- Genre: Supernatural, Drama, Magical Boy(?)
- Episodes: 13
- Studio: Brain’s Base
This show recounts the epic adventures of the great and powerful Nyanko-sensei and his young attendant Natsume. Every week the great Nyanko-sensei patiently teaches the young boy about the mysterious spiritual world which coexists with our own but is invisible to most humans, all the while protecting Natsume from malicious yokai that would do him harm and introducing him to the wonders of the unknown. In their adventures together, Natsume and Nayanko dutifully help both humans and yokai in need, using a powerful artifact called the Book of Friends.
I had never heard of this show before I started watching it a few weeks ago and yet now I discover that I’m the last person who hadn’t seen it. The rock I live under is getting bigger and heavier every day. This show reminded me a lot of Cardcaptor Sakura which I watched for the very first time a bit over a year ago, I know…rock! I say this not because both series are overtly similar (although Kero and Nyanko certainly share more than a few things in common) but because they both gave me that instant impression of a generally well-crafted show clearly intended for a younger audience. I can certainly appreciate children’s shows, and regularly do so, but I tend to instinctively put them in a separate category and hold them to different standards, so that even in my own mind, these shows have an asterisk next to them.
First let me talk a bit about the visuals here because I actually have something to say for once. I don’t know what it is about Xebec titles but to me, they have a certain aged look to them. Once again, I found the colour palette here to be rather desaturated and everything was a bit too bright, overexposed if you will. Instead of warming up the look and making everything seem sunny and warm, it had a more bleak, post-apocalyptic fallout quality. If it was on purpose, I suppose it does serve to heighten the occasionally despondent feel of the series but I wasn’t a big fan and I don’t think it was necessary. I enjoy richer colours with a lot of contrast or at least some brighter hues and I think the series would have been better served with a warm, lush palette that would have outlined and clashed with the more wistful elements, making them that much more potent.
I should also say that I wasn’t a huge fan of the character designs. Not that there was anything wrong with them per se but the humans seem to suffer from a strong case of only 6 faces. Aside from variations in height and hair the designs were basically limited to: standard boy, girl, man or woman. Luckily the human cast is pretty small so I didn’t have any trouble knowing who’s who at any time but I have a feeling that this could have become a bigger issue with a larger cast (or in a black and white manga). On the other hand, the yokai designs varied greatly from one another and were often interesting. The animation is hardly extraordinary but doesn’t deter from your enjoyment of the show. I noticed at least one episode that resorted to a Battle of the Still Frames which was a little jarring but otherwise it was decent. The music though was quite well chosen and fit well within the show.
Like I mentioned, as I watched episode 1, I got the distinct feeling that this was another kid show, albeit a little calmer than your basic shonen fair, but still basically formulaic and episodic. I wasn’t exactly wrong; the entire season was structured in a yokai of the week format and adhered strictly to a basic set of in-universe rules which made the progression of both the show as a whole and individual episodes rather predictable. But, I also wasn’t exactly right. By the end of episode 2 (the one with the small god) I was sincerely tearing up. After this happened consistently for another three episodes in a row (a trend that kept up for every. single. episode.), I realized that I was dealing with a bit more than a simple well-executed template and cheap sentimentality. This show is steeped in melancholy and carefully tuned to pull at your heartstrings without sinking into soap operatic melodrama. In fact, the only histrionic thing was me.
Natsume’s Book of Friends doesn’t bury the lead. The show bluntly spells out its underlying theme of loneliness and explores it from every possible angle. Even the intro and outro rigorously stick to this motif as everything from images, to art style, to music is lonesome and a little sorrowful. The series deals with Natsume’s general alienation for being essentially **other** as well as the yokai’s ultimate isolation of existing in a world that is leaving them behind, glaring illustrated in that they are literally invisible to people, and on top of that, a lot of them seem to generally not socialize much with each other. Individual episodes also explore unrequited love and one-sided friendships as well as basic breakdowns in communication and the difficulty to simply understand anything that is outside ourselves and our direct experience. Episode 8 was particularly heartbreaking for me. The helplessness of rushing to the side of a loved one who is desperately calling out to you only to be unable to make your presence known in any way shattered me a little. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say every episode has a similar moment and everyone is likely to find something that resonates with them personally.
Natsume himself is of course the most prominent personification of the theme (although hardly the only one). He does this thing that people who have been alone a lot tend to do, where you keep everyone at arm’s length but in a gentle, subtle way. You laugh and interact and generally care about others but you don’t really share yourself with those around you. Not because you dislike them or don’t trust them but because you never actually learned to accept others into your concept of existence. You basically created your own little inner world and it collides and coexists with everyone else’s inner world but you don’t let people in. It’s a pretty clear-eyed depiction of introversion and that’s something we don’t come across very often. Usually introverted characters in anime or media in general, tend to be either borderline schizophrenic antisocial types, or cartoonishly silent, often super smart, and clearly somewhere on the autism spectrum. This much more genuine portrayal was very refreshing and endearing. It does say something that the few other characters we are introduced to that can also see yokai ( Tanuma and Shuuichi) and would therefore be a natural fit for close allies and friends, never really pan out to much more than transitory acquaintances (I have only seen season one but even if this changes in the long run, it still shows that Natsume does not make friends easily even if they are perfectly suited).
The show is deeply bitter-sweet but despite how I may have made it sound, there is a lot of sweet mixed into the bitter. The entire season ends on a decidedly cute episode and brings back almost every important character of the show in uncharacteristic continuity which for once shows us that Natsume is in fact not alone at all and leaves us on a cautiously optimistic note. More importantly though is the relationship between Natsume and Madara. Nyanko-sensei is squarely cast as the comedic relief and consistently ensures that the show doesn’t devolved into complete gloom and doom. His sarcastic and vitriolic relationship with Natsume provides much needed levity but is also surprisingly heartwarming when you stop and think about it. Sure, on the one hand Nyanko-sensei is pretty bad at pretending he doesn’t like Natsume and no one is surprised when he constantly protects him and misses him but despite his occasionally tsundere tendencies towards him, it’s Natsume’s own attachment to sensei that is truly touching. Nyanko is the only one who knows and understands both Natsume’s life within the human world, his day-to-day at school with friends and at home with his foster family, as well as his interactions with yokai and the pressures and dangers those imply. Due to the particular circumstance, Sensei is the only one who Natsume never lies to or hides anything from and he has been surprisingly honest and open with him straight from the start. Natsume never feels like he has to pretend to be someone he’s not around Sensei, he never forces himself to be nice or to put on a fake smile, because for better or for worse, he trusts him implicitly. For an introvert like that to even have this type of relationship at all is a huge step and keeps the tone of the show hopeful instead of dismal.
I will definitely watch the remaining seasons and very soon at that but, I usually watch two shows at once and I started 91 days as I was watching Natsume (an interesting mix…). I really need something sooper cheerful to even things out cause I was starting to get depressed there. Natsume left me with that weird feeling of being nostalgic for something I’ve never knows and I need to shake it. I hope future seasons develop a bit more of an arc, the episodic format is not bad but there is really room to develop something more meaningful if enough time is devoted to it.
Random thoughts: This is probably just a sign that he can see things others can’t, but why does Natsume seem to have “cat eyes”. His pupils are slits and no one else has that. No one comments on it either. Also, is Natsume super strong? On more than one occasion he easily beats up yokai that are clearly adult human size, sometimes even knocking them out with a single blow. Inquiring minds want to know.
Favorite character: Kaname Tanuma – I really like how he keeps helping out with the class prez!
What this anime taught me: My penmanship s*cks
This may be the beer talking, but I love beer.
Suggested drink: Spirits (get it?)
- Every time we see Reiko – take a drink
- Every time we see sensei’s true form – take a drink
- Every time someone “feels” a yokai – shiver
- Every time Natsume is sleepy – take a drink
- Every time sweet buns are mentioned/shown – have a snack
- Every time Natsume hits a yokai – take a drink
- If it’s sensei – take another
- Every time Natsume hits a yokai – take a drink
- Every time Natsume returns a name – bow your head
- Every time sensei is drunk – join him
- Every time Tanuma just disappears – take a drink
- Every time sensei complains about the book getting thinner – take a drink
- Every time it’s mentioned that Reiko was a troublemaker – raise your glass
- Every time someone calls sensei fat – take a drink
- Every time you hold back tears – let it out, it’s ok!