- Genre: Slice of Life, Action, Drama, Supernatural
- Episodes: 13
- Studio: Brain’s Base
Since the dawn of time, Yokai and Humans have existed alongside one another but never quite together. Each side shielded from the other’s more destructive tendencies by humans’ inability to fully perceive the world in which we live. But after all this time, the yokai are growing restless and the winds of change are blowing. As one of the rare few who can travel both the roads of men and of yokai, Natsume can longer ignore the world around him. He will need help from both sides to reconcile his reality and heal the wounds of the past. Thankfully for all of us, he now has plenty of friends happy to lend a hand.
I am back in the warm embrace of Natsume’s Book of Friends and I feel like I never want to leave.
Now that I have finished the fourth season of this wonderful series, I was finally able to read Karandi’s wonderful review of seasons 1 through 4 over at 100WordAnime. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, you should read it here. I am really looking forward to following along with her episodic recaps of season 5. It will be like having a friend to talk to about the show!
To me, Natsume’s Book of Friends is as much a feeling as it is an anime. As soon as the first notes of the new intro rang through the air I was hit with a soft wave of nostalgia. This time around, we got a time melting vignette (a little reminiscent of the Erased intro), giving us a quick idea of Natsume’s unique path through life and how far he’s come. Although, I will admit that on a purely personal level, I preferred the season 3 intro, the particular scene of Nyanko and little Natsume already had me sniveling. I should just buy a huge family pack of Kleenex boxes at this point.
The art and animation seems largely unchanged from season 3 but as it had already gotten quite good, this is definitely not a complaint. I think that there might have been a slight improvement in consistency, as in everything remained really nicely detailed regardless of distance and movement. You know how when you start falling for someone, you begin to see all sorts of qualities in them that may or may not actually be there? This may be what’s happening here, but to me it sounded like the voice acting got a little better. I got the impression that the actors had really become comfortable with their roles and each other. It was always very good, I’m just suddenly deciding that it’s great now.
With regard to the designs, I was disappointed that Natsume did not keep experimenting with his wardrobe, and went back to his huge collection of white shirts. Fortunately, the color palette remains rich and we got a few more beautiful sunset skies that really enhanced the action onscreen. The Yokai this season were a good mix of both human looking and various anthropomorphized creatures with interesting designs. The few episodes dealing with Natsume’s past introduced us to some new characters and although they stick closely to the show’s general aesthetic (i.e. faces are very similar in structure and body types differ mostly in height only), they do seem much more individualized. Ogata’s design was particularly striking to me and her features truly seem different from other characters.
The first episode quickly and efficiently managed to re-establish Natsume’s universe and present the various actors and their relationship to one another. It was artfully done with minimal exposition and a subtle reminder of Natsume’s Book of Friends’ strength in storytelling. From there, we got thrown straight into the action. Season 4 starts off with an uncharacteristically fast paced and menacing episode. We even got Matoba straight off the bat! I was gearing up for the great conflict I have been predicting since season 2, all the signs were clearly there. As always, the show masterfully ignored what I thought I wanted and showed me something better.
This said, season 4 does continue to build on the mounting tensions between Yokai and humans, or more specifically, exorcists. However, the momentum of the two first episodes winds down and the show goes back to its traditional episodic structure, concentrating more on Natsume himself and his personal evolution. The idea of impending turmoil however, is always in the background.
In a way, season 4 is a bit of a throwback to season 1. Natsume is a different person now, no longer lonely and isolated but most of the episodes revolve around his interactions with various yokai rather than with his human friends and family. Natsume is constantly gaining in confidence and is visibly more comfortable with others but he remains plagued with a constant worry of putting those around him in some sort of danger. There is a quiet underlying notion of “we always hurt most those we love most” and several stories deal with the guilt of accidentally imposing pain on those around us.
Despite the return to a slightly more solitary Natsume, the show continues to expand his universe and introduces us to different point of view characters, with Natsume being hardly present for a few episodes. These fresh perspectives allow us to get a better overview of what Natsume went through and the world he inhabits.
The bulk of the season brings back the familiar softly bittersweet mood, gently continuing the reveal the at turns uplifting and poignant story of Natsume’s life. A small moment in episode 5 really embodied for me the beautiful fragility of this story. As Natsume is once again discarded by yet another seemingly unfit step family, Ogata tells him “I hope you get someone nice this time.” With a quiet smile, Natsume simply responds “They were all nice”. This gentle desperation slowly seeped into my mind and eventually broke my heart.
Of course, this series is always kind, so episode 6 was right there to cheer me up. It started out with a hilarious comedy of errors involving Nyanko doing a completely unconvincing impersonation of Natsume that will probably have long term repercussions on the poor boy’s reputation, and ended up becoming an exciting and taut adventure that kept me on the edge of my seat.
There is a subtle change in how the series treats its leading man. A sense of acceptance and a touch of resignation can be felt. “Soft” and “Kind” are no longer used as insults or weaknesses. It seems that most people are beginning to understand that they will not be able to change Natsume or save him from himself. That the path he has chosen to walk may be difficult and painful but that he may also be able to come out the other side stronger, even though others could not. For Natsume, happiness comes at a price and finally, everybody is going to let him decide if he is willing to pay it.
So far, the last episode of each season has made it a point to end on a high note. These episodes tend to be cheery and optimistic and generally much lighter in tone than the rest of the season. This time around, Natsume’s Book of Friends opted for an emotional three-episode arc and some beautifully devastating character growth.
Episode 11 seems happy enough on the surface, there are a few extremely sweet scenes (Natsume’s friends discovering that he keeps pictures of them all together in his closet was adorable) and photographs are a recurring theme as we see Natsume’s birth parents for the first time.
Natsume also addresses the fact that Reiko kept the name “Natsume” as I had mentioned in my season 2 post. We didn’t get any answers but it was nice that the writers thought to mention it. Nothing even remotely sad happens in this episode yet there’s this odd painful sheen over everything. It’s as if Natsume himself is an exposed nerve. His actions are furtive and just a little hesitant. He’s ill at ease but doesn’t know why. He becomes jumpy, nervous, unsure what to do. All of this is masterfully conveyed through the tiniest of movements and shortest of pauses.
As the last two episodes unfold, the anxious feeling is sustained. We get one of the most extended views of Natsume’s past. It doesn’t reveal anything new and seems like a pretty standard episode arc but it is carefully leading us to something. The last 10 minutes of the season were scathingly cathartic.
Last season Natsume seemed to be slowly moving forward and begin to let go of the past. But you can never really heal those old wounds if you don’t face the pain and accept everything you have been.
I watched helplessly as Natsume allowed himself to truly grieve for the first time, in a raw and honest way. I felt like I was letting a breath I had been holding in for years. I watched defenseless as Nyanko discovered hand drawn family portraits in Natsume’s childhood closet echoing the pictures of his friends he now keeps preciously hidden. I watched awestruck as Natsume put down his guard and let the memories flow back. By the time the season was ultimately bookended with one last photograph, I was watching in earnest tears. I had been warned, repeatedly. I was still not prepared.
My reviews of this Natsume’s Book of Friends have been very subdued so you may not have gotten the proper picture. Let me try to put it clearly: If you haven’t watched this show, you should. If for no other reason than to remind you how to be human.
Random thoughts: Natori looks way too much like Natsume for it to be a coincidence. When we see a poster of one of Natori’s movies in the background of an episode (before he ad shown up in the season) I actually wondered for a few seconds why the girl had a poster of Natsume on her wall. Also, calico cats are overwhelmingly female (for a male cat to have that type of pattern they need to have a pretty rare genetic mutation that also leaves them sterile). I have always just assumed Nyanko was male but there’s no real reason he…they should be.
Favorite character: Nyanko as Natsume forever, just look at that header gif, what more reason to you need?
What this anime taught me: Pain and happiness are two sides of the same coin
Stay busy, get plenty of exercise, and don’t drink too much. Then again, don’t drink too little
Suggested drink: Doppelgänger
- Every time Nyanko blames Natsume for his failure to protect him – have a drink
- Every time Natori sparkles – raise your glass
- Every time you hear the word bodyguard – have a drink
- Every time a yokai other than Madara comes to Natsume’s rescue – have a drink
- Every time Nyanko drinks from a bottle taller than him – applaud
- Every time Natsume gets hurt – drink and worry
- Every time Natsume makes a fool of himself in front of his classmates – have a drink
- Every time Nyanko says manju or bento – have a snack
- Every time Natsume gets snatched – have a drink
- Every time Natsume is uneasy – have a drink to lighten the mood