Synopsis: Takeshi Natsume can see spirits. From his late grandmother he inherits the Book of Friends after moving to the countryside town she grew up in. Realizing the book contains the names of spirits captured by his grandmother, Takeshi vows to return them to their owners.
I’ve only just started the third season of this apparently very long-running franchise as of the writing of this review. I picked this up at random, as per its high score on MyAnimeList and the good reviews listed underneath it. I hadn’t the faintest idea what the show was about walking in, having only ever encountered it in the odd Watchmojo list. For this I’m glad, because as it turns out, Natsume’s Book of Friends is a fantastic series.
So, season 1.
Now, again, this is a very long series. Starting in the mid-2000s it’s currently ongoing, with six seasons and two movies under its belt. As an introductory series, however, the first season of Natsume’s Book of Friends does a fantastic job introducing us to its world and characters, setting the tone of the show right from the very first episode.
Takashi Natsume can see spirits. Sensitive to the spirit world, he’s seen them all his life – though the fact that others can’t see what he sees earns him a reputation for being strange and a liar, as some of his peers refer to him. Parentless, he moves from household to household before landing in the care of the Fujiwaras in a small town in the countryside. There he inherits the Book of Friends – a compendium of names that his grandmother had taken from local spirits. Vowing to return all the names entrusted upon him, Takashi sets out on a journey that is both lonely and not, and which is rife in beautiful character growth as he learns to come out from his own isolation.
Despite a mythical, pseudo-religious setup akin to ghost-busting shows like Yu Yu Hakusho and Noragami, Natsume’s Book of Friends is a very subdued series. It’s incredibly soft, with a down-to-earth art style and a soundtrack to match its slow pacing. There’s little to no bombast in the series – humans look like how they do in the real world, with none of the outlandish hair colors and outfits and overly-exaggerated body parts synonymous with the medium, while rural Japan looks more or less true to life. The spirits themselves aren’t made to look over-the-top, though the odd character design is indeed very inspired. Madara’s spirit form, a massive, red-and-white wolf-like being is particularly interesting.
With such a quiet production, you’d think Natsume’s Book of Friends would be a boring watch. While I can imagine a number of people finding the series to be too slow to bother with, there’s something special about how the story unfolds.
The show itself is largely episodic. Each episode boasts its own, self-contained story, many of which follow more or less the same story beats – a spirit shows up at Takeshi’s door, he helps them work out the trauma that plagues them, and then he returns their name to them. It’s a fairly easy storytelling formula to follow, one that allows for enough variety per episode to keep you hooked each time the opening plays. Episodic as it may be, though, this is also the story of Takeshi Natsume – and like the best shows out there, his character growth is a true joy to behold.
He starts the show off as a terribly lonely character. He sees his ability to see spirits more as a curse than a gift, mainly for the reactions his talent earns him. He keeps to himself and tries not to stand out – but as he learns of the responsibility that comes with owning the Book of Friends, he finds purpose in his life. As spirits flit through each episode he learns a little about each one, and each one touches him in a different way. From an encounter with a God of Fortune he sees the effect that gratitude and being sought after can have on a lonely heart; he watches as a lovelorn firefly struggles to get her feelings across to her human lover. From the friends he makes throughout the season, be they ghost or human, he learns the value of friendship and in opening up to others. Quiet as the show may be, it’s clear as day just how far Takeshi has come in the journey that takes place inside his soul.
If you’re the type to like a show with good character development, this show might be up your alley. I’m about halfway through all the available episodes as of writing this review, and I’m excited to see where Takeshi goes and the way his character grows. It’s a slow show, sure, and its sleepy pace and art style might leave the occasional viewer dreaming in their seats. There’s something of deep value to each episode of Natsume’s Book of Friends, though. If you do decide to give it a chance, you might just find yourself growing a little inside, too.
(-) Sleepy pace and art style could come off as boring to some
(+) Episodic storytelling allows for beautiful and reflective stories
(+) Takeshi’s personal growth is well-handled, a real joy to watch