Monday, 4 August 2014

夏目友人帳 / Natsume Yuujinchou / Natsume's Book of Friends: Season 1

As I said in my thoughts of Genius Party, I had a weird start to my experience of Natsume Yuujinchou. I started watching season 4 without any idea it wasn’t the beginning. And the odd thing was that it took until episode 6 for me to realise that I wasn’t watching from the beginning – because there was clearly a backstory to the relationship between Natsume and a celebrity with a moving birthmark/tattoo that I hadn’t seen. Every other relationship – from the cat to the more minor friendly spirits to the schoolfriends – I could take as natural elements of a story starting in medias res. Which, I suppose, is a sign of some very good writing. Or even if it was just me being dumb – by the time I got that far I was hooked.

Natsume Yuujinchou is the story of a boy with the power to see spirits. One day, one of the more powerful of them becomes Natsume’s ally and Natsume is drawn to their society while at the same time having to be aware that nobody else around him can see what he can. So far, very Bleach. But the execution is very different, in part because this is a shoujo series, not a shounen one – though it blurs the lines. If I were to compare it to any other series, it would probably be Kekkaishi, with a similar relationship with a protective spirit, family tradition and much emphasis on a rather goofy teenage male protagonist and how he interacts with his peers – rather than how much butt he kicks.

Though he has had a difficult time as a child, passed between family members and foster homes as his ability to see things creeps people out – a bit of a Sixth Sense backstory – Natsume has mellowed into a pleasant boy who doesn’t want to cause problems for others. But from his grandmother, who had the same ability but spent her life challenging spirits, he has inherited the ‘book of friends’ – a list of the names of spirits. These names allow the owner to summon and command the powerful beings, and though it doesn’t seem Natsume’s grandmother ever used the book for that purpose, it is a valuable relic and in the wrong hands it could be a terrible thing.

Into Natsume’s life comes a mischievous spirit who is arguably the series’ main draw, the childish, vulgar, impetuous and selfish spirit Madara, who takes the form of a fat cat and so gets the nickname of Nyanko-sensei. This cute, beckoning cat-style guardian spirit offers protection to Natsume in exchange for getting the Book of Friends upon his death, in a somewhat less creepy echo of the central relationship in Kuroshitsuji. His cat form is a kind of brilliant ugly-cute and his grumpy old man personality hiding a formidable power is a classic of Japanese storytelling, as seen everywhere from Toshiro Mifune characters to Muten Roshi in Dragonball. And, of course, Yoda. He’s hilarious and a key part of the series’ appeal.

Once the set-up is dealt with, the series becomes largely episodic, not too far from Mushishi in terms of Natsume encountering new spirits and hearing their stories, then sorting them out. He doesn’t travel much, but sometimes he’ll go to, for example, an old abandoned train station his grandmother went to once, and there discover a spirit that needs to be reconciled with his friend but has been waiting for decades for Natsume’s grandmother to return. In a way rather reminiscent of Western cartoon writing, these little stories will also be framed by something to parallel them in Natsume’s life – like friends in his school needing to reconcile. It’s neat, it’s simple and it’s very, very cute.

Not everything is episodic. Many characters recur, especially significant humans – we’ll see more of the exorcist, as I mentioned. Natsume’s schoolfriends stay in his life, especially one who has some small power to see spiritual elements: the season finale centres on Natsume’s developing kinship with him, which borders on the homoerotic. Significant spirits also come back, from comedy mid-level, rather bureaucratic spirits to a huge horse-like spirit who becomes a strong ally. There’s also the heartbreakingly cute story of a lonely little fox spirit, who is saved from bullies by Natsume and begins to hero-worship him. It’s absurdly cute and made my man-ovaries squeal. Dammit, I’m still too young to want kids, especially fox-spirit kids. But oh lawd, that kid was too goddamn cute.

I wouldn’t have been satisfied with just these 13 episodes. The story barely seems to have gotten going, there was no overarching plot to this particular season (ie not the same one that runs through the entire story) – but of course there are three more seasons to watch, so that doesn’t trouble me. And I think that if the story isn’t satisfactorily wrapped up, I’m going to have to read the manga. Because though I can’t say the series stands out in terms of animation, character, concept or performance, I became really emotionally attached – and that’s the most important thing.  

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