At first glance, it would almost seem that Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou is nothing more than a second season of Natsume Yuujinchou, but it actually makes a number of interesting changes to the premise of the first series. While a few of these changes are intriguing enough to draw my interest, most were poor decisions that drag down what could have been a major improvement over the lackluster first series.
Story: I'm still a story snob, and the story is still episodic, so that already precludes this anime from getting a good score here in my book, fair warning. The first major change the story made here is that the Book of Friends is back! But not really. While the Book of Friends shows up in the storylines on several occasions, it is always stuck in incongruously in what appears to be nothing more than a pathetic attempt to convince the audience that the Book is at all relevant to the anime that bears its name. This is a case of writers recognizing a problem from the first series (namely the utter insignificance of the Book of Friends) and responding in the wrong way. Instead of creating a plot centered on the Book, the writers just have it conveniently falling out of Natsume's pouch in almost every episode so that a few lines can be dedicated to reminding the audience that it still exists. And then back it goes into the pouch and into the dark abyss where banished plot ideas go.
The majority of the series is based on the clichéd episodic anime standards of blahblah selflessness, blahblah friendship, blahblah self-realization, blahblah corny life lesson. It's just irritating in its mediocrity. I've never understood the appeal of episodic storytelling. When you're forced to create an entirely new plot every 24 minutes, there are bound to be holes. It's just impossible to have a plot of any sort of complexity with the fragmented style of episodic storytelling.
Oh, and remember how there were only about 2 people who could see spirits in the first series? Pretty much every human character introduced in this series can see or hear them, which does severe damage to the "Natsume overcoming the loneliness inherent in his ability" theme.
All of that said, there was one glaring and surprising sucess in terms of story in this series. In the middle of the series a plot was introduced that actually spanned two episodes. You may laugh but that actually blew me away. Imagine how I reacted when the final three episodes of the series all shared the same plot. Tears may or may not have been involved... Actually the last three episodes of the series were very impressive. They showed just what these two series should have been. An organization is introduced that forces Natsume to discover whether it is better to be pragmatic or idealistic and just how he values the life of a spirit against that of a human. These three episodes showed how you can be both episodic and still have some sort of direction for your plot. It would have been interesting if they had spent these two series exploring this organization, but they didn't have enough time to expand the topic in only three episodes. I'd actually rate those episodes fairly high, but seeing as I had to go through 10 episodes (or 23 if you include the first series) of crap to reach them, the story score remains low.
Animation: Overall, the artwork is very well drawn and crisp, but one of the major strengths of the first series was the unique and detailed designs for all of the spirits. So, with their infinite reserves of common sense, the writers abandoned that. Nearly all of the spirits in this series are either cut-and-paste designs from the first series or merely humans with masks on. It's entirely lacking in originality and it's a decision that I really don't understand. There are, however, a few (like 3 or 4) spirits who still had interesting designs that were distinct from the bland masses.
Ok, if anyone has an answer to this, please, please tell me because I'm baffled. Was the animator sick for episode 10 and they had to bring someone else in or what? Both the character design and the animation styles are completely different. Movements are much more exaggerated and languid and as for drawing characters, well just look at Natsume:
Natsume in episodes 1-9, 11-13:
Natsume in episode 10:
Hair, eyebrows, nose, chin, jaw, ears, they're all totally different. The character design looks very similar to House of Five Leaves. Despite extensive research (read: a Google search), I can't find any information on what happened there, but it was really distracting.
Sound: Seems like the song choices for the OP and ED were based on the first series. The OP is standard J-Pop again, nothing you'll particularly enjoy. But again the ED is a nice, relaxing song, though it's piano-heavy instead of acoustic guitar-heavy this time. The voice acting is still great.
Characters: It's almost getting to the point where I have to assume any character without size DD breasts is a male. Like the fox spirit in the first series, there is a dragon spirit here who is clearly feminine, but is of course a male. Why does anime do this all the time. You don't see live action movies casting Shirley Temple as a boy, do you?
Reiko must have signed a press relations agent or something because the girl who was a complete prick in the first series as she walked around terrorizing and enslaving innocent spirits is suddenly portrayed as a sensitive prankster with a heart of gold. I'm not sure either persona is particularly better, but I'd just like to see some consistency.
Phase three of my whine tour is Nyanko. He's like Stewie from Family Guy. Nobody ever explicitly states whether regular people can hear him or not, but they imply that some people can sometimes and not others. Even people who can hear him talk at one point in an episode are unable to at a different point in the same episode.
On a positive note, Taki, a supporting character who was introduced in the ground-breaking two episode plot-line is generally a success. She's brave and selfless, but immature. Her relations with Nyanko were the highlight of the series in my opinion. The characters that were introduced in the organization from the final three episodes are a part of this series that I really wish they had spent more time on that organization instead of random disconnected life lessons.
Overall: I just want to emphasize again that, if this series had stopped at episode 10, this review would have been hugely negative because there appeared to be no progression from the first season, but the end of this series showed the potential that has been hiding in the background here for two seasons. If a third season of this anime is made, I really hope they stick to the direction that they were heading at the end here and not revert back to the utterly pointless episodic story writing that has severely limited this promising series.