Much like the tsundere’s transition from cold to cordial, the gradual thaw of social isolation is a familiar theme in Japanese media. Last October, NIS America localized the first two seasons of Natsume’s Book of Friends, a captivating anime which shadowed teen-aged Natsume Takashi. Like his grandmother, the young orphan is able to see yokai– spirits whose temperaments range from innocuous to malevolent. With most other humans lacking this capacity, the protagonist’s life was marked by seclusion. Recalling the chained prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Takashi’s perception was regarded as irrationality- impeding the natural development of social bonds.
Yet, it was Book of Friends’ less obvious themes that allowed the twenty-six episode DVD collection to succeed. After inheriting his grandmother’s tome which contained a collection of entrapped yokai, Takashi brought balance to the world by releasing some of the more trustworthy spirits. As such, the anime articulated a subtle message about the link between generations, as well as folklore’s fortitude amidst a technologically-driven era. In essence, the inaugural box set reminded viewers of anime’s inclination to explore engaging, nearly-nebulous ideas in addition to its exploration of adolescent angst.
One of the most refreshing qualities about Natsume’s Book of Friends is the anime’s accessibility. Given the series’ protracted pacing, jumping into the third season without having watched previous installments is a possibility. While new viewers might not be able to appreciate the return of several characters from the first two seasons, acclimatizing to the anime’s enchanted worldview is relatively effortless. The sole disadvantage of Book of Friend’s approachability is that the series flirts with ‘yokai of the week’ formula, relinquishing a more linear, progressive plotline.
Prudently, the thirteen episodes in season three veer from the Book of Friends’ previous trajectory, spending more time on character development. As we learn more about Reiko, Natsume’s grandmother, viewers are forced to tweak their perceptions. Likewise, the episode entitled “In Young Days” briefly flashes back to Natsume’s childhood, revealing some of the traits that would later define the protagonist. There’s even a bit of foreshadowing- with one reoccurring character playing an even larger role in next season’s events. Most satisfying is seeing those around Natsume becoming more accepting of the adolescent’s eccentric behavior and an increase in the number of characters who share similar powers of perception. The season’s concluding episode, “Natsume’s Book Games” is particularly poignant- demonstrating the combination of melancholy, poignancy, and charm which fuels the series.
Although NIS America’s previous release merged the first two seasons of Book of Friends, the publishing effort disregarded a Blu-ray release. For this anthology, the company returns to the dual media format, providing both DVD and Blu-ray disk in each of the two bundled slimcases. Naturally, the high-definition, 1080p method is the way to watch Natsume, allowing the anime’s plush depth-of-field shots and subtleties to shine. Aurally, the Blu-ray release opts for a LPCM 2.0 output, while the DVD delivers Dolby Digital 2.0, with both methods allowing the anime’s dialog and ambient effects to sound crystal clear. As expected, the release provides the original Japanese voice track with subtitles hardcoded into the Blu-ray format.
Pleasingly, the $56 Premium Edition includes an accompanying hardbound text- a 32-page book intended to resemble the Book of Friends. Inside, viewers will find show summaries, reprints of character designs and supplemental artwork. Notably missing are any kind of interviews with Brain’s Base directors, writers, and voice team- which has been a custom for NISA’s stateside localizations.
Marked by shifts between pensiveness and playfulness, Natsume’s Book of Friends is a discreet charmer. For those seeking a heartfelt anime which favors the contemplative over the combative, the series would make a worthwhile addition to any collection.With the fourth season (known as Natsume Yūjin-chō Shi) due for a Western release in July, stateside anime aficionados are in for a treat; Book of Friends grows increasingly endearing with every new season.