Sunday, November 11, 2012

Natsume's Book of Friends, Seasons 1-4 (anime TV series), via Crunchyroll

Natsume's Book of Friends (Natsume Yūjin-Chō) is a slice-of-life anime with lots of supernatural elements. Assuming the fourth season is the final one, this series is 52 episodes long. Crunchyroll is streaming the first three seasons here and the fourth season here.

Sorry for the long synopsis. Four seasons gave me a lot of material to cover, even though I did my best to avoid spoilers.

Synopsis:

When Natsume was very young, his father died, and he was sent to live with one distant relative after another. Everywhere he went, he was eventually called a liar, or teased for being strange, because he could see yōkai (various supernatural beings) that no one else could see. By the time Natsume was old enough for high school, he had almost given up on finding people who would accept him. Then the kind Fujiwaras took him in, and he inherited a book his grandmother, Reiko, left behind.

Reiko, like Natsume, could see spirits and was shunned by many humans. Whenever she came across any yōkai, she challenged them to a game or a fight. Whenever Reiko won, which was every single time, since she was pretty powerful, she made the yōkai write their names in her notebook. In theory, she could have used their names to call on those yōkai and force them to obey her, but she never did.

Rather than use the Book of Friends to turn yōkai into slaves, Natsume chooses instead to give the names back to their owners. Madara, a powerful yōkai, agrees to act as Natsume's bodyguard on the condition that he gets to have the Book of Friends and whatever names are left in it if Natsume dies. Because Madara usually takes the form of an adorable lucky cat, Natsume nicknames him Nyanko-sensei.

When Natsume gives a name back, he is usually able to see a little of its owner's past and how Reiko originally came to meet them. He is also occasionally able to see yōkai memories in his dreams. Although he had previously mostly been frightened and resentful of yōkai, now he begins to befriend some of them. His efforts to help various yōkai lead to him eventually befriending (or being befriended by?) several humans, including a boy who can detect spirits, although not nearly as well as Natsume, the class president, a girl who is a descendant of onmyōji, and an exorcist.

At one point, the series introduces an entire society of exorcists. The Matoba clan is composed of some of the most powerful ones. The head of the Matoba clan is very interested in recruiting Natsume, but his approach to dealing with yōkai (he believes in enslaving, killing, or exorcising them, not befriending them) is not something the much more gentle Natsume can get behind. The exorcists only take up a small portion of the series, however - most of the focus is on Natsume making both human and yōkai friends and gradually learning to trust and rely on them.

Review:

I've been finished with this series for some time now, but couldn't figure out how to word my review. While I'm still not sure I've adequately described how I feel about this series, it's time to finally get this out of my Draft section.

There was so much I loved about this series. While many of the episodes were bittersweet, the series stopped short of ripping viewers' hearts out and stomping on them – although most episodes left me a little (or a lot) teary-eyed, they didn't leave me feeling depressed. In addition to “bittersweet,” other words I'd use to describe this series are “soothing” and “comforting.” Natsume's Book of Friends made for great viewing on days when I needed a pick-me-up, and I could easily have watched many more episodes of it.

The bulk of the characters in this series are some of the nicest people ever. After spending most of his childhood with one family after another, never feeling like he belonged or was wanted, Natsume had the great good fortune of ending up with Touko and Shigeru, a couple so kind that, when Natsume destroyed a portion of their home, they just smiled and told him they trusted him when he said he'd fix it all. I only wish he could have moved in with them sooner.

Then there were Natsume's friends, who worked hard to help him despite his efforts not to get them involved in the more dangerous aspects of his life. Even his two completely normal friends supported him more than nearly everyone else in his life prior to the start of the series. Although he actively tried to act ordinary around them, he did have moments when he slipped, and they didn't turn on him for that, nor did them turn on him during the moments when his past came back to haunt him. Natori and Nyanko were more cynical than some of the other characters and more aware of the ways Natsume's desire to be kind and helpful could come back to bite him, but rather than trying to lock him down or leave him to deal with the consequences on his own, they helped him when they could. It made me happy to see Natsume get all that support, knowing how little he used to get.

I enjoyed watching Natsume go from being someone who felt he had to show a pleasant, normal mask to everyone in his life to being someone who could relax and occasionally lean on his friends a little. It took a while, but he eventually learned to trust that Touko, Shigeru, and all his friends wouldn't leave him at the first sign of weirdness and trouble. Originally, I expected him to eventually tell Touko and Shigeru the truth about himself and thought that would be how he would demonstrate his trust in them. They never did find out about his abilities, at least not in the anime (I haven't yet read the manga), but I was satisfied with the explanation given for why he didn't want or need to. Natsume was the kind of character you couldn't help but want to hug. Some of the last few episodes, which showed how Natsume came to live with Touko and Shigeru and what his life was like in one of his first foster homes, really drove that home. I cried quite a bit during those episodes.

The series could easily have been weighed down by its bittersweet moments and flashbacks to the darker times in Natsume's life. However, humor kept things lighter than they might otherwise have been. That, and cuteness. Nyanko, in his lucky cat form, was OMG adorable.

Initially, I thought that this series was going to be very “yōkai of the week.” I don't know that I'd have minded that, as long as Natsume continued to grow as a character, but the Book of Friends seemed a little too thin to sustain something like that. I admit I was glad that there were episodes devoted to Natsume's relationships with others and efforts to help yōkai who weren't in the Book of Friends. The subplot involving the exorcist clans was also relatively interesting, although it leads me to one of the few things I didn't quite like about this series.

When Natsume learned about the existence of the exorcists, he thought he'd finally found human beings with whom he could belong. It didn't take long for him to realize that, despite sharing their ability to see yōkai, he didn't really have much in common with those exorcists. They viewed yōkai as liars and enemies of human beings, things to either exorcise or enslave. There were occasional shades of gray, like the one exorcist who befriended a yōkai she at first thought was a human being, or Natori, who was somewhere between Natsume and the other exorcists in terms of how he felt about yōkai. Mostly, though, the world of the exorcists turned out to not be the haven Natsume had hoped for.

The portion of the series dealing with the exorcists seemed to me to be more action-oriented and less slice-of-life than the rest of the series. It extended the series' world a little and made the human side of it richer (the yōkai side was already plenty rich and diverse), but it didn't quite seem to fit with the rest of the series. Also, after introducing the exorcists and making it clear that the head of the Matoba clan was interested in recruiting someone as strong as Natsume, the entire Matoba subplot was eventually dropped with surprisingly little fuss. I suspect this is primarily a fault of the anime – anime adaptations of manga that don't cover the full run of the manga often introduce subplots that then never get wrapped up. I'm looking forward to reading the original manga and seeing how it deals with Natori and the Matoba clan.

The exorcists weren't the only thing the anime introduced and then later dropped. Several things came up during the series that were never fully explained. For instance, I still wonder who Reiko ended up having a child with, and how she died. I'd also love to know more about the mystery of Natori's salamander yōkai.

Overall, despite some minor complaints, I thought this was a wonderful series. Although manga tends to be harder and more time-consuming for me to get, I think it would probably be worth it. I also hope to one day own the anime version. Like Fruits Basket, it would make for excellent “comfort viewing.”

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • The Earl and the Fairy (manga) story by (I think) Mizue Tani, art by Asako Takaboshi - I don't actually have any experience with the manga, but I did watch the anime, which unfortunately hasn't been licensed in North America yet. The main character of this series is a young woman who can see fairies no one else can see and who is a bit of an outcast because of this. The anime version is very swashbuckle-y. I'm assuming the manga is similar, but I could be wrong. I have written about the anime.
  • Xxxholic (manga) by CLAMP; Xxxholic (anime TV series) – This series features another character whose life is hard because he can see spirits. As the story progresses, he meets some spirits that are bad and some he befriends. Sometimes the line is a little blurred, as spirits he cares for harm him merely by being around him. I very much recommend the manga over the anime, in this case. I have written about the anime (or at least the first part - season? - of it) and volume 12 of the manga.
  • Land of the Blindfolded (manga) by Sakura Tsukuba – This series has a similar gentle feel and features a few characters whose lives are made more difficult by things they can see that others can't. Kanade, a girl who can sometimes see the future of the people she touches, meets Naitou Arou, a boy who can see the pasts of the things he touches. Arou finds in Kanade a reason to enjoy life and to look for the good his ability can do. It's a very heart-warming series.
  • Mushishi (manga) by Yuki Urushibara; Mushi-shi (anime TV series) – Another series featuring a kind loner who can see creatures no one else can. The manga was originally licensed by Del Rey, so it may be a bit of a pain to get, but the anime is still very much available. I only have experience with the anime, just the first couple episodes, but what I saw was gorgeous.
  • Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo; Bleach (anime TV series) – This is very much an action series, rather than slice-of-life, but it at least starts off similar, with a character who can see spirits no one else can. In his case, a good chunk of what he sees is terrifying.
  • Tactics (anime TV series) – There's also a manga version, but I don't have any experience with it and vaguely remember reading less-than-stellar reviews of it. I've seen the entire anime, which deals with spirits and features and main character who seems to view yōkai as both friends and servants.
  • Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, beginning with Preludes and Nocturnes – There's a similar bittersweet, almost calm, feeling about death in this series. It's a part of life, not something to be feared. You do what you need to do, what you're able to do in your life, and you try to be satisfied with that and your death. This series is darker and, at times, gorier and more sexual than Natsume's Book of Friends. If you're in the mood for that, go for it. It's a fascinating series.
  • Fruits Basket (manga) by Natsuki Takaya; Fruits Basket (anime TV series) – Another slice-of-life fantasy series starring a character who doesn't like to admit her problems to the people she likes, because she doesn't want to upset them or cause problems for them. The anime version of this series is, for me, "comfort viewing." The manga covers the complete story, although it enters darker and more messed up territory than the anime.

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