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Guest Post: Unearthed Treasure with Firechick – Natsume’s Book of Friends Seasons 1-4 (95/100)

(This review will cover seasons 1-4, and as of this writing, I still haven’t seen seasons 5 and 6, along with the movie and some of the OVAs. I really need to change that)

Man, Natsume’s Book of Friends, or its Japanese title, Natsume Yuujinchou, is such an important series to me, you can’t imagine. I remember seeing a promo image of it on the AnimeSuki forums and thinking it looked nice, along with thinking Nyanko-sensei looked cute. But I’m not gonna lie, the second I finished the first episode of this series, way back in 2008, I was hooked, and continued to devour more of it as the series churned out more new seasons…until the fourth season ended in 2012. Four years passed until a new season came out, and another one after that…but I couldn’t bring myself to watch them, because it was during that time that I was in my massive anime burnout phase. It didn’t help that since it had been years since season 4 ended, I wasn’t sure if I could keep up with any new developments the new series had, and I had no motivation to just go back and rewatch the series in Japanese. It also didn’t help that in 2011, NIS America announced that they would release the seasons that were available later down the line, but with no English dub. I couldn’t afford to buy the DVDs NIS put out back then, as they were too expensive for me and I didn’t have a job. As of this writing, I still keep up with the manga and even own the volumes that are out in the US right now, with intent to keep buying them until the series reaches its conclusion, whenever that’ll be, and since I have a job, I can actually buy the manga volumes as they come out! So as much as I absolutely love Natsume’s Book of Friends to death, I couldn’t bring myself to get back to it for some reason.

That is, until July of 2022. My friends, when the news dropped that Crunchyroll was giving the first season of Natsume’s Book of Friends an English dub 14 years after the first season aired (And then proceeded to dub seasons 2 and 3 afterward), I absolutely SCREAMED with joy! Right in the middle of a work meeting, no less! It was here that I realized: I have a reason to go back to the show now! I really hope to God Crunchyroll not only dubs the rest of the seasons and movies, but puts them out on home video! I did manage to acquire the NIS DVDs at some point, but if CR re-releases the series, I’m more than happy to sell my old copies and buy the series anew! Seriously, Natsume’s Book of Friends in general is absolutely one of my favorite anime of all time, and one of many anime that influenced my tastes when I first began dipping my toes into the anime/manga fandom as a whole. And honestly? Even after all these years, I still think the series holds up fantastically well, a few minor nitpicks notwithstanding.

But enough of my fangirling, what’s the series actually about? For the uninitiated, the series centers on a young boy named Takashi Natsume, who has the ability to see spirits—referred to as youkai—something that’s caused him quite a lot of grief growing up. It doesn’t help that these spirits keep mistaking him for his grandmother, Reiko, who could also see and interact with youkai. When he unwittingly sets a cat spirit named Madara free, Madara, or Nyanko as he gets called in his round cat form, tells him that his grandmother Reiko collected the names of various youkai in a book she made called the Book of Friends. If a youkai’s name is in said book, they are bound in servitude to whoever has their name. Natsume inherited the book, and upon learning of its true purpose, he decides to make it his mission to return the names of all the youkai in the book, including the ones that want to kill him. Nyanko decides to become his bodyguard and adviser, though he also wants the Book of Friends, and Natsume promises to let Nyanko have it if he should die before he has the chance to return the names Reiko collected. The series mainly centers on Natsume releasing the various spirits that either come to him for help, try to kill him, have some beef with Reiko, and so on. Other series have done similar things before this, centering on kids who can see spirits, but few have ever done it with the subtle touch that Natsume has achieved, and maintained for six whole seasons, at that!

One of the things that make Natsume as a show so charming is its relaxing, dream-like atmosphere. It doesn’t try to be the epic of the year, nor does it try to make every youkai out to be monstrous beings who want to eat Natsume. There are just as many nice youkai as there are malicious ones, and all of them are varied, with charming characterizations that you won’t find in other series. Many of the episodic stories lean more on the heartwarming and laid-back side, though that’s not to say the series can’t be dramatic and serious when the situation calls for it. The series does remain episodic, but rather than use that as an excuse to maintain the status quo and remain stagnant (Looking at you, Mrs. Pepperpot and Digimon Ghost Game), Natsume instead makes every episode throughout every season varied, changing every week, focusing more on how Natsume and his friends overcome whatever adversaries they face, whether they be other youkai, regular people, or even their own personal issues and inner demons. Natsume really takes its time in exploring the various aspects of the supernatural world in depth, preferring subtlety over bombast.

It helps that Natsume as a series actually takes the time to develop its cast of characters, from the main cast to the minor characters, giving them the right amount of depth and nuance that makes them feel like they’re more than just one-note archetypes, all throughout every season, so even while the series remains episodic, there’s still some degree of progression happening. To quote another reviewer, every season of Natsume also has a slightly different tone from the other. The first was about quiet and relaxing stories about all sorts of youkai Natsume meets. Season 2 instead put the focus more on the main plot and various recurring characters. The third season was dedicated to Natsume’s development, and the fourth season is about Natsume’s relationship with the people around him. Imagine what a wonderful total picture this all creates! And I can only imagine what the fifth and sixth seasons manage to tackle, along with the movie! Every member of the cast gets fleshed out over the course of these four seasons, probably further in the fifth and sixth seasons, so you have plenty of time to get to know the characters, their strengths, weaknesses, quirks, idiosyncrasies, and everything that makes them tick, resulting in an awesome, memorable ensemble. The show puts in the effort to make you care about the characters and their individual journeys, something most things nowadays just don’t give a shit about anymore. I know I very much identified with Natsume in particular, as while our situations are nothing alike, I could relate to feeling socially isolated due to being autistic and not keeping up with the ever changing social norms and expectations of the neurotypicals. Did I mention I love this show yet?

The subdued animation also helps accentuate Natsume’s Book of Friends’ overall tone and atmosphere, with soft, airy backgrounds that don’t skimp on the details, down-to-earth character designs for the humans, and the varied, creative designs for all the youkai. The series doesn’t have a lot of kinetic motion, mainly saving it for when a scene or story beat calls for it, which is a smart move on Natsume’s part, because when the animation gets going, it can be utterly fantastic. The early seasons do have a bit of a faded look to it, being made in the late 2000s and all, but as the series evolves with every season, so does the animation, which gets better and better, remaining consistent and staying strong throughout its entire run. That’s not a feat most anime can boast, even long series. The soundtrack is also pretty stellar, also relying more on subtlety over bombast, with its pleasant woodwinds, pianos, kotos, and the occasional strings. That being said, with the different seasons having different openings and ending themes, I like some better than others. The first two seasons have great opening songs, and all the ending songs are beautiful and heartfelt, but some of the opening songs for the later seasons start to get a little grating on my ears. Thankfully, seasons five and six have better opening songs, so my worries about those have been assuaged.

With the series being so long, I’m sure people who want to watch it for the first time may find it daunting, and there are some episodes that aren’t as good as the rest of the series. But those episodes are few and far in-between, with the series retaining its top-tier quality throughout its entire run most of the time. I know I absolutely loved the episodes about Tama, Kirinoha, the Hotaru episode, everything involving the little fox youkai, and any episode that delves into Natsume’s personal history. But I’m sure the main question you’re asking is: Can you watch any season of Natsume by themselves? Well, not necessarily. The series does have an episodic format to it, but like I mentioned before, there is progression and continuity, and every season builds upon what its predecessors established previously, so I honestly wouldn’t recommend watching later seasons by themselves without having seen the seasons before them. But that’s no reason to miss out on Natsume’s Book of Friends at all, IMHO, because it’s an absolutely amazing anime that 100% deserves the enduring popularity it’s gotten.

In case I didn’t make it painfully and obnoxiously obvious, I love love LOVE Natsume’s Book of Friends. I own a Nyanko-sensei plushie that I’ve had since 2012, along with other Natsume-themed trinkets, I own the NIS America DVDs, I’m collecting the manga to this day, and I am impatiently waiting for the rest of the series to get dubbed and re-released on home video. Natsume is very near and dear to my heart. Discovering it as an insecure high schooler probably helped cement its place as one of my top five favorite anime ever, and it had a heavy influence on the stuff I tend to watch now, though not completely, in case you couldn’t tell by other anime I’ve watched. I really need to get off my butt and watch seasons five, six, and the movies already. So yeah, the fact that Natsume’s Book of Friends continues to be popular to this day makes me very happy, and I can only hope that it remains strong for as long as it lasts, even the manga. The fact that the series is finally getting an English dub after over a decade renewed hope for this series in the US, and for me personally. This isn’t an anime for people who want adrenaline-inducing action nor gaggles of girls with ridiculously huge boobs covering the screen. Natsume’s Book of Friends is, in my mind, a work of art that has absolutely stood the test of time. Few anime have impacted me like Natsume’s Book of Friends have, and for anyone wanting something laid-back and heartwarming, yet still cares about its story and characters, give Natsume a shot. I did and I don’t regret it one bit, not now, not back in 2008, and I doubt I ever will! Oh, and you can bet your ass I’m stoked as hell to know that there’s a seventh season on the way.

The post Guest Post: Unearthed Treasure with Firechick – Natsume’s Book of Friends Seasons 1-4 (95/100) appeared first on Star Crossed Anime.

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