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 Yuuhjinchou (AKA Natsume’s Book of Friends) is a 13 episode episodic supernatural drama anime featuring a lot of Japanese mythology and a pinch of comedy. This anime reminded me of XXXHOLiC a lot and feels very similar in a slice of life, episodic way. It’s a positive and relaxed anime, with themes of peace and friendship, but it does have some action. The main character has a long term goal and for that, this anime has a main story arc.
The animation quality is beautiful. I watched it in 720p and I could feel the fluidity of the animation and the simple details were well defined. The visual style of this anime is a bit relaxed, but is almost like a generic anime. It pulls ahead with the designs of most characters and it helps that these characters aren’t exactly human. It’s very well stylised, the cat especially resembles a chubby ornamental lucky cat. Though I personally prefer a more realistic cat, due to cuteness, they had a reason to go with that style here. Of course, there’s nothing shady depicted in this anime, some casual fights here and there.
One thing I found disappointing is the gender ambiguity with one character in this anime. The fox kit has long hair, sounds like a girl, looks like a girl and just seems to be a little girl. But the last episode they were repeatedly referred to as ‘he’ or ‘him’. I think the hair is the biggest issue, what little child has long hair when they are a boy? I was annoyed at being slightly mislead concerning this character.
The music of this anime is very suiting to the mood. The intro and outro are very acoustic tracks, featuring emphasis on the vocals and give off a gentle, peaceful vibe. It’s similar for the background music of the anime itself, very mellow and simple, just like the anime itself. Things may sound a bit comedic for the slightly funny scenes, but that’s just good use of sound and thusly good sound design.
The anime is only available in Japanese. I’m trying to think off the top of my head and I can’t think of any American voice actors (who usually do the dubs) who would sound suitably easy going here. But then again very few of these types of anime get a dub, so I wouldn’t know. The voice acting was done well, the voice actors were chosen correctly and the voices just sound right unlike a similar anime which I may have already mentioned in this review. I did notice that the Japanese used in this anime is slightly different than most anime. Perhaps this is an accent or there is a lot of use of older or more formal Japanese. An example is that ‘yuujin’ [ゆうじん] is used for the word friend much more than the regular ‘tomo(dachi)’ [ともだち], noticeable even in the title name of this anime.
Takashi Natsume is voiced by Hiroshi Kamiya, who voices Otonashi in Angel Beats, Levi in Attack on Titan, Shinji Matou in Fate: Stay Night, Seijirou Akashi in Kuroko no Basuke and Kouhei Morioka in Tsukuyomi Moon Phase. Nyanko-sensei is voiced by Kazuhiko Inoue, the voice of November 11 in Darker than Black, Kazkis Hauer in Ergo Proxy, William de Farnese in Romeo X Juliet and Keiichi Tamaru in Haruhi Suzumiya. Reiko Natsume is voice by Sanae Kobayashi, who has voiced Ennis in Baccano, Lucy in Elfen Lied, Daedelus Yumeno in Ergo Proxy, Xing Huo in Tsubasa Chronicle and Hitomi Kashiwa in Welcome to the NHK. Jun Sasada is voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro, having voiced Masami Iwasawa in Angel Beats, Chie in Eve no Jikan, Asako Shibasaki in Toshokan Sensou and Kotoho Isone in Yozakura Quartet. Kaname Tanuma is voiced by Kazuma Horie, who has voiced characters including Ryuu Tsuji in Special A. Touko Fujiwara is voiced by Miki Itou, the voice of Natalie Beriam in Baccano, Android 18 in Dragonball (Z), Taiga Fujimura in Fate Stay Night, Miyo Takano in Higurashi and Eri Minami in Persona 4.
Takashi Natsume is a blonde haired, brown eyed highschool boy. He is quiet and has a reserved character, being rather sensible and not getting involved in other people’s matters. Except the matters of Youkai, as Natsume has the very rare ability to see and interact with them. Being able to see them has caused him a lot of trouble in the past, others thought him to be weird and even his own parents wanted nothing to do with him. It also happens to be that these Youkai come to him to fight for the Yuujinchou (book of friends) or to have him help them as the Youkai often mistake him for his grandmother, who also had the same powers. As the only heir to his grandmother, her belongings have passed down to him, including the Yuujinchou. Natsume has a realistic personality, unlike most protagonists in anime. He acts like a normal guy, while he’s generally nice to people, he won’t hesitate to use casual violence on the likes of Nyanko sensei to knock some sense into them. He’s not much of a violent person though. He likes to leave people out of his life with the Youkai, for fear that they’ll despise him but also to protect them.
Nyanko Sensei AKA Madara is an egocentric Ayakashi (Youkai) in the form of a cat. Normal people can see him, which is a very unique ability for such beings. He can also transform into a big powerful wolf creature, usually when a bit of speed or brute force is needed. He can’t do much in his fat cat form, which looks funny like a lucky cat statue. He also has a human form as a school girl that looks a lot like Takashi’s grandmother. He hangs around with Takashi and is generally accepted as his pet cat. But he has a selfish deal to protect Takashi while he returns the names of some of the Youkai, in return for possession of the Yuujinjou when Natsume dies. Thus every time Natsume returns a name and the book gets thinner, he complains about it. He has bad manners and is lazy. He eats a lot, drinks a lot, acts lazy and is very rude. But he means well. He could let Natsume died in order to gain possession of the Yuujinjou as per the pact, but even he himself questions whether he has gotten attached to the boy. He claims to dislike humans too. He is adored by the various humans who come across him and they each affectionately call him by a different name.
Reiko Natsume is Takashi’s late grandmother. She passed away at a young age, likely before Takashi himself was ever born. She is the one who made the Yuujinjou and was its original owner. Like Takashi, she was able to see Youkai and was distanced from other people because of it. She had a very rowdy personality, she went around picking fights with Youkai and demanded their names if they lost. She used a baseball bat enchanted with spells. The names of these defeated Youkai were added to the Yuujinjou. She also was the type of girl who had her head in the clouds and forgot various promises and appointments she made with folks. Madara seems to use her image if he transforms into a human form.
Jun Sasada is the class representative of Takashi’s class at school. Like Takashi has the behaviour of a normal boy, Jun genrally has the behaviour of a normal girl, though the sensible type just like Takashi is a sensible guy. She’s had an encounter with Youkai before, though as she is a normal human being, she has been mostly unaware of them. She is the closest thing to a female friend Takashi has.
Kaname Tanuma is a boy in Takashi’s school, though from a different class. His father is a priest who often does exorcisms and he has weak powers similar to Takashi, he can’t see Youkai so clearly but he can sense them. He knows Takashi can see them and does his best to help him keep that fact a secret and also to make sure that others don’t get in his way when he’s dealing with Youkai.
Touko Fujiwara and Shigeru Fujiwara are Takashi’s legal guardians. They were his next-door neighbours when he was younger and still lived with his parents. Unlike his parents, they aren’t too aware of or freaked out by Takashi’s powers. They are kind and thoughtful towards him. Touko in particular is very motherly towards him, getting worried about him like a normal parent should. Takashi feels indebted towards them for taking care of him, but the Fujiwaras are happy to have him as their adoptive son. They are very lax and allow him to keep Madara (in his cat form) as a pet, they themselves even get accustomed to him and treat him well, giving him good food, much to Madara’s delight.
There’s various other characters like Atsushi and Satoru, Takashi’s best friends from school. The one-eyed Youkai and Ox Youkai are some minor recurring characters, peaceful Youkai who look up to Natsume as if he were some sort of lord. Shuichi Natori is an exorcist who can see Youkai, but has a different way of dealing with them, Takashi doesn’t agree with the way this guy treats Youkai.
Takashi Natsume, the teenage boy with the unique ability to see Youkai and spirits, runs into a strange talking cat Madara (Nyanko sensei) who reveals that he is in possession of a book known as the Yuujinchou (book of friends). On each page is the name of an Ayakashi Youkai subdued and made into servants by Natsume’s grandmother, the creator of the book from whom Natsume inheritred it from. Natsume decides he will return as many names from the book as he can via a ritual since the book has a profound effect and is a powerful artefact sought by evil Youkai who want to abuse its power. Anything that happens to the page happens to the Ayakashi within and possession of the book is enough to control the Ayakashi. Madara agrees to help him on the condition that he gets the book if he gets it when Takashi dies.
The plot is episodic and feels like a peaceful slice of life. It has some comedy with Nyanko sensei, the buta neko (fat cat). But it’s also quite serious, Natsume’s ability to see things causes him a lot of trouble, and has left him feeling lonely in the past as people shunned him for how weird they thought he was. Loneliness is one concept explored here, in conjunction with friends and friendship. The friends that Natsume makes and the experiences they share. Despite the various threats made at him and things, it’s a very peaceful and pleasant anime to watch.
Of course the maor annoyance here is that while a plot is set up, it seems to be an endless one, much like [SPOILERS]< Tsubasa Chronicles >[SPOILERS]. It does have a few seasons of sequels, so who knows, there may be an end to it. But that will put off people who like a complete story and it does annoy me, despite the fact that I can enjoy some slice of life anime.
It’s a pleasant anime and I’d recommend it for any age group who isn’t too fussed about anime that are a bit slice-of-life and having little overall plot.Other than that, you’d probably like it if you liked XXXHOLiC, though this is much more enjoyable to watch since there were no annoying things like XXXHOLiC had. It has zero bullshit and the narrative manages to hold itself. The only minor complaint I have is the gender ambiguity of one character which was very misleading for me, regardless of what gender they actually are. Unless there was an error in the subtitles and it meant to say ‘she’. Give this anime a good try. I enjoyed it and found it rather relaxing, even if at one point (or more) Natume’s death became a real possibility. The lack of a conclusion holds it back, but it has sequels which may potentially redeem it in that regard. Thus I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt, but I’ll be more critical of the plot in the sequels.
Family-friendliness Rating: 1/5 Um… erm… monsters want to eat Natsume? (lower is better)
Overall Rating: 7.5 /10 (higher is better)
If you are looking for a time-filler that won't bore you to death or annoy you incessantly, then Natsume Yuujinchou will serve your needs if you are willing to forgive its plot problems. If you are looking for a memorable anime or one with an impact, I'd advise you to look elsewhere.
Story: As a self-described story snob, chances were very good coming into an episodic anime like Natsume Yuujinchou that I would find a lot of negative things to say and, lo and behold, I do. The name of the game when it comes to Natsume Yuujinchou is "ummm what?" There were so many glaring plot holes and completely inexplicable (and typically stupid) events that I actually kept a list which I won't post here due to potential spoilers and space consideration.
The anime begins with Natsume, a boy who has always been able to see spirits (or Youkai, or Ayakashi, or Gods, the anime can never decide exactly what to call them), accidentally releasing a spirit in the form of a fortune cat named Nyanko-sensei (or Madara) while running away from some attacking spirits. Why Nyanko was sealed away is never explained. Nyanko recognizes Natsume as the descendant of Natsume Reiko, who was in fact the protagonist's grandmother. Nyanko then explains that the reason why spirits have been attacking Natsume recently is because Natsume has the "Book of Friends" which holds the names (and thus enslaves) a large number of spirits that were captured by his grandmother.
Whoever holds this book has control over many powerful spirits and could use this power however they see fit. After Nyanko threatens to kill Natsume and demands that he give him the book and admits to planning on using it for evil purposes, Natsume says that he will release all of the names in the book and then give it to Nyanko once he's finished and Nyanko, bizarrely, agrees. So in effect Natsume has unlimited power in his hand and decides to throw as much of it away as he can and then give what's left to the first evildoer to come asking. Nyanko merely has to eat a weak human (something spirits do regularly and without contrition) to grab this power but instead agrees to protect him as a bodyguard as he destroys the power while Nyanko waits to be given the scraps. Sorry if I make this sound confusing, but that's literally what the anime uses as its story base.
From that basis, you'd expect to see something of a reverse catch-em-all with Natsume releasing progressively more powerful names from the book. You'd be right for the first 6-7 episodes after which the Book is completely forgotten apart from a cameo role in the second to last episode. After the halfway point, the anime devolves into completely unrelated episodic garbage that serves no purpose in the sense of a story arc including the traditional "school trip to the hot springs" and "classmates go to a festival" episodes. I suppose I should be grateful that they didn't include the beach episode in there, though maybe they just ran out of time with only 13 episodes.
I will say this one positive of the story, however: the progression of Natsume from a shy, ostracized loner to a friendly, kind young man is well done and seamless.
Animation: The animation score is entirely contingent on which half of the anime you're watching. The spirits in the first half of Natsume Yuujinchou are all extremely well drawn, uniquely designed, and are the real eye-candy of this anime. In the second half, character designs are reused with only a change in color used to differentiate between the spirits and none are particularly interesting. Natsume and Nyanko (especially his alternate forms) are consistently well designed and I especially like the touch with Natsume's unique eye color.
I do, however, have a bone to pick with the animation sequence when Natsume releases a name. I have a question for people who have seen this anime: does this sequence seem to have sexual undertones to you, or am I just being overly-sensitive? For those of you who haven't seen this anime, good luck not seeing those undertones now :).
Sound: My copy of this anime frustratingly had the OP and ED edited out of every episode so I had to go look for them on YouTube. The OP is your standard slow-paced J-Pop, but the ED shines with an acoustic guitar melody with pleasantly soothing vocals.
The voice acting is without fault and the voices of the spirits in particular are perfect. The tones and accents given to the spirits all match perfectly and give them a certain flavor. Thankfully, this is one thing that carries over past the halfway point of the anime. Apart from the spirits, Reiko's voice acting is great and perfectly matches her personality and egotism.
Characters: There aren't really any qualities that will make Natsume or Nyanko stand out in my mind in the future. Natsume is your cut-and-paste protagonist full of irritating naiveté and the will to do everything for everyone. He does mature a little over the course of the series, but that alone isn't enough to make him an interesting character. Nyanko is frustrating in that he consistently says that he wants the Book for its power but not only watches Natsume destroying it, but actually helps him in the process making him nothing more than a plot device to save Natsume from powerful spirits and to explain the machinations of the spirit world to the audience. Nyanko's propensity for self-indulgence does offer a smile or two during the series, however.
Reiko is an unbelievable jerk, going around beating up innocent spirits and enslaving them and then abandoning them to their loneliness, Natsume's female classmate is a breathtakingly stupid girl who Natsume treats like crap, constantly making her look one direction while he ditches her, and Tanuma and Shuichi don't have enough of a presence to create an opinion on them.
While the spirits are generally well designed and well voiced, as characters they suffer from a series of motives that are, at best, obscure and, at worst, non-existent. The little fox spirit is a charming little girl who makes up for some of the lack of identity with the spirits (edit: curse you androgynous character design).
Overall: I'm not entirely sure what to make of Natsume Yuujinchou. Despite the glaring plot holes, I actually enjoyed the first half of the anime largely due to the unique and interesting voice acting and character designs of the spirits. But the second half commonly reuses spirit designs and, instead of having plot holes, has no plot at all. It's almost as if the people who made the first half weren't the same people who made the second half.
After finishing Natsume Yuujinchou, I think the main problem I can identify with the series is a lack of identity. Natsume Yuujinchou isn't a catch-em-all with spiritual elements, it's not a dramedy (drama/comedy), it isn't a ghost hunt with supernatural enemies, and it's not a relationship/coming of age anime. It just sort of muddles around in the middle ground and, unfortunately, loses itself.
How is it that a series about loneliness can make me fool so good?
In terms of sheer affection, it's hard to find another anime that can rival Natsume Yuujinchou for me. There are better series out there - but few that inspire such a reservoir of good will. This is a series that can soften the hardest hearts, and melt the rest.
The show is based on an ongoing manga by Midorikawa Yuki. Solidly in the shoujo genre in terms of art and style, it incorporates elements of fantasy and even horror, on occasion. The premise is straightforward - a teenaged boy named Natsume Takeshi has a strange ability - he can see and interact with youkai spirits, the countless creatures who inhabit the Japanese countryside and imagination. An orphan, Natsume's ability has caused him to be ostracized from friends and passed from relative to relative, until he finally ends up at the home of distant relatives Touko and Shigeru Fugiwara. From his grandmother Reiko, who shared his ability, Natsume has inherited the Book of Friends, a list of youkai names she'd taken by force as a teenager. This draws attention to Natsume, including that of Nyanko-sensei, an ayakashi named Madara who has taken the form of a "lucky cat" statue. Nyanko-sensei agrees to be Natsume's bodyguard in exchange for taking possession of the Book upon Natsume's death.
The art in the anime has been softened and brightened somewhat from the manga style, which is adapted quite literally in the OP and ED animation. Midorikawa's style, especially, is reminiscent of Earnest Shephard's illustrations for the original Winnie the Pooh books - with whom there is a certain spiritual connection, it seems to me. The series, while aired in two 13-episode cours separated by a year or so, nevertheless feels like one entity. Both OPs and EDs are superb, especially the first ED - which tended to begin as an accompaniment to the last few lines of dialogue of the episode. The BGM is wonderful too.
What really sells the series is the writing. Like Mushishi, another brilliant series to which it is often compared, Natsume Yuujinchou (especially in the first cour) is episodic - with Natsume and Nyanko-sensei the common thread that ties the episodes together. But where Mushishi had a detached, intellectual quality to it Natsume Yuujunchou is overtly emotional - it's warm to Mushishi's cool. The theme that ties all of these episodes together is loneliness. First and foremost, Natsume's. He's a boy who was never at home anywhere - shunned by his fellow children and relatives alike as a freak, and perhaps cursed. He has no one to share his world with, until fate brings him in contact with Nyanko-sensei. Madara is lonely, too, and enjoys Natsume's company - though he'd never admit it.
Where this story especially excels is in the introduction of one-off characters. As with Mushishi the episodic stories are often memorable, but the characters are more indelible here - the adorable kitsune in "The Little Fox's Hat", Kai, the lonely water God in the series finale, the tiny deity down to his last worshiper... Loneliness is their common thread, too. The worlds of human and youkai co-exist, often independent of each other, but both humans and youkai sometimes find each other in their loneliness, and for a brief moment in time there's a connection. But it's almost always ill-fated, and Natsume often finds himself in the role of reuniting these separated entities - and helping them find closure. And he, who straddles both the human and youkai worlds, is not really a part of either - even to the extent of never being able to tell the Fugiwaras the truth about himself.
This is not a series for cynics, I suppose - though I'm a pretty cynical guy and if any series can break down cynicism, this one can. Very, very few series I've seen can engender such strong emotional reactions - the feelings in these stories are so genuine and so heartfelt that they seem universal. The series is funny, genuine, sometimes exciting, and almost always bittersweet - right to the brilliant conclusion in episode 26. I recommend it highly to anyone looking for a show that will make you feel, in a real and meaningful way. Even the sadness so frequently a part of the emotional palette here seems healthy and natural - an honest and elemental part of who we are as thinking, feeling creatures whose paths intersect for the briefest of moments in this life. If we're lucky, our lives can have a series of those moments that truly move us - and Natsume Yuujinchou is about those moments.
The story is a mixture of the older xxxHolic and Mushishi. That is, it takes the plot of xxxHolic and the pace and youkai of Mushishi. It's episodic, so the quality varies, but every episode is mellow and follows the same concept. I personally sometimes had problems with the pace, because there were a lot of moments that seemed to drag on forever.
The animation is decent, but it's nothing mind blowing. The character design is fairly realistic and the backgrounds were pretty.
The dubbing and soundtrack is of high quality, but I can't say I stopped myself to listen to any particular track, and I can't recall one from memory either. The OP and ED (especially) are pleasantly mellow and calming.
Again, I couldn't help but compare the characters from xxxHolic, because Watanuki and Natsume are pretty much in the same position, both "the weird loner that can see beings and things other people can't see", but while Watanuki developed a feisty personality and refuses to take shit from anyone, Natsume completely closed up, and apart from being kind (which Watanuki is, too), he doesn't really have any personality and he always just sort of goes along with anything. Then we have the mentor - while Yuuko is mysterious and interesting, the cat sensei here is only highly annoying and unfunny. And there's no sympathetic sidekick Doumeki character type either. The most interesting character becomes Reiko, who sadly only has a couple of minutes on the screen. The youkai themselves were mostly fun to watch and are definitely more memorable than in Mushishi, but some of them had the exact same motivations (in love with a human/overly fond of Reiko), so I would have prefered a little variety.
Overall, it was a nice show, despite the pace sometimes. But as I've already seen similar anime, for me it lacked originality, and I also hated the cat.
Watched for the AP Secret Santa 2018