- Genre: Supernatural, Slice of Life, Drama
- Episodes: 11 + 2 OVAS + 1 special
- Studio: Shuka
Takashi has come a long long way and been through several lifetimes worth of hardship and adventure, yet the real work has only just begun. Once you manage to pull yourself together and somehow reconcile an existence half rooted in the everyday world, half seeped in the wonders of the Yokai, you somehow have to sustain it. You have to continue walking your path ever so carefully to not disturb the fragile balance you’ve created. You have to avoid harming either side by your simple presence. You have to protect your own heart lest you lose it in the shuffle. If anyone can do it, it’s Natsume and if you’re extremely lucky, you might be allowed to follow along that lonely path, even if for just a little while.
It’s not in fact possible to describe Natsume’s Book of Friends. Not because it’s bonkers like some other series but because it excels in the ineffable. Natsume is an undisputable work of art (don’t even try) but I can’t tell you why. Some of it is my own failings. Most of it is that the very explanation of it would be a tour de force. Instead let me try to capture just a shard of the feeling. Imagine you meet someone. Someone who’s nice but quiet, not too assuming but also very kind. You can sort of forget they’re in the room because they don’t tend to take up too much space but every now and then you strike up a conversation and it’s always super interesting. Bit by bit, you come to realize that this person is phenomenal but always says these incredible things so casually, like they don’t realize how amazing they are. You suddenly notice just how attractive this person is. Those stolen conversations become one of the best parts of your day/week and you look forward to them and replay them in your head. You start to get that odd hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know you’re going to see this person again… When the brand new (to me) intro for Natsume’s Book of Friends 5 started, I got that feeling. Butterflies in my stomach. Not excitement (well some) or anticipation (well lots) but honest to goodness infatuation. I really like this show you guys, and I want it to like me.
For season 5, Natsume changed studios and unfortunately the move was hardly seamless. – For the recored, Shuka may not have Brain Base’s ressources but so far, every single show they have put out is amoung my favorites -. Although the undeniable charm of the series remains intact, in many ways season 5 felt like a step back. Most notably, production values took a serious hit. The animation is back to season 1 standards if not worse. This was particularly flagrant in scenes of Madara flying, where it looked like a paper cutout was being pulled through the frame. The art and animation were also very inconsistent and sound design was lacking. Voices sound flat, the music cues are uninteresting and atmospheric noises greatly pared down taking away from the richness of the world. Worst of all, Natsume is still wearing those boring white shirts almost every single episode!
For all that though, I was very happy to see that the expanded and lush colour scheme was conserved. A few sunset scenes, especially one in the forest with Matoba, were downright breathtaking. Also the static art and character design was pretty good, maybe even a little improved over season 4. Natori is finally given his own easily recognizable face, although not in a way that clashes with previous seasons. A great move which really pays off when the story decides to develop his character a little more. I hate to admit it, because I don’t want to add even the slightest suggestion of lewdness to this show, but both Matoba and Natori are starting to look mighty fine.
Sadly, the narrative also seems to take a step back, although much less bluntly. Still firmly attached to the now well established Slice of Life structure, the narrative meanders through loosely connected stories of the different Yokai that wander in and out of Natsume’s life, but this season fails to reach the staggering emotional heights of seasons 3 and 4 and overall didn’t resonate quite as much with me. Keep in mind that this season is trying to compete with a show I have literally fallen in love with, the fact that it is a worthy part of the canon at all should mark it as an excellent anime completely worthy of your time. And it is.
Once again, Natsume takes on the unusual challenge of spelling out hard truths in a soft voice. Seemingly throwaway episodes suddenly confront the inevitability of loss or the limits of human understanding. In one episode, Madara basically tells us that sometimes, no matter how much you may want to, you simply cannot stand by someone. Even if you both love each other and have the best of intentions, happy endings aren’t always available. In another Reiko comes back to advise Natsume that if you’re alone, you don’t have to protect anyone. Ultimately Natsume believes the effort and sacrifice is worth it but lurking just beneath the surface is the uncomfortable question no one’s asking: what if you fail. And Natsume has failed more than once.
Season 5 repeats a lot of the narrative devices of season 1. Exploring themes of loneliness and isolation, connection to one’s past and the effort of reconciling the many different aspects of one’s life. It also addresses Natsume’s deep and not entirely founded sense of guilt and responsibility. His unique abilities put him in a position that has no precedent. He feels compelled to try to fix everybody even though he pretends not to. This pervasive weight he is putting on his shoulders threatens to take him down and an illdefined woorisome mood runs through the entire season. You can’t help but worry for Natsume. He also seems to be isolating himself a little again. We see a lot less of Natsume’s friends this season. By the last episode I actually told my dog that I really missed Tanuma. Nyanko is still there pretty much every episode but he is somehow less present. Relegated to much less important supporting role.
On the other had, we see the return of Reiko’s influence. Once again numerous falshbacks reveil details of her life and new Yokai contantly mistake Natsume for his grandmother. Just like in season 1, the various Yokai seem genuinly hurt that Riko never visited them. We know Reiko died young but I’m begining to think it may also have been unexpected…
One little thing I’ve been noticing every season is that Nyanko and Natsume’s evolving relationship seems to be mirrored in their sleeping arrangements. Nyanko started out with his own bed in Natsume’s room, this bed eventually got moved right next to Natsume’s own and soon it was no longer in use as Natsume and Nyanko shared a bed. This season, Nyanko sleeps directly ON Natsume. I’ve had cats do that, it is not comfortable. I liked that they kept this tiny little trend going. It’s these little things that really make this show feel like an old friend and there are tons of them.
But wait, I’ve kept the best for last. Or before last, I’ll get into those extras later. For me, and you too, trust me, Matoba is always welcome. Never has a character so consistently left me wanting more and every time he swaggers onto the stage, you can bet that it’s going to be a fun episode. This season was no exception and the early Matoba two parter was a fun romp and a return to the more action driven episodes. And then came the Flashbacks.
This season has two flashback episodes that do not feature Natsume. Both are phenomenal. These two episodes alone would be more than worth your time. The first tell the story of young Natori and his introduction to the world of exorcist as well as to young Matoba. Natori’s own narration echos Natsume’s words but we soon see that the boys are very different. Even though he isn’t there, the show reminds us yet again just how deeply kind Natsume really is. What this episode really brings to the table though is the depiction of Natori and Matoba’s budding relationship/rivalry. Because of Natsume’s nature, the show never really got a chance to explore those more boisterous bonds that can form between young people and watching it happen was absolutely mesmerizing. Please please please, make the adventures of young Natori and Matoba a thing!
The second flashback episode focussed on Touko and Shigeru’s marriage, just before Natsume’s arrival. You may have picked up on the fact that I am not a fan of romance series. Partly because I am myself romantically challenged but also because the media doesn’t understand how to show love. They confuse it with passion or strip away all the fun of lust by dressing it up as some serious important thing. Fact is love, just isn’t all that photogenic. It’s a collection of small innocuous moments. It’s the massive amount of time and effort you willingly chose to dedicate to understanding someone other than yourself. It’s waking up one morning and realizing that going out of your way to make someone else happy is the most satisfying thing you can do today. But since those things are not in fact visible, we substitute inane grand gestures and standing around in bad weather instead.
Touko and Shigeru are in love. They genuinely enjoy each other’s company and value each other as people. They get excited when the other person does something they consider impressive because they want to be proud of their partner. They deeply respect each other and have made each other both stronger and more brittle. This my friends is Romance. This episode made me cry and love and yearn.
As for the OVAs and Special episode. They were OK, I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch them but don’t avoid them either. Of the three the second OVA was my favorite by far and was in fact what I would consider a very enjoyable stand alone episode.
As I breezed through season 5, a very welcomed contrast to the unending slog that was getting through New Game, I started thinking that after that only season 6 would remain. Even though this isn’t my favorite season, it remains a show I love and the thought made me nervous. I ended up just impulse buying the 20 first volumes of the manga on amazon. The internet assures me that a season 7 is quite possible but nothing has been announced yet. MAL has this listing of a Natsume movie in 2018. I just really really want more Natsume in any form. I’m not sure what to do once I run out. I may need your help guys.
What this anime taught me: At it’s worst Natsume is a fantastic show
Its good to leave alcohol, its not good to not know where you left it!
Suggested drink: Flashback
- Every time Natsume is mistaken for Reiko – take a sip
- Every time we see/hear about manju – take a snack
- Every time Natsume goes to town – take a sip
- Every time Natsume says “tadaima” – take a sip
- Every time anyone says “pretty” – smile
- Every time Natsume ends up helping someone after saying he wouldn’t – nod understandingly
- Every time Natsume gets called to dinner – toast
- Every time Sensei gets mistaken for a “thing” – take a sip
- Every time Natsume is being chased – take a sip
- Every time Natsume punches a Yokai – take a sip
- Every time Natsume is being chased hungry – finish your drink