Over its first ten episodes, Natsume’s Book of Friends has settled into a clear rhythm. Depending on your own mileage, it’d probably be fair to call that rhythm either “comfortable” or “stifling.” The show clearly knows the kind of stories it wants to tell, but it’d be hard to watch all that many of them in a row. It’s a consistently competent exercise in a genre space I’m inherently fond of, but even I have had some trouble getting enthusiastic about continuous stories of youkai and humans just barely connecting.
In light of this, Natsume’s eleventh episode comes as a welcome change of pace. There are no melancholic tales of humans and youkai crossing fingertips this time – this is Nyanko’s episode, and we’re moving at Nyanko’s pace. Framed around Nyanko’s solo adventures following a messy breakup with Natsume, episode eleven sees the show changing pace entirely, letting Nyanko’s caustic personality and carefree attitude set the tone of the proceedings.
Well, perhaps setting the genre is more accurate than setting the tone. Natsume’s Book of Friends has mostly been a meditatively paced, written, and scored drama. Its episodic narrative structure and overall tone are a bit of an odd combination – it tells relatively tightly composed stories, but occupies a tonal space more often associated with slice of life. It’d actually be very easy for the show to slip into slice of life entirely, and this episode demonstrates that through its rambling structure and disjointed but consistently engaging vignettes.
The episode’s attempts to adhere to a more conventional dramatic structure are actually some of its weakest moments. We open with Nyanko first sunbathing, then chasing birds, then falling in a hole, only to find a young human girl also trapped with him. It took me until the end of the episode to realize this was actually intended as a flash-forward “you’re probably wondering how I got into this situation” hook – there’s just no actual tension to Nyanko’s predicament, and so its usefulness as a dramatic cliffhanger is basically negligible. The weakness of this narrative device echoes what may well be Natsume’s Book of Friends’ most fundamental failing – its reliance on stale, canned dramatic structures that do a disservice to its inherently compelling themes and worldbuilding. Natsume’s world is compelling enough that it should have the confidence to be weird in its story structures. We don’t need precooked dramatic structures and easy moral takeaways.
But unnecessary dramatic bookends aside, this episode is actually a really great time. I emphasize the rigidity of Natsume’s normal structures partly because this episode is so good at avoiding them – the whole middle segment of this episode is just Nyanko enjoying his free time, and letting the established characters and concepts of this world become their own reward. Characters aren’t the only thing that can feel artificial if they stick to well-worn scripts – even the worlds that characters inhabit can be fleshed out through the way that world is investigated. It’s good to learn that the youkai of Yotsuhara have feelings outside of those that are directly relevant to some ongoing case of Natsume’s, and good to learn that Natsume’s friends still exist even when he’s not trying to avoid their prying questions.
One of the great strengths of slice of life shows is that they demonstrate how characters and places have sides beyond those that directly impact a narrative’s progression, and through doing so make these people and places that much more real. Natsume’s slow and nature-focused storytelling already plays in a space that wants us to believe and invest in its larger world, and episode eleven exploits that style to the fullest.
It also helps that this is one of the show’s best-looking episodes so far. Early on, the framing sequence had me expecting a bunch of perspective tricks intended to place us visually in Nyanko’s headspace – but instead, this episode was heavy on great expression work, beautiful overall compositions, and even some dramatic fight scenes. Shooting an episode from Nyanko’s perspective allowed the show to create plenty of beautiful backgrounds, with Nyanko himself framing wooded paths or sunlit streets with equal grace. And Nyanko’s expressiveness here was lovely as well.
In the end, the episode’s intrusive framing device essentially just foisted a moral on the episode: “freedom is nice, but experiences we share are that much richer.” But I don’t think Natsume #11 needed a clear moral punchline to be a very rewarding episode. Watching Nyanko be a dick to Natsume’s friends or ramble around the forest is its own reward at this point – this world has been made real, and it’s a place I’m always happy to visit. One of the strengths of anime is that it often embraces a tone-focused approach to storytelling, where scenes aren’t always assessed on the basis of “what narrative information does this sequence convey,” and instead can be justified in terms of “what tonal affect does this sequence help foster.” Let Nyanko stumble around the countryside for a while. The plot can wait.
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