"Natsume Takashi’s neutrality makes him believable as an everyday hero, and grounds this supernatural story in reality."The Premium Editions include: High quality art boxes with full color hardcover art books providing deeper insight into the characters with bios, character and background artwork, episode guides, and more. Each set contains clean opening and ending credits, including original Japanese commercials.
Review Note: Because of its episodic nature, this review will cover all four seasons of Natsume’s Book of Friends. While it’s possible to watch the episodes out of order, it’s highly recommended to start from the beginning to fully understand the characters and their conflicts.
Some of the best characters are the most unassuming: they allow you to slip into their skin, to see, hear, and feel what they feel. Natsume Takashi’s neutrality makes him believable as an everyday hero, and grounds this supernatural story in reality. Natsume’s Book of Friends is an uncommon addition to the supernatural genre. Takahiro Omori faithfully adapted Midorikawa Yuki’s most notable work into an equally popular animated series, best described as meditative. Natsume inherits the ability to see yokai, spirits, from his grandmother Reiko along with the Book of Friends, a bound journal containing yokai names and granting the owner control over their power. A powerful spirit, Madara in the form of a lucky cat, delivers this information to Natsume and strikes a deal to serve as his protector if he can later inherit The Book of Friends.
"Natsume sets out in hopes of understanding his grandmother and in turn his own past. His self-discovery feels inevitably more genuine."
The spirit world fearfully reveres Reiko, initially raising curiosity over the accuracy of the term “friends” in describing her conquests. This disconnect reveals complexity rather than inconsistency as we uncover more about her through flashbacks. Reiko often shows up with marks and bruises that she glosses over – presumably from bullying, and she re-asserts control in her spirit dealings. In many cases, we find out that she helped yokai. Even though The Book of Friends is the culmination of a decade of dueling, Reiko emerges as a guardian.
Unlike so many other leads in magical fiction, Natsume embarks on a self-directed journey. He proposed to seek out the listed yokai, rather than have the task foisted upon him by some god-like figure. Madara accompanies Natsume and aids him when danger strikes, but he’s not fate personified. Natsume’s ability itself remains beyond control, but his own decisions drive the way he copes in the day-to-day. No arch villain dictates his progression nor does he gain anything after returning names. Natsume sets out in hopes of understanding his grandmother and in turn his own past. His self-discovery feels inevitably more genuine.
Another small but striking factor was that this story, a ghost story, was told mostly in the light. Sunny skies illuminate calming pastel landscapes, and the yokai themselves establish a truer sense of eeriness. The kitsune wedding in “Sunshine Through the Rain” from Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams captures a similar atmosphere. Nastume is the title character but the yokai are given equal weight. Unique designs and well-thought backstories create memorable figures. Some spirits have malicious intent and attempt to steal The Book of Friends while others, like Natsume, simply crave connection.
"The lack of an overarching plot makes Book of Friends episodic to the point that the seasons and even individual episodes can be watched in any order."
Loneliness characterizes Natsume, and though different in form, he identifies with yokai. The forays into his everyday life – classroom scenes, and his interactions with his adoptive family - feel more detached than his spiritual dealings. Returning names drains Natsume both mentally and physically and his real life compares to a waking dream. Book of Friends manages to be an emotive work without involving romance, unheard of in the Shojo genre where romance provides the structure behind every plotline. Instead, the series retains Shojo’s lighthearted atmosphere through comedy: Madara laces sentences with heavy sarcasm and Natsume’s classmates argue over ridiculous topics. The restrained humor sustains balance without overwhelming.
The lack of an overarching plot makes Book of Friends episodic to the point that the seasons and even individual episodes can be watched in any order. This is partly due to the fact that the original manga was published in serial format and later collected into novels. The series plays out more like a collection of short stories, literally a visual representation of The Book of Friends itself. This frees the story from forcing superficial goals. No events are contingent on returning names to a specific number of yokai. The episodic nature reigns in the pacing and allows the show to approach events with a natural leisure that would otherwise feel sluggish.
"NIS America’s premium collections are literally a dream for any fan of Natsume’s Book of Friends."
Seasons progress in alternative ways. Natsume matures and his relationship with Madara/Nyanko-Sensei grows from one of playful ambivalence to honest compassion. As the spirit world expands, Natsume’s journey becomes contrastingly introspective. Visually, the show vastly improves, the rendering of the landscapes and figures in particular. The first season suffers from a watercolor-like filter leaving otherwise acceptable scenes looking washed-out and over exposed. While a minor complaint, its exclusion in the second season is immediately apparent. Having the later seasons available in Blu-Ray format makes a world of difference.
NIS America’s premium collections are literally a dream for any fan of Natsume’s Book of Friends. For newcomers, the sets are still amazingly affordable, especially considering the quality delivered. Each season arrives packaged in a full-color printed canvas box, and the textured matte finish lends an almost hand-painted appearance. Episode guides, artfully crafted to resemble The Book of Friends, also contain interviews, complete character designs that include concept art for every single yokai, and promotional stills.
"As with any series, the creators establish the premise with early episodes, but refine and expand both conceptually and stylistically in later seasons."
Natsume’s Book of Friends achieves a sublime harmony rarely seen in recent Anime, but it takes its time. The first season initially felt almost as disjointed in construction as the otherworldly material presented and is perhaps best appreciated in retrospect. It wasn’t until the second season that I was sold. As with any series, the creators establish the premise with early episodes, but refine and expand both conceptually and stylistically in later seasons. Book of Friends brings new depth and originality to a tired genre, but it’s not for everyone. Fans of fast-paced action and traditional horror unable to dismiss their assumptions may be disappointed.
Review by: Ameenah Salamunic | Review Format: DVD & Blu-ray