Save for Casper, Harvey Comics’ altruistic apparition, Western depictions of the supernatural are almost always rooted in menace. That isn’t always the case in Japan- where folklore is filled with tales of yōkai- spirit creatures whose dispositions also include the mischievous, innocuous, and even benevolent. As countless anime, manga, and film have demonstrated, it’s a mythology that’s wonderfully rich, capable of articulating complex concepts about the ethereal.
This variety of folklore helps drive the first twenty-six episodes of Natsume’s Book of Friends. Following publisher NIS America’s growing tradition, the anime shirks shōnen convention, eschewing the epic battles which fuel similar paranormal fare. Instead, the first two seasons focus on the nurturing of harmony, amidst both humans and yōkai- providing Book of Friends with a pleasing, poignant vibe. As such, the anime cultivates a cornucopia of emotions. Viewers can expect an abundance of tears and heartfelt smiles, as well as a few guffaws.
Much of the anime’s charm stems from its likable protagonist, Takashi Natsume. Dutiful and virtuous, while still exhibiting human vulnerability, it’s easy to identify with the character. Although Book of Friends first two seasons don’t divulge quite as much backstory as Yuki Midorikawa’s original manga, the frequent use of flashbacks provide adequate insight to Takashi’s motivations and sentiments.
Avoiding an overly melancholic or maudlin tenor, the opening episode explains that Takashi was born with the remarkable trait of being able to see yōkai, much like his late grandmother, Reiko. Unsurprisingly, this ability created a sense of apprehension for those close to the protagonist, and coupled with his parent’s premature passing, led to the young boy being shuffled between relatives. When we first meet Takashi, he’s living with Toko and Shigeru, a doting elderly couple. Recognizing their compassion and not wanted to create concern, the lead struggles to maintain his secret, initiating a number of amusing interactions.
Viewers soon learn that Reiko was a bit impetuous in her youth, challenging any spirits she came across. The names of Yōkai she overwhelmed were added to the anime’s eponymous binding, giving her control over a wide variety of oni, yurei and kaiju. After inheriting the enigmatic book and learning of its despotic possibility, Takashi decides to return order to the world, setting many of its subjugated spirits free. Fatefully, many Yōkai sense the power of the book, and want it for their own abhorrent agenda.
Initially, one of those selfish spirits is Madera, a spirit inadvertently released by Takashi. Demanding ownership of the Book of Friends, the oft-sardonic ayakashi settles for receiving the binding upon Takashi’s death. Able to shape shift between forms that range from a portly Maneki-neko to a beautiful white wolf that resembles Ōkami’s amaterasu, Madera gradually becomes the hero’s guardian and scout. He also serves as the anime’s link between the human and spirit realms, as Madera is one of the few characters that can be seen by other people.
Much of Book of Friends enjoyment comes from learning the tenets of Natsume’s world. From the process of how spirits are released to the tensions between humans and yōkai, each episode slowly reveals parts of the bigger picture. At times, the series’ rhythm is perceptible, with the first season falling into a specter of the week cadence. Yet, considering the series consistently tender backstories, this sole transgression is largely forgivable. Pleasingly, the series’ second season, varies this tempo, offering story threads which weaves reoccurring characters into the plotline, elevating the anime’s overarching narrative.
Forgoing Blu-ray media, Natsume’s Book of Friends first two seasons comes on four DVDs, housed in two attractively packaged slim cases. NISA’s usual itinerary of extras seems somewhat truncated by the media choice- offering only clean opening and ending segments, as well as the series’ original Japanese commercial. Still, visual quality is proficient, with the anamophic output revealing no perceptible artifacting. Remarkably, the anime’s muted hues and soft edges are intact, while the series’ audio offers an emotive soundtrack highlighted by a gentle piano melody as well as sound effects which capture Natsume’s pastoral context. Most impressive is the set’s accompanying hardbound book, crafted to look like the Book of Friends. Containing episode summaries, character sketches, as well as an interview with director Takahiro Omori, the text is a welcome addition to the premium edition.
Natsume’s Book of Friends maintains NIS America’s prodigious localization decisions, delivering an anime that’s both emotionally gratifying and visually lush. For anyone who is inquisitive about Japanese mythology, Book of Friends is a superb starting point, requiring no prerequisite knowledge but providing a satisfying insight into customary folklore. Beyond that, the anime’s stirring exploration of isolation, acceptance, and the afterlife is bound to have widespread appeal.