Natsume’s Book of Friends (Anime Review)

natsume's book of friends

The dreamy and soothing atmosphere of Natsume’s Book of Friends can give off the air of Boys Love, though it has no actual romance and mainly focuses on building strong friendships. Takashi Natsume is an introverted teen who can see spirits, or rather “yokai”, and ostracized for claiming to see things that other people couldn’t. He was passed around from home to home, until he came to live with his distant relatives, the Fujiwaras. His desire to conceal his ability from them is often used as a plot tool, as he wishes to maintain good relations with them, and not put them in danger. 

Natsume inherited his ability from his enigmatic grandmother Reiko, who stole the names of yokai and bound them into a book. The person who owns the book can call upon the names of the yokai inside and use their powers. When Natsume finds the book, he decides to free the yokai instead of using them. But then a marshmallow-like cat yokai named Nyanko-sensei appears. He desires the book of friends for himself, and tries to eat Natsume. The plot eventually demands they team-up, and that’s exactly what they do. Nyanko-sensei, not wanting anyone else to claim the book of friends, he becomes Natsume’s loafing bodyguard who often shirks responsibility and opts to drink and binge eat. The interactions between Natsume and Nyanko-sensei are humorous, and light-hearted. You can really see the shift from stubborn obligation to friendship as they end up being an essential duo.

natsume's book of friends
“Until just recently, the stars were something I only saw by myself.” – Takashi Natsume

Natsume’s Book of Friends Seasonal break-down

In the first handful of seasons, we get introduced to a solid cast of characters, with loads of background for each, solidifying their choices and motivations. Each new character gets their own introduction episode, but will ultimately end up fading in and out of the series. This is especially the case with Seiji Matoba, who is established as the unambiguous enemy of Natsume. He is an instrument for moving the plot forward but is ultimately never mentioned again, which leaves loose ends, unanswered curiosities, and is extremely anti-climactic. Seiji comes from a background of overpowered exorcists who use yokai as tools, and their philosophies regarding yokai are polar opposites, so they can’t see eye-to-eye. What would happen if an exorcist who sees yokai as tools got ahold of the book of friends? The stakes are high every time they have an encounter, but creates heavy tension that never actually amounts to anything.

The soundtrack is outstanding, it’s so chill and relaxing to listen to on your own time, featuring gentle flutes, delicate piano notes, feel-good guitar, and soft chimes. Musically the anime compliments its watercolor-esque art style, making the vibe of the show dreamy and tranquil during the slice-of-life moments. However the same soundtrack is reused for every season, so you can predict what’s going to happen on screen due to the same musical cues being used in all the same situations. If you’re not sick to death of “The Smell of Home” by season four, you certainly will be by the end of the series. All in all, the soundtrack provides its own unique charm, for this paranormal, slice-of-life anime.

natsume's book of friends
“There are things you can’t have no matter how much you want them.
So it’s easier to just forget them.” – Takashi Natsume

Natsume’s Book of Friends strong suit early on is its episodic nature, but that later becomes its repetitive and lackluster downfall. There’s far too many episodes that feel like filler, but technically aren’t. Natsume also loves its flashbacks, and even flashbacks to flashbacks. Natsume being bullied as a child manages to lose its emotional impact the more times you see it. Later in the series it just stops introducing new dynamics, and default to one-episode stories that aren’t significant to the show. That is the nature of the episodic genre, but Natsume ends up having an especially bad case of “where the heck is the plot”. 

The anime drops interesting hints of things, only to completely abandon the idea, and never mention it again. What’s with the yokai kimono in the tree? What do its different colors mean? You might think “maybe we’ll find out later”, but you never do. Natsume‘s Book of Friends started out as a sucker punch to your emotions and ended in a slow painful death. But despite that, it keeps you engaged with its novelty, and returning to have your curiosity satiated. It’s certainly still worth the watch for the heartwarming journey, relaxed mood, and chill pace.

Seasons, Movies, and OVA Guide:

Because Natsume has different names for each season, it can be difficult to know how you’re supposed to watch it. The watch order for the series plus its movies goes like this: 

First season: Natsume Yuujinchou
Second: Zoku Natsume Yuujinchou
Third: Natsume Yuujinchou San
Fourth: Natsume Yuujinchou Shi
OVA/Movie: Natsume Yuujinchou: Itsuka Yuki no Hi ni
Fifth: Natsume Yuujinchou Go
Specials: Natsume Yuujinchou Go Specials
Sixth: Natsume Yuujinchou Roku
Specials: Natsume Yuujinchou Roku Specials
Movie: Natsume Yuujinchou Movie: Utsusemi ni Musubu

You can watch Natsume’s Book of Friends now on Amazon and Crunchyroll.

natsume's book of friends key visual

Title: Natsume’s Book of Friends
Studio: Brain’s Base
Producer: Aniplex, Nihon Ad Systems, TV Tokyo Music, Sony Music Entertainment
Director: Takahiro Ōmori
Creator: Yuki Midorikawa
Rating: PG-13