Natsume Yuujinchou Review

This is review number three hundred and forty eight. This anime is part of the Summer 2008 lineup. The anime I’ll be reviewing is called Natsume Yuujinchou or Natsume’s Book of Friends. It’s a thirteen episode anime about a guy and a cat. I’m sure you’ve heard of this anime before, so let’s just read on already.

Story

This anime follows a guy named Takashi Natsume trying to return the names from the book of friends that his grandmother once collected. Throughout his journey, Natsume soon discovers his true self and the wonderful purpose of the powers he once considered a curse.

Taking the Pants Off

I have a lot of fond memories with this anime. Natsume Yuunjichou is actually one of my favorite anime back in college. When you’re stuck doing thesis in your dorm for eight straight days only for the draft to be tossed out because you’re two minutes late submitting it, this anime saved me from my evil thoughts. Seriously, I remember this anime because it really calmed me down. I am also admittedly in love with it at the time. As I re-watch this first season, I had this idea that the anime is perfect based on when I first saw it. Being TPAB, and impartial as I’d like to be, I start to notice some flaws to this anime. I’ll go over it one by one, but I should tell you right now that you should stop reading. Really, don’t read my reviews. It’s not healthy, but also stop because you need to watch Natsumi Yuujinchou. It’s a rare gem that delivers one hell of an anime experience. It’s imaginative, but also very grounded. It’s romantic, but also very action filled. It’s comedic, but the dramatic notes will really make you cry. It’s a very rare anime. Technically, it balances a lot of elements that is very hard to pull off. The more I dissect it, the more I want to actually enshrine this anime. It has so much stuff, but they’re all properly presented in the show’s thirteen episode run. Every component is solid, and every moment is just wonderful. I’m falling in love with the anime all over again, and for very different reasons. Before we start this review though, take a look at this:

I hate the new MAL profiles, but know that I haven’t touched this list since 2012. It’s the year I became TPAB, and I think I only added Chihaya in last. Do you see the top character? I was so in love with this anime that a one off character is still my favorite ever. Tsubame’s episode isn’t even that good. I’ll admit that it’s just a “good” episode but the show has a lot of “great” ones to hand out. It didn’t matter. Tsubame won me over. Her episode completely locked me forever in her little sparrow youkai’s grasp. As a guy in a dark place, her episode really meant a lot to me. So for the college kid inside TPAB, and for my favorite character, it’ll now be TPAB’s highest honor to finally review her anime.

This show is about a guy named Natsume that can see youkai. He’s born with that ability, but he’s also shunned because of it. Growing up without a parent, and bouncing from one relative to another, he has grown completely detached from everyone else. When he moved into his grandmother’s town though, he soon became the object of every youkai’s attention when he seems to smell just like her grandmother, Reiko. With her blood inside him, the youkai want him to tie up the loose ends his grandmother left him. This includes a book of youkai names with everyone in it absolutely pissed at Reiko. Natsume decides to return the youkai names, but it won’t be an easy journey. Along with the most adorable cat in anime, he soon embraces the world he once hates. He’s now going to return every name in the Book of Friends.

I think the first episode is enough to convince you if this anime is for you. It features our main character, Natsume, being chased down by a youkai. He then meets a fortune cat and befriends it, and then the show ends with one of the strongest themes you can find in an anime: loneliness. Rather, the fact that no one likes to be alone. This is actually one of the hardest themes to do right, because it needs to be really personal, but this anime nailed it on its first episode. The flashback introducing the grandmother and the story of the youkai, waiting for her slowly growing lonely throughout the years, delivers a powerful emotional punch that’ll just draw you into the anime. It’s just done perfectly that you’ll want more sad episodes like the first one. I’m not going to lie. I cried as f*ck eight years ago and the same thing happened just a few days ago. I guess this anime just gets me. The theme of loneliness is a very wonderful subject to focus on, and Natsume Yuujinchou has this special way of really making it personal. Even though the show is drowned with supernatural stories, it can still get personal and it can really make you emotional. There aren’t a lot of drama anime out there that can get you going in just the first episode. I think this is what really made me fall in love with the show. It made me cry on the first episode, and I think it’s the only one that has done that so far. Of course, I seem to have the same wavelengths as the anime so don’t expect to cry as well when you watch it.

Aside from the emotional component, the book of friends is also a very solid premise. It’s pretty straight forward as well. Natsume will return some names, but he’ll encounter some supernatural problems along the way. With the show having an episodic and also self-contained stories told all throughout the show, there’s really a lot of potentially good elements to work with here. It can go dramatic, action paced, and even comedic depending on the self-contained stories. Natsume Yuujinchou does exactly that. It takes advantage of its self-contained episode stories, and it makes something special out of them. The journey of returning the names contains so much excitement because of how properly balanced the genres are.

This anime is separated by three plot points though, and we’ll go over each one. The first one is the drama element. These are the self-contained episodes that’ll just really make you bawl. As I said before, it utilizes the theme of loneliness, but I think it goes beyond that. The stories often share a more specific element to it. They all have this angle where someone is longing to be with somebody else. As I look back on the show, I think this is actually the one thing that really makes the stories personal. I also think this is the only anime that has effectively delivered this concept. The episode of Tsubame involves her wanting to meet a guy, but the poor bastard can’t see her. She’s enthusiastically saying happy words to him, but he just walks on never noticing she exists.

Sh*t.

Give me a minute.

And boom, you’re crying. Wanting to meet someone, trying to be together with someone but circumstances won’t allow it and wanting to be together with someone for as long as they can, I think these are feelings that everyone has experienced before. The idea of losing someone and the idea of desperately wanting to meet them is wonderfully encapsulated in the self-contained dramatic stories. It’s f*cking beautiful. Every single one of them feels so heavy hearted, and it’s so effective in really delivering a strong narrative. The characters are so easy to relate to, and their problems are something grounded that you’ll most likely relate to them. The more they show genuine emotions of longing for someone, the more the experience becomes a bit too real to handle. Soon, their supernatural story doesn’t matter because there’s something very human being told here now. Even though the characters are youkai, the story is still told so effectively that the drama only builds and builds until it delivers a very satisfying pay off. I think I both smiled and cried at Tsubame’s story, and I think that’s a testament to how wonderfully powerful the narrative is.

It’s still pretty flawed though. Yes, the strong dramatic story still has its downside. The main problem for me is that they are all the same. The pace, the content of the stories and the characters are all the same but with different covers. It’s not just a pattern of the stories looking similar. I think at some point, the stories will start to look the same. The same longing for someone, the same sad narrative and the same human/youkai relationship is told in a different way. The later stories aren’t as special as the ones in the first half, and I think it’s because there’s very little variety in them. It even got to a point where I didn’t really care about the story, because there’s nothing special in it for me. I still love the anime, but my expectation only grew after seeing one strong self-contained episode told after the other. I didn’t want to see the same story again. I want to cry, damn it. Luckily, the show has other plot points to fill in the gap.

The second plot point focuses more on the supernatural aspect, and even crosses Action from time to time. While the show has loads of sad moments, it also has scenes of characters fighting each other. The supernatural stories often features Natsume being involved with a youkai wanting to do him harm. While the first plot point contains stories of him getting involved in someone’s sad story, the second plot point is about someone wanting to hurt him or others. It’d be youkai asking help from him, youkai wanting to steal the book of friends or youkai wanting to eat him or something. The supernatural element is told very vividly in this anime, and it captures a really imaginative world that you’d want to be enveloped in. The youkai are very colorful characters, and I think it captures the Japanese supernatural mindset perfectly. While some are harmless, others are totally creepy that you’d want to stay away from it. Now take a step back and analyze this anime. It has sad moments, but it also has moments of supernatural creatures openly wanting to have Natsume as their dinner and this leads to a fight with Madara. The two elements never clash, and they often support each other. Sometimes, sad story works after a victorious fight scene. It’s pretty great. The supernatural stories are pretty decent, but it’s hindered a bit because the show is also trying to build its foundation for upcoming stories.

I didn’t notice it eight years ago, but this anime also sets up recurring characters that’ll serve a bigger story down the line. As TPAB, you can easily pick up these elements. While the second plot point is imaginative and immersed in the supernatural culture of Japan, its potential is also a bit held back by the show trying to make an overall story. It’s focused on introducing recurring characters to form a stable world for Natsume to be in. It’s also hinting at something bigger than you’d expect later on. I remembered that I hated the third and fourth season because it had too much action, but I soon realized there was a gentle transition for that. It started here, in the first season. Reiko’s death and her past outside the flashbacks are intentionally withheld by the anime, and there’s also this scene that I can’t believe I missed eight years ago:

It’s a council of supernatural exorcists. It’s never explained like that, but the recurring character entering suggests that the room is full of exorcists as well. He’s a character Natsume meets after he tries to murder a youkai, and this is actually a setup for more stories like such happening down the road. I love the representation of action here, but it also slowed down the show considerably. Instead of just focusing on the journey of Natsume returning the book of friends, it seems the story is trying to expand from that. We’ll see the pay off on later seasons, but the introduction of the recurring characters and the setup of the overall story really affected this first season. There’s still balance in the show, but it clearly could’ve been better if it didn’t try to stray far from its initial premise so fast.  The transition to an even bigger story is really felt here, and it does affect the overall experience. To be fair, this is really just nitpicky downside to the anime. The first plot point easily makes up for it, and the third plot point also considerably slows things down on a more positive note. While the supernatural is growing bigger, the third plot point is still there to make sure everything is stable.

Surprisingly, the third plot point is about Natsume’s own personal journey. In the first episode, he starts out as this quiet, and honestly bland, character but his interactions with everything around him soon changes him for the better. Natsume’s human life and his youkai dealing days are focused on the third plot point. It’s also the one with an actual consistent and overall story to tell, and one with an actual payoff. It’s really just about Natsume’s growth. He starts out lonely, and he even mentions how it’s like to be lonely. He’s clearly at a dark place, and he would avoid people because of his troubled attitude. As he learns about his grandmother’s past and the world of youkai though, he soon learns how it is to be kind to others. He would soon approach anyone that needs his help, and he would even tolerate things that would usually bug him. The more stories about the youkai and humans he meet, the more he realize that he’s actually very blessed with his powers. Even though he is shunned before for being different, you can’t help but smile when you realize that he’s in a better place now. He now has people supporting him, and he also finds the resolve to finally be himself. Again, it does connect to the second plot point since he is hinted to cross with that group of exorcist somewhere down the line. His growth to being a kind person would soon be a topic for the second plot point, but I think the buildup would be steady enough for it to really matter. This is one of those times I wish I read manga so I can tell if my thoughts do come to fruition in the original source. The second and third plot points are still relatively different from each other because the third plot point has one element that makes it unique. While the second plot point has action and supernatural, the third plot point has something else.

Healing anime. On top of all the elements this anime have, it also presents a strong healing component to it. Healing anime are shows where the focus is on a laidback feel focusing on the background and atmosphere than anything else. In a sense, most of Miyazaki’s works are healing anime. They create a vibe of calmness that you can indulge in. Healing anime doesn’t have conflict though, so Natsume Yuujinchou just has a small part dedicated to this element. The setting of the anime is in a small town surround by nature, and the show loves to give us wonderful views of just lush green scenery. With its laidback music and relaxing color palette, the focus on Natsume’s character growth is a bit calming because of the healing element. Even though he’s clearly being setup to maybe fight scarier youkai someday, it doesn’t matter for now. The almost zen state of the anime hints that everything is OK for now. Natsume’s life is a bit normal, and the scenery suggests that. His normal pace of going to school, hanging out with his friends and even just being in his house just has a really peaceful mood to it that really sets a great tone for the anime.

This is what makes this anime a technical achievement. It doesn’t really flaunt it, but it balances three different genres, different stories focusing on different characters and an overall story weaved through all of it. It’s able to properly present such a convoluted premise with ease. One can only wonder how talented the mangaka is. That’s what’s going through my mind when I was watching this anime for a second time. How? How is she able to capture all the great components of such clashing genres, and still make a compelling story out of everything? I think from the first episode alone, you can tell Yuri Midorikawa is a talented artist. She’s not only a great storyteller, but you can tell her experience writing for so long shows at her beautifully crafted stories. From what I can gather, she has a knack for telling short stories. If you look at her earlier works, like Hotarubi no Mori e, you can tell she always has a talent for self-contained dramatic yet romantic stories. She knows how to make a bitter sweet story, one with a happy ending and even one with a really sad one. Her years creating stories like that lends to Natsume Yuujinchou’s incredible short stories. You can also tell she’s also challenging herself with this anime. She mastered her craft, and she wants to try new things like a more action oriented supernatural story. It’s certainly something I admire, and she really thought things through even transitioning her own style to fit the challenge. I love it. I don’t read manga, but I can tell a talented artist just from their works. Now someone animate her entire bibliography because there’s a high level of storytelling that Yuki has mastered, and others should learn from it. Her ability to really put herself into her work is amazing, and I sincerely hope someone enshrine her works for future generations to appreciate.

The characters are all incredible. The short stories aren’t the same without the characters you can relate to. With the rich supernatural backdrop and the relatable circumstances they have, even one-dimensional characters like Tsubame can have an incredible effect on people. The supernatural element really sets them apart from the other characters, but their own individual stories make them just like any ordinary people out there. It’s absolutely beautiful, especially with how they affect Natsume in the long run. He learns to be kind thanks to these guys, and they helped him accept himself. As a main character, I honestly think Natsume is pretty bland but he has a wonderful transformation in the end. The flashbacks are also nicely well done. His relationship with youkai slowly changes from something harmful into something really dear to him, and I love how subtle the change is. You think he’s just flowing with the story, but there is actually growth here but it’s not that noticeable. His honest personality really stands out, and it’s unique considering how even the youkai are weirded out by how kind he is. By the time the anime ends, you’ll realize he isn’t really bland to begin with.

The recurring characters are pretty decent. In the youkai side, there are those that take a special liking to Natsume. They’re only introduced for now though, but it’s not surprising if they soon become an integral part of the anime. I like the little fox kid. Eight years ago, I actually thought he was a girl and I only realized he was saying “boku” when he speaks. He has a long hair and he blushes like a girl, so I’m sorry if I was mistaken for such a long time. His story is one of the uplifting ones, because he’s trying to live his life positively despite losing his mother and he’s all alone in life now. It makes me smile every time he puts effort in something he believes in. He’s an innocent kid just trying to get by with life, and that just makes me happy. Of course, it’s now time to talk about THAT cat. Yeah, the moe creature that serves as the show’s mascot. Nyanko-sensei represents the comedic element of the show in some way, because he’s just so cuddly and loveable. He’s also comic relief, and he comes in at the right time making sure the tone of the show isn’t too serious or too sad. He acts as Natsume’s mentor/pet, and I love their relationship. It’s never really said out loud, but the two clearly loves each other. Nyanko-sensei also has clearly taken interest in Natsume, and he now becomes one of Natsume’s trusted companions. He might be the show’s mascot, but Nyanko-sensei also knows when to get serious. While he prefers his cuddly form, you know things are about to get serious when he transforms into this:

Oh snap. We’re about to see a rumble, yo. The human characters are actually one dimensional, but I think it’s intentional because they act as stability in Natsume’s life in his new town. We meet a new youkai almost every episode, so it’s nice to know we only see a handful of humans in the series. Reiko is clearly a big interest in the show. She lived the same horrid life as Natsume, but she seems to cope differently than him. She’s also interesting because they never really discuss how she died. She was just shown as a really lonely girl seeking comfort in the wrong places, and it doesn’t really go that far. When I saw this anime eight years ago, I used to think she found happiness when she met her husband, but I was clearly delirious because even her pregnancy seems to be a bit odd. Who are you Reiko Natsume, and what the hell happened to you? Our only connection to her is the book of friends, and the show slowly transitioned out of that premise so there’s very little left to talk about this enigmatic girl. Natsume’s classmates are also featured in the anime. I’m mostly interested in this girl that is obsessed with Natsume, Jun Sasada. She knows Natsume can see youkai, so she’s constantly hounding him. Our hero would often ditch her though, sometimes in a mean spirited fashion. It’s all harmless fun, but I like Jun because the show is treating her a bit too mean. Natsume has problems about people finding out he can see youkai, but I sure hope he’ll be comfortable enough to at least tell Jun after all the mean things he did to her. There’s also the exorcist in the second plot point. Shuuichiro Natori is an actor, but also a big time exorcist. He’s the type that kills before empathizing, and his personality would accent Natsume’s developing kindness towards youkai. I think he mostly serves as a contrast to make Natsume look good, but I also think he has a bigger role when the second plot point blows up. Like Natsume, he grew up being shunned by people because of his powers and it’s interesting how he turned out to be so different from Natsume. It does indicate that people like him that that hurts youkai is normal, so Natsume might have to step up his game if others starts taking a sadistic interest in him just like Natori. It’s all laidback fun for now, but Natori is a bit too strong of a serious character for the story and this just means the transition to a more action oriented story is going to be filled with strong serious characters as well.

Brain’s Base must’ve gotten a lot of mileage with this anime. This series ran for four seasons, so it must’ve established the studio greatly. It’s interesting how they don’t stick to making more shows like Natsume though. While most studios would stubbornly stick to what made them popular, Brain’s Base has dabbled with a lot of stuff like otome shows and action shows. I guess a lot of their works are catered around the female demographic though, since they have a lot of romance shows in their lineup. I guess Natsume fits in that list as well. They’re doing something good here so I’m sure they’ll keep it up. After all, they are focusing on a strong demographic. I also feel that they’re pushing for the next big hit with their releases, and it’s nice to see a studio try. They won’t always succeed, like gawd damn BroCon, but I don’t think they’ve ever released a truly bad anime. Yeah, even BroCon is popular thanks to their demographic. Takahiro Omori is an amazing director. He handled all four seasons of this show, and they’re all great. I like how he truly captured Midorikawa’s vision. It’s an easy thing to adapt, but the exceptional anime experience is certainly delivered to us by this guy. He’s been delivering consistently great shows, and I think it’s because he simply has talent for it. He’s also handling the current Durarara shows, and I think he’s being brought back because he simply gave Baccano justice. He understands his material, and he creates something amazing with it. I also think this is the reason why the laidback scenes never felt boring. He knows how to pace a show and how to handle exposition. Some directors would dedicate an episode to just full boring exposition, but Takahiro knows how to make that exposition work. He storyboarded a lot of notable healing anime as well, so I think he can easily pace a boring anime with little effort. That’s how great of a director he is, and he should definitely try another go at healing anime if he’s done with his current projects. With his skills, he can easily outmatch Makoto Shinkai if he truly tried.

Sight and Sound

natsume

Midorikawa’s manga is published on a female demographic serialization as well, so I think we got a really great trinity of female demographics at work here. The director, the studio and the original source has one group in mind and it instantly gelled into success. Midorikawa’s style is pretty Shoujo. I mean, she emphasize lines and clean spaces because it gives off a more gentle appeal when you read the panels. Focusing on clean lines means that the thing you’re trying to feature immediately connects with the readers, like Natsume’s handsome face. Natsume is definitely more handsome in the manga, but mainly because of Midorikawa’s style. The small details add bulk to the character. The cat eyes, the clean lines of the hair and beautiful face structure makes Natsume one hot piece of toast. Midorikawa’s style is interesting because he’s handsome due to her feminine way of drawing the character. With his slim body and handsome face, Midorikawa certainly knows how to please her readers. A lot of her characters have very beautiful features, but there’s also not a lot of variety to it. Most mangaka stick true to their style and they often make their characters look all alike. I think Natsume has the same features as his classmates, including the girls, but he has small nuances that set him apart. It doesn’t mean that Midorikawa sticks to one style though. As I said before, Natsume felt like she was challenging herself and it shows in the supernatural elements of her work. First of all, the clean lines, that makes Natsume beautiful and handsome, also works great in establishing the supernatural world of the series. We have Japanese folklore injected in the pages with how she moves those clean lines. The way the smoke flow and the youkai hair moves about feels like you’re reading a Japanese text book on ayakashi. It’s really amazing. As for variety, the youkai has them. Every single one is unique, and the challenge is certainly met in how they are drawn. It’s very imaginative, but Midorikawa never strays off her true gentle style. It does clash a bit, since she has trouble making some monsters menacing, but I think she’s also holding herself back because she knows her readers wants more of hot toast than scary Japanese monsters. Points on giving some of them masks though. Design wise, I like the approach because it only makes them a lot more interesting and it urges you to know them better. This trick works amazingly on me, because I’ve been praising my love for Tsubame throughout this review.

Nyanko-sensei is much better in the anime though. I didn’t really see it until I saw the design in the manga, but he really is a fortune cat. I think Midorikawa has trouble with simple cute looking characters without bordering shota, like the cute fox. It’s a good thing the anime understood how Nyanko should be portrayed, and they did the proper adjustments. Not since I saw Train Heartnet in the manga did I think the anime makeover is appropriate.

Animation is good, but it’s the bright color and the soothing music that really completes the experience. The animation doesn’t really do much to stand out. It properly conveys Midorikawa’s story, but it doesn’t really do much to make it better. I think they focus more on the healing aspect with the visuals, so the animation is just there for support. It does properly convey the action scenes and it helped establish the mood, but I think Takahiro wants to respect the manga knowing that he doesn’t need to add much to it. The anime wouldn’t be any better or worse with better animation anyways. It still does great work on moving the characters. Natsume runs a lot, and the anime properly captured the scenes. The camera work is also pretty great, but it’s really all on Midorikawa since most of the angles are straight from her manga. The one thing that really makes this anime special is the music.

There’s a reason why Makoto Yoshimori has his own wikipedia page. He is a talented composer, and you truly feel that in this anime. Every scene has good music to it, and some of them really complement the scenes. The action scenes have vibrant exciting music while the sad scenes have this heavy sounding sad vibe to it. There’s a reason why I don’t put much focus on music or voice acting work in my review, and it’s because they aren’t really that special. It doesn’t really do much to heighten the experience. I only talk about them on rare occasions like this one. Even the boring laidback scenes have amazing music, and he truly brought out the healing potential of the anime. There’s outstanding music in this anime, and it really made a huge difference.

The anime’s OP is “Issei no Sei” by Shuhei Kita. This is a very beautiful song. It’s about someone urging another to trust them and rely on them. It’s a really touching song, and it certainly fit the anime well. The OP sequence features all the characters, and just a short run down of the story. The recurring characters are also lumped in one section so you’ll need to remember their faces for later seasons. The OP also featured Natsume’s beautiful and handsome face along with Madara’s cute fluffy exterior. The anime’s ED is “Natsu Yuuzora (Summer Evening Sky)” by Kousuke Atari. You can really feel the healing element of this anime come through the ED sequence. The song is a gentle one about being in a relaxing place, and it punctuates the wonderful animation of the ED. Its healing anime at its finest, and you can seriously close your eyes and take a deep breath. It’s that effective of a song. I also love the instrumentals. It really calms me down.

Overall Score

9/10 “It’s a gentle anime with a very heartfelt message to deliver.”

This anime is close to a perfect score. Seriously, I considered it. I wanted this anime to have a perfect score, but I noticed the second plot point really affected the overall experience. Still, the technical aspect of this anime is amazing and ultra rare. You’ll never see another studio, director, manga, mangaka and composer come together to create a truly outstanding anime that worked because of their amazing contributions to the series. Each one made the series special, and I know for a fact that doesn’t happen often. If you like healing anime, then you’ll love Natsume Yuujinchou. If like drama, then this anime packs a wallop. I consider having tissues around for the second and sixth episode. If you like a consistent show with action and good character development then this anime is for you. I highly recommend it.

Thoughts~

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