Natsume Yuujinchou San follows Takashi Natsume, a boy who is able to see youkai. Natsume and his bodyguard Madara, nicknamed Nyanko-sensei, continue on their quest to release youkai from their contracts in the "Book of Friends." Natsume comes to terms with his ability to see youkai and stops thinking of it as a curse. As he spends more time with his human and youkai friends, he realizes how much he values them both and decides he doesn't have to choose between the spirit and human worlds to be happy. [Written by MAL Rewrite]
NOTE: Since the content in all three seasons is similar enough that they don’t warrant separate reviews, they will all be covered here. The fourth will be edited in when it finishes, unless it differs heavily from the first three by the end of its run.
Natsume Yuujinchou covers a familiar kind of story. We are presented with a teenage boy, who is unusually airy and doesn’t socialize much, and frequently seems to be looking intently at things that aren’t there. As you may have guessed, Natsume sees dead people. Well, not exactly… he can see Youkai, a kind of spirit told of in Japanese folklore.
Many of the Youkai themselves seem to possess an unusual interest in Natsume. One day, as a pair of Youkai are chasing him, he accidentally breaks a seal containing a powerful Youkai… one that knows why Natsume is being chased. You see, his grandmother Reiko had the same gift as him, and used to go around beating up Youkai and making them give away their names to her (which allowed her to command them), which she collected in a book, the titular Yuujinchou (Book of Friends). And now that Reiko is dead, Natsume has to attempt to return the names, but without losing the book in the process. And his new Youkai friend Madara has agreed to help protect him, as long as he is entitled to the book upon Natsume’s natural passing.
What is really impressive about Natsume Yuujinchou is that, from that plot summary there, you will mostly likely think of many other series from various different mediums that follow a similar blueprint. And yet Natsume is significantly better than them. Natsume, as a series, takes on this theme with a brilliant level of poignancy. Rather than being a generic shonen action series as it so easily could have been (many of the bare bones of the series show parallels to Bleach, for example), Natsume is more concerned with telling the stories of each of these Youkai. While there is the occasional flash of action, this is never really the point. It’s extremely refreshing to see a premise so frequently used for nothing more than cheap kicks done so beautifully. It even strikes something of a contrast with excellent series such as Mushishi and Mononoke, in that while these are focused on the abnormality of the creatures the series is based around, Yuujinchou is far more down to earth and human-feeling.
Plotwise, this series is episodic, with the episodes focusing on individual youkai, with the stories not generally intertwining or crossing more than one episode (though there are exceptions). Almost all of the episodes are excellent, though there’s two or three I didn’t really care for. The second season in particular ups the quality of these, with the last four standing out as being firmly the best out of both seasons. There’s not really anything in the way of an overarching plot or any clear goal, but it’s all tied together through the furthering of Natsume’s character and the additional insights into Reiko which we see through the Youkai’s memories, both of which are excellent features of the series.
The characterisation in this series is truly unique. Every character is very down-to-earth and believable, and yet not quite your everyday average Joe either. They all have distinctive personalities, and yet feel totally natural. The character designs are much the same way: simple-looking, but effective and distinctive. The only characters who are consistently in every episode are Natsume himself, and his Youkai bodyguard Madara A.K.A Nyanko-sensei. Madara is mostly comic relief, but effectively so. In his true form he’s much easier to take seriously, which is often used to good effect. Natsume, on the other hand, is definitely the pinnacle of the aforementioned style. He doesn’t really have a clear, character-defining moment or trait, which initially makes him seem like an uninteresting character. However, the more you get to know him, the better a character he seems. He is slowly but surely characterised through musings and realizations gathered through his experiences with all the Youkai he meets, painting a subtle yet excellent portrait of his character. In the third season, this reaches it’s peak, as he slowly comes to not only accept, but value his unique circumstances and all the friends he’s made because of it.
In terms of production, the animation is superb. Oddly, though, it’s quite restrained about it. Aside from some really beautiful, picturesque background art, it doesn’t attempt to beat you over the head with its visuals, letting them stay in the background but subtly lending a lot to the series. In the second season especially, though, it dishes out quite a few animation bumps in some of the series more excellent moments, when it really needs to be rendered better. With this, combined with an excellent character art style, Natsume Yuujinchou just plain looks beautiful all-round. Musically, the OST does much the same as the art: it is distinct, amazing, perfectly fitting, but not overbearing. The music is invariably perfectly matched to the tone of the scene rather than being used to create the tone. The voice acting is all-round excellent, but my only problem with it is, strangely enough, Natsume himself. Hiroshi Kamiya was, in my opinion, a poor choice of casting. He does, however, put in an excellent performance which is hardly surprising given how good of an actor he is, but his voice seems terribly unfit to the role, and far more suited to more average and highly strung protagonists like those he usually plays, as opposed to the awkward, airy Natsume. Still, it’s hardly distracting.
If I have any real complaint about Natsume Yuujinchou, it’s that almost every episode’s plot is built from a random contrivance. Generally, Natsume encounters something vital to the plot of the episode by sheer coincidence that is not directly tied to the plot at all. It’s not terribly distracting, but it’s done repeatedly and always seems far too convenient.
Nonetheless, Natsume Yuujinchou is an excellent series. It’s a calming, relaxing show that simply does its job well. The second and third seasons are better than the first, with the second having better standalone episodes, along with better art and directing than the other two, and the third contributing more to the overall story and Natsume’s development. Which season is the best is really a question of style vs. substance.
Final Words: Something I would solidly recommend to anyone looking for a calming, soothing anime.