Natsume’s Book of Friends has long been one of my shortlist shows – the shows whose reputations are so strong that I essentially know I’ll get to them, and so it’s just a matter of when. Of course, the “when” is its own serious hurdle in my case, since I’ve moved from being so slow about getting through backlist that it barely moves to so overwhelmed by other things I literally need to watch that it doesn’t really move at all. I get through a handful of personal watches a year at this point, which makes it a great relief when someone decides to support something like Planetes, or Nichijou, or Natsume’s Book of Friends.
The immediate sale of Natsume has always been the standard sale for shortlist shows – “too many people whose taste I respect have lauded this show for it to be an optional viewing.” But beyond that, the actual pitch also sounds excellent: Mushishi by way of a modern slice of life. Our protagonist Natsume dabbles in supernatural problems, a dash of horror is blended with an appreciation for good company and life as it is lived, and the results are excellent. Natsume seems like just the sort of thing I’d like.
Based on this first episode, nearly everything I’d heard about this show holds true. Natsume does indeed meddle with spirits – in fact, his ability to see youkai is the first thing we learn about him. Isolated from even his own family by his power, Natsume has been handed off from relative to relative, and is shunned by his classmates in the one scene they share. Natsume’s isolation seems one of the centerpieces of this narrative; echoing the mushi-prompted distance of so many episodic Mushishi characters, he finds himself closer to the memory of his similarly gifted grandmother than any living character.
That grandmother, Reiko Natsume, might also count as one of the central characters here, though at this point she’s long passed away. It’s her “Book of Friends” that is referenced by the title, a collection of youkai names that she acquired to bind youkai to servitude. It doesn’t seem like Reiko had any larger plan in creating this collection; in the one major flashback this episode, she gains a new servant basically on a whim. Much of what we learn of Reiko comes from Natsume’s new companion Nyanko, a powerful youkai who’s taken the form of a good luck cat. And Nyanko speaks of Reiko in the way youkai presumably tell all their stories – as myths and legends, the reality of Reiko’s choices now heightened through dramatic ornamentation.
One of the most compelling ideas in this episode is the nebulous nature of history from the perspective of a youkai. To creatures formed of legend, reality and history are mutable, seemingly open for embellishment. A human who was relevant to the youkai acquires theatrical import, until her nature is muddled by time and she somehow becomes a villain. Natsume is initially pursued in this episode by a youkai who is ultimately revealed to be sensitive and lonely, but her only remaining connection to Reiko was a cursed name. Time passes differently for spirits, and the distance between truth and fiction is unsteady when your very nature is legend.
The thread of loneliness winds all through this episode, from the unhappy youkai to Reiko’s trials and Natsume’s own life. But loneliness is not framed as some all-encompassing black cloud; it’s the context Natsume lives within, but he’s far more concerned with the immediate dangers of evading youkai and keeping his caretaker worry-free. I can appreciate that framing. Loneliness not as a narrative dilemma to be solved, but as a given component of life feels more true to the human (and apparently youkai) experience. Loneliness is a friend in its own way.
It’s perhaps that loneliness that drives Natsume’s ultimate decision, when he decides to keep his grandmother’s book. Natsume feels like an “old soul” – not only is he constantly framed in the context of the natural world, but he seems to possess a reverence for the past that sets him apart from his peers. The first scene offers a clear contrast there, as Natsume’s understandable pursuit of a local shrine is set against his classmates’ thoughts of beaches and girls. And the show’s overall world seems equally indebted to the beauty of the past; Natsume’s Book of Friends seems to take place in a rural everywhere, an old town where Reiko’s abandonment of her youkai friends echoes the younger generations’ abandonment of an older world.
It would help, of course, if the show’s production were just a little sharper. Unlike Mushishi, Natsume’s Book of Friends is not blessed with art design and direction capable of fully bringing its world to life. There are certain beautiful shots scattered throughout the episode, but it’s mostly just functional framing. Perhaps the most visual personality is afforded to Nyanko’s various expressions, but considering how little I talked about comedy in this writeup, you can guess where my own interest in this show lies. I wish this show had the art credentials necessary to wholly sell the beauty of Natsume’s world.
Still, the fundamentals of this story are very compelling. I like Natsume’s mix of a snappy personality and a fascination with his grandmother’s story, and I like the vague nature of youkai society. Weaving explorations of the supernatural with explorations of the natural world is a classic trick, but a consistently effective one, and rural Japan is simply a gorgeous environment. There are things I’m not yet sold on here, but it’s still a show I’m very happy to continue.
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