25 May 2009
Natsume Yuujinchou - translating roughly to 'Natsume's Book of Friends' - is one of those animes that has something very familiar and homey about it. Based on the manga by Midorikawa Yuki - which has been steadily climbing in popularity in Japan over the past twelve months, though yet to enjoy the same sort of acclaim as any of the Shonen Jump fare - it comprises of two 13-episode mini-series so far, the second being Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou. The second season had a noticeably better budget, but for the purposes of this review I'll be treating them as though they were a single series.
Natsume Yuujinchou is the story of Natsume Takashi, whose ability to see spirits has had him shunted from guardian to guardian and called a liar all his life. When he enters a new town, determined to keep his abilities a secret, he accidentally frees Madara, a powerful spirit bound in the form of a charm cat, and discovers why the spirits cause him so much grief - he resembles his deceased grandmother Reiko, who made sport of challenging every spirit she met and binding their names into her 'Book of Friends', which Natsume had recently inherited. He then goes about returning the names to spirits Reiko defeated - which are many - with the transformed Madara 'Nyanko-sensei' working as his bodyguard on the promise that when Natsume dies, he'll inherit what's left of the Book of Freinds. Most episodes act as standalones, with the only real development in the story so far being the slowly expanding cast.
Overall, the series has a very similar sort of feel to it as Tactics and xXxholic, which is not surprising given the similarity in the stories and mythology, though it does not pursue the creepy factor as the other two often did, and it has a much higher proportion of happy resolutions. Also, much like xXxholic, it lacks a proper climax - it simply ends in the middle of nowhere. While it's nice they didn't succumb to the temptation to drag it on forever like Tsubasa or Inuyasaha - especially with no set number given on many pages are left in the Book of Friends - it's the sort of series where you're left wanting more. You want to see if Natsume will ever overcome his rather justified trust issues to come clean to his guardians about his abilities, or with his friends about the Yuujinchou. You want to see if Madara will inherit the Book, or what he'll do if the Book is emptied of names before he gets that chance. You want to know how Reiko died, whether it was natural or caused by spirits! And towards the end of the second series, you are introduced to some characters that look as though they are going to become the primary antagonists, but I suppose we'll have to either wait for another seies or follow the manga to see if anything comes of that.
The cast is unusually small, but this works to the series' benefit. Natsume himself is an different sort of protagonist to the popular norm - pensive, quiet, introspective, but with a short temper and a proneness to throwing a wild punch whenever he gets an unpleasant surprise. The punching technique seems to work rather well, actually. The only other characters of note are Nyanko-sensei, his spirit bodyguard, a small handful of friends from school, and Natori Shuichi, an actor and part-time exorcist who is keen on having Natsume as his assitant but they more often than not wind up butting heads, not being able to see eye-to-eye on how to treat spirits. A couple of the spirits Natsume returns names to make repeat appearances, but not to any significant effect. It's a pleasant change from the recent trend of a lot of series to cram dozens upon dozens of characters in, with the end result of you not caring about any of them.
The animation is a mixed bag. The first season is rather functional - the colours were warm and the scenery nice, but it has a definite low-budget feel. There are a few shots where the animation is just a bit too simplistic or lacking in keyframes, and the odd moment where the character faces don't look quite right. This isn't so bad, as in many ways it contributes to the nostalgic feeling the series exudes. The second season, however, obviously sported a much better budget, and the animation is thus much smoother and the backgrounds more detailed.
That only leaves the sound and music to talk about. The voice acting is decent - nothing to really test the mettle of the actors, but also nothing obviously phoned in, either. Nyanko-sensei's nasal voice can become a little grating after a while, but it suits his character, and provides a nice counterpoint to Madara's booming, growling voice when he transforms. The sound effects are well-implemented, but all very library sort of stuff, so the show never develops a particularly strong aural identity. The music is also nice - very appropriate with a distinctly folk Japanese flair and using lots of traditional instruments - but nothing you'll rush out to buy.
For the most part, the technical aspects of its presentation do their job, and little more. That said, despite sitting very much in the average, Natsume Yuujinchou is an extremely pleasant anime to watch. It has a sleepy sort of feel, and every episode gives you that sensation of being out in the country on a warm summer's day. If you enjoy the paranormal or onmyouji sorts of animes like xXxholic, Tactics, or Mushishi, Natsume Yuujinchou is worth investigating. At worst, you might get a bit bored by the slow pace and lack of significant overaching story development, and at best, you'll find a charming series that will quickly while away a few hours.
Overall score: 677,776 / 1,000,000