Fans of Haibane Renmei and Mushishi rejoice! Natsume Yuujinchou has finally arrived, and what better way to explore the theme of loneliness than through the eyes of a boy who can see things nobody else can? Packed at every turn with great humour, intense tragedy and snippets of poetic dialogue, Natsume Yuujinchou is designed to evoke subtle emotion and leave you smiling sappily at the rest of the world.
My initial expectation was of a typical ‘catch ’em all’ series involving an onslaught of bright colours and loud transformation sequences; in stead, I find a slow-burning tale of a boy and his unconscious quest for a sense of belonging. Consider this: Natsume Yuujinchou’s presentation style is distinctly episodic, meaning that the external conflicts in themselves don’t add up to much. However, there remains a strong undercurrent of Natsume’s character development throughout as he grows from being a lonely orphan to a self-assured young man. As such, what makes the viewing experience so worthwhile is the subtle touch of delicate dilemmas and enchanting atmospheres.
There is of course the problem of events getting somewhat repetitive through the middle as some spirits even end up having the same female design and rather similar kinds of tragedies. Once or twice I got the impression that I’d been here before. Another disappointment would be in regards to the Book of Friends, which turns out to be nothing more than an initial plot device; even symbolically it seems to have very little relevance to the plot and Natsume Yuujinchou could easily have done without it.
Although the character designs are simplistic, the spirits still look highly effective. Some of them are just objects of comedy and are thus brilliantly wacky – however, in keeping with the great tradition of Japanese horror, a select few of the spirits look borderline nightmarish. The most disturbing of these is the silent shadow man set loose to devour Natsume; an amorphous black blob, his body distorts and appears and disappears at random.
As a whole, the voice acting is fantastic. Granted, the human characters are well acted and always suitable, but the best performances belong to the spirits. Be they comic reliefs or frightening foes, their intonations are so spot-on that they remain emotionally engaging throughout.
Another highlight soundtrack-wise is in regards to the ending theme; in stead of some sickly J-pop ballad, Natsume Yuujinchou soothes the ear with a traditional haunting vocal performance accompanied by a simple yet catchy guitar melody. ‘Natsu Yuuzora’ by Atari Kousuke is a single which easily continues the restful mood left at the end of each episode; so much so, in fact, that I listened to it all thirteen times (often on repeat). The opening theme, on the other hand, is more of a cheesy pop number and the stuff in between is suitably atmospheric rather than overly exciting. However, everything generally combines very well to generate a heart-warming and soporific atmosphere.
A bit like Rakka from Haibane Renmei, Natsume lacks any obvious dynamism or charisma and has in stead a quieter and more observant nature. He therefore fits the tone of the series to a tee and even allows for some refreshing interaction with the spirits. For example, Natsume isn’t particularly afraid of the spirits, nor does he feel the need to engage in elaborate ghostbusting whenever he sees one. Even less than that, he doesn’t subscribe to the view of Ginko from Mushishi and treat them like bizarre specimens to be analysed. In stead, Natsume’s relationship with them is one of mutual curiosity and respect; he approaches them with the sympathy he would give to any human being. This in turn goes a long way to humanising the spirits and making their predicaments emotional as well as entertaining.
Nyanko-sensei, being a cute and cynical spirit aide, has a role similar to that of all the other sidekicks out there (Kekkaishi’s Madarao and Card Captor Sakura’s Kero immediately spring to mind). Moreover, I find attempts at developing Nyanko to be rather contrived; he isn’t that convincing as a cynic with a soft side because very little is offered in the way of background information to explain his personality. As a result, while he is humorous and suits the content of the series very well, I feel no particular attachment to him.
As for the secondary characters, none of them come close to being as developed as the above two; they just don’t achieve that much from episode to episode. On the other hand, they each have unique quirks, are instantly likeable, and make for a fun supporting cast.
Natsume Yuujinchou doesn’t quite reach the grand, explorative scale of Mushishi, and I doubt it can be said to have the same narrative elegance as Haibane Renmei. However, in keeping with the monoliths of its genre, Natsume Yuujinchou achieves a sentimental charm all of its own and is sure to please countless fans of this style.
Natsume is lonely; he has an ability that separates him from others: he can see and interact with spirits. Soon, however, Natsume discovers that he’s not alone: his grandmother Reiko also had the gift. But things get hectic and possibly dangerous for Natsume when he finds out that he also inherited the 'Book of Friends', a book that contains the names of all the spirits Reiko defeated and subjugated. He finds himself hounded by his grandmother's underlings and, with the help of a 'cat' charm spirit, decides to free them from the Book's shackles, as well as protect the book from those who seek to misuse its power...
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