Directed by Takahiro Omori
Animated by Brain’s Base
Suitable for 13+
It might be strange to say that the supernatural can teach us lessons about our lives. One would think, “Sure, ghosts can teach us how much it sucks to die,” but consider this: Those who have passed on—or those who were never even human to begin with—have knowledge that we may never possess. They’ve learned lessons from situations that we would never encounter due to being human. On the contrary, maybe the lessons the supernatural can teach us aren’t that different to begin with. The same principles for living life could apply across all barriers, whether you be human, ghost, demon, or monster.
Natsume Yuujinchou (Natsume’s Book of Friends in English) is a series that answers these considerations. With four total seasons on Crunchyroll (the fourth is separated as Natsume Yuujinchou-Shi), Natsume Yuujinchou has a lot of lessons to share with the audience. A slice of life series that focuses on the life of Takashi Natsume, Natsume Yuujinchou is the story of a boy who merely wishes to connect. He’s struggled to fit into regular society due to a mysterious “gift” that allows him to see youkai (demons/monsters). Natsume resents these monsters throughout his childhood, as they were the reason he had to be passed around from family member to family member after his parents’ deaths. It’s only when very distant relatives take Natsume in that his life can truly begin. He is given a strange book that was left behind by his grandmother, Reiko Natsume, who as it turns out could also see youkai. With this book of friends, Natsume journeys deeper into not only the world of youkai, but the human world as well.
This book of friends that Reiko left behind for Natsume to inherit is in fact a book of names. Reiko could also see youkai. Unlike Natsume who tried to just ignore them, Reiko challenged them to battles. If she won (which she always did), Reiko would add their name to the book of friends. This gave her the power to summon and control the youkai however she pleased, and yet she never called upon any of the names within the book. Mystery surrounds Natsume’s grandmother in the human world, but in the land of the youkai, she is infamous.
Natsume Yuujinchou evolves from a series about a boy with an unfortunate gift that keeps him from living a normal life to a story about balancing two very different worlds and learning many useful life lessons along the way. Natsume takes the book of friends and vows to return all the names within it in an effort to learn more about his enigmatic grandmother. He learns that her gruff exterior personality hid a very different heart. Natsume can only give a name back to a youkai if he knows their name and face, so of course many adventures ensue in the mission to free them.
Now that sounds sweet and all, but where does the horror and the dread lie in all this? Well, not all youkai are friendly. Many look human, or human wearing a mask to hide their face. Others resemble aliens or grotesque versions of animals, and still more are amorphous or hard to describe. Natsume Yuujinchou is constantly steeped in the presence of these youkai, which makes it the norm for the series very quickly. However, there are still many times when viewers are reminded of how cruel these demons can be.
Episode seven of season four (Natsume Yuujinchou-shi on Crunchyroll) focuses around a youkai banquet that Natsume has the unfortunate chance of attending. There, a very powerful youkai is being awakened by two of his followers. This being must devour other youkai to reach its full strength once more. It doesn’t take long for all the other youkai in attendance to panic when they realize they are trapped within the mansion that the banquet is taking place in. Natsume and his friends must find the hungry youkai and seal him before he proceeds to eat everyone, youkai and human alike. It is the demons like this one, and his followers, that remind us how evil some youkai can be. True to Natsume Yuujinchou’s spirit though, there is a lesson to be learned that not all youkai are bad, just like not all humans are good.
While Natsume Yuujinchou is entirely focused on Natsume, his book of friends, and the youkai he encounters, there is enough variation in the episodes that it doesn’t become boring. That’s not to say that it isn’t repetitive, because of course it does feature many episodes that follow the same pattern. Natsume meets a youkai whose name resides in his book, but they have a favor to ask before he returns their name. Or, Natsume returns a name to a youkai, but then they ask for his help with something. This format is repeated over and over, but the variation of characters is immense, which leads to a continually engaging series even four seasons in. There is a constantly evolving cast of main characters that we see fairly regularly, but again, they are rotated through so that the audience doesn’t become weary of them all.
These other main characters are very important to Natsume’s evolving ability to balance the youkai world with that of the humans. Natsume’s most constant companion is a youkai named Madara. He’s a very powerful youkai that disguises himself as a portly cat named Nyanko-sensei. Madara made a deal with Natsume for the book of friends. He acts as Natsume’s “bodyguard” for the time being, but when Natsume passes away the book of friends will be his. There’s a constant undertone of questioning with Madara/Nyanko-sensei’s character. Does he actually care about Natsume? Or is he really only with him to collect the book once he’s gone?
On the opposing side of the Natsume Yuujinchou universe, Natsume makes many human friends as well. One very important one to him is Kaname Tanuma. He has also recently moved to the same town as Natsume, and they learn that they both have a connection to the youkai world. While Kaname cannot outright see youkai like Natsume, he can still sense them, and see shadows where they may be. Kaname is obviously a vital character for Natsume to empathize with, and share things that he otherwise couldn’t for fear of scaring people off. He’s the keystone in Natsume’s ability to balance the youkai and human sides of his life.
It’s pertinent to reiterate that Natsume Yuujinchou is four seasons long, so it’s a definite commitment for those who want to watch the entire series. While there is an overarching storyline, many episodes can stand alone, so it’s not something so compelling that you’d feel the need to binge-watch it in a few sittings. One downfall of Natsume Yuujinchou is certainly the series ending. It really feels anticlimactic, and a rather disappointing letdown to such a charming show. It does come to a conclusion insomuch that Natsume finally deals with the loss of his parents, but all the other recurring characters are left in the dust. Natsume gets his happy ending, and so does everyone else to a degree, but they’re not given as much attention as they deserve.
Natsume Yuujinchou has a tendency to ping-pong between darker themes and lighter ones rather quickly. So if you’re not very flexible, and prone to thematic whiplash, you might want to give it a pass. Everyone else will appreciate the balance that Natsume Yuujinchou strikes between the eerie and supernatural world of the youkai, and the sometimes equally brutal but straightforward world of the humans. The last season of the show seemed a tad more somber than the previous ones, as well as far more introspective as Natsume deals with some more sinister youkai while finally coming to terms with the loss of his parents.
While it’s not balls to the wall terrifying, or can’t-sleep-at-night jarring, Natsume Yuujinchou is likely to leave an impression on nearly anyone. There are enough differing stories and characters within the series to entice anyone to watch it. So if you’re looking for a sort of first foray into horror anime if you will, Natsume Yuujinchou is a fantastic place to start.