“In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a youkai or human.. All that really counts is that they’re important to you.”
Natsume’s Book of Friends (Natsume Yūjin-chō) follows Takashi Natsume, a high school student who has, since he was little, seen spirits. Ostracized and lonely, he has hopped from one relative to another after the death of his parents, eventually coming to live with the kind Fujiwaras. His grandmother, Reiko, also had the ability to see spirits and challenge them to various duels. Upon losing, the spirits would write they’re names in the Book of Friends and become a bound servant to Reiko. After her death, Natsume inherits this book, and is pursued by good and evil spirits, as the wielder has control of all of the names it contains. While Reiko focused on forming bonds, Natsume hopes to dissolve them. One spirit a powerful being who can switch into a cute cat form, Madara (who Natsume refers Nyanko-sensei) serves as Natsume’s bodyguard and spiritual advisor of sorts, even though ostensibly he is motivated by his own desire to possess the Book of Friends.
Review: / 5
Hailed as one of the greatest slice of life series, Natsume’s Book of Friends has been on my radar for some time now, and I finally got around to finishing the first half of the show and writing this review! Episodic, the show definitely is very SOL, with key fantasy elements that make it a unique member in the genre. It feels similar to Mushishi, or even Kino’s Journey, but devotes more time to comedy than those series do. Still, I’d recommend giving all of them a try if you like one or the other.
A lot of people find Natsume’s lack of ability or strength disappointing, but really, the commitment to a weak character is something I admire from the writers. It’s easy to talk about someone who’s strong, someone who always manages to find a way and save the day and be the hero. Natsume’s role is that of a true protagonist and when we separate the fact he can see yokai and is the grandson of Reiko, he becomes profoundly plain.
That being said, I’m not sure how satisfied I am with the characterization and his growth for these three seasons. 39 episodes later, Natsume is largely the same character as he was at the beginning of the show. He’s still a bit of a wimp, still naively good-intentioned. The only real change is that he’s happier. He now possesses friendships, both human and yokai, and has found a true home with the Fujiwara’s. Is this happiness enough to justify the time spent? I’m not sure. I still feel on the fence about it. On the one hand, I’m left really frustrated with how this friendship can be misconstrued: if you have friends, you’ll be happier. And certainly while social interaction can bring happiness, it’s really not an end-all-be-all tool.
On the other hand, and the hand that I’m more inclined to support, his development comes from a place not rooted in self-reliance or importance, but a newfound dependency on others. To suggest Natusme should become stronger and more independent is to ignore the fact he was isolated his entire life. He’s already had to fight by himself for himself.
The pacing is… well, a bit like molasses really. The characterization which happens above takes a lot of time to progress. While it leads the series to be more realistic, it doesn’t serve very well in terms of engagement. Many people may find themselves bored waiting for things to happen.
The plot is a mixed bag. It’s interesting, for sure, but the episodic nature of the story creates bitter predictability. The arcs last for two episodes, and largely can be summarized using the same sentence: Natsume finds himself in a difficult situation and is saved by friendship (mainly nyanko-sensei). The same dramatic moments, the same emotional strings pulled… our reaction begins to dull quickly.
Furthermore, there are a lot of holes in these seasons. Now, I’m not sure if these get filled in later. They may well be, in which case, YES! We’ve got something to build off of and grow from. But for now, I don’t have that kind of hindsight, so I just have to review from where I’m at.
The most glaring plot point is Reiko. She is the scaffold which holds Natsume’s story, the catalyst for this whole series and the source of his growth. While she’s constantly referred to as a yokai bully, her motivations aren’t explained. If she were ostracized to the point to hate both yokai and humans alike, who was the one person with which she could develop a bond and have a child with? What about Natsume’s parents? I’m sure this must be addressed later on, but we’re already 39 episodes in… why the wait?
Ultimately, the series is really good with a lot of potential! I’m interested to see what the second half holds!
Watch on, annieme-niac!