; that of a huge dog-like being with a very long tail and some red markings on his head. Natsume meets him while on the run from the two yokai in the opening episode, and the two strike a deal that eventually lands them in the same kind of relationship shared between the charcters Ushio and Tora in the show by the same name. While Madara does count as a yokai of sorts, he's a bit different from the others, mostly in that his... well, "alternate disguise form" can be seen by anyone, even though he's not really possessing anyone or anything. While in his disguise, he prefers to be referred to as "Nyanko-sensei", and it's actually quite interesting just how different his personality is, depending on which form he takes.
And so, Natsume's Book of Friends more or less trundles along at a fairly languid pace, like so many other shows I like do. The series' main payload is pretty much raw emotion, brought about by the many different characters, most of which are yokai. It eases up a little after the fierce one-two combo of opening episodes -- the two definitely being the hardest ones to get through -- but there's still a lot of sweet moments or tearjerkers to be had throughout. Natsume's Book of Friends doesn't do comedy very well, though, so I guess one should be grateful that it's not aiming to BE a comedy. The messages presented are fairly simple for the most part, but the show still carries itself incredibly well. The dialogue has a nice flow to it, which is important for a show driven mostly by conversations, and the flashbacks never feel intrusive in any way, nor do they overstay their welcome -- and then some -- as in some other shows I could mention. (*coughTenjouTengecough*) We're often reminded about the differences between human beings and yokai, in the way that some of the yokai simply can't seem to grasp the idea that human lives are incredibly brief, while others do... to devastating effect.
2008 brought me Spice and Wolf as the "surprise show of the year". I almost thought 2009 would pass by without me finding anything, but Natsume's Book of Friends just about made it in time to be crowned my surprise of the year show for 2009. (Even if it's a 2008 production.) It just goes to show how some titles can completely pass under one's radar, yet still manage to take you so completely by surprise when someone lays it right in front of your feet. It's a good kind of feeling.
A surprisingly solid title that tells its stories from both sides of the fence. — Stig Høgset
Recommended Audience: Some of the scenes, most notable a yokai eating another yokai, might come across as a little bit grisly, mostly because he's at least chewing his food well before swallowing it. Other than that, there's little in the way of violence in this show.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD, Japanese with English subs only.
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Natsume's Book of Friends © 2008 Brains Base, XEBEC M2
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