Natsume’s Book of Friends Seasons 1 & 2
Animation: Brain’s Base Release Date: October 9, 2012
Production: Nihon Ad Systems MSRP: $69.99
Publisher: NIS America Episodes: 26

Natsume’s Book of Friends is based on a manga that follows the life of high school student Takashi Natsume, who happens to have the ability to see yokai. In Japanese legends, yokai are supernatural creatures and spirits that most people can’t see. Some examples include tanukis, kappas, kitsune, and so on. He inherited this power from his grandmother and has been ostracized by others—including his own family—for most of his life because of it. At the beginning of the series, we meet Natsume just after he’s moved into his latest foster home, and since he doesn’t want to be shunted off to another family, he decides to keep quiet about the things he sees.

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Another thing Natsume inherited from his grandmother is the Book of Friends, which is a notebook filled with the names of yokai she made her servants. The Book grants its owner power over the yokai named within, so kind-hearted Natsume decides to return those names. Unfortunately, possessing the Book of Friends makes Natsume a target for power-hungry yokai, but at least he has Nyanko-sensei (a yokai named Madara who has been sealed within a lucky cat statue) around to act as his bodyguard. The catch? If Natsume dies before he finishes returning names, Madara gets to keep what’s left of the book.

With so many pages in the Book of Friends, Natsume always manages to find himself on a new adventure. This monster-of-the-week format makes each episode pretty self-contained. There is an over-arching plot, but I think anyone could jump in anywhere and not feel terribly lost. The writers let the story go at its own pace, so there’s never an excessive amount of information crammed into any single episode.

Though most episodes revolve around returning names to yokai,  the series is really about Natsume getting to know himself and forming bonds with both others. He has friends among humans and yokai, and the fact that he finds it difficult to place greater importance on one over the other is often a point of conflict. Ultimately, wrangling with his feelings toward both worlds helps Natsume grow as a person. The only downside is that it takes all of season one and part of season two for his new-found confidence to really shine through, and even then, he’s still annoyingly self-deprecating.

Throughout the first season, Natsume’s interactions with his high school “friends” always felt extremely forced compared to his more easy-going nature around yokai, but that’s just part of his development as a character. By the second season, he realizes he cares deeply about his family, and he even has some true friendships with a few humans who know about his powers. However, Natsume isn’t the only one who changes over the course of the series. Nyanko-sensei starts off with no interest in Natsume beyond obtaining the Book of Friends, but eventually, you can tell that he genuinely cares for the boy. The growing relationship between Natsume and Nyanko-sensei is pretty entertaining, and their interactions are a veritable fount of adorable comedy.

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While the two main characters are certainly the focus of Natsume’s Book of Friends, that doesn’t mean the side characters get relegated to the background. Every time we meet a new yokai, their story unfolds to reveal a complete personality and an interesting backstory. Natsume’s empathy for the loneliness that drives most yokai to bother people also helps the audience connect with them. On the other hand, it seems like the human characters fall flat for a bit, but that might just be because Natsume himself wasn’t paying much attention. By the end of season two, Natsume’s family and friends are more fleshed out, and you’ll start to welcome their appearance instead of wondering why they’re around.

All of the characters are also well-designed and easily distinguishable, but I wish their faces reflected their emotions more often. Sometimes, it really bothered me when Natsume in particular remained blank-faced even though his body language and the pitch of his voice indicated that he was angry or frightened. The series contains some gorgeous settings as well, and the art style often takes on an ethereal quality, particularly when Natsume is returning a yokai’s name. The background music isn’t as memorable as the artwork, but the fact that it didn’t stick out means that it never managed to get in the way, either. I personally favor the upbeat melody of the second opening theme more than the other intro and outro songs, but all of them are enjoyable.

The premium edition from NIS America includes a hardcover artbook, and it’s a nice touch to have the cover modeled after the Book of Friends. The book contains an episode guide, an interview with the series’ director, character art, and several full-page still images from the show. As you might expect from the contents, it’s filled with spoilers, so I’d suggest at least skipping the episode guide until after you’ve seen the episodes.

If you’re in the mood for a fantasy anime with a slower pace, then I’d recommend giving this one a try. It takes a little while for Natsume to sort things out, but it’s heartwarming to watch him grow and cultivate the relationships in his life. The second season ends on an interesting note that I don’t want to spoil, but fortunately, the show doesn’t stop there, and I’m looking forward to seeing the rest.

Full Disclosure: This series was reviewed using a copy provided by NIS America.

Art: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Music/Voice: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Characters: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Story: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Intangibles: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Overall: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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