The Beginner's Guide to Natsume Yūjin-Chōby Lauren Orsini,
Since long-running, intimidating anime franchises tend to fall into the shounen action genre, it's rare that a gentle, supernatural shoujo series gets similar treatment. At first glance, it's downright mystifying that Natsume Yūjin-Chō, known in English as Natsume's Book of Friends, has continued for almost a decade. This calming, understated show may not seem like much at first, but it's been going strong for five seasons, 60 episodes and counting, and it still isn't running out of content any time soon. Not bad for a seemingly cookie-cutter story about an orphan who can see ghosts and monsters!
So what makes Natsume Yūjin-Chō so enduring? It isn't a particularly original premise, and it's not especially thrilling in execution, but it is a guaranteed emotional tidal wave. Through the likable, introverted Natsume, we are constantly swept up in the daily drama of yokai life, which turns out to be less supernatural adventure and more intensely relatable tales of the human condition.
Natsume Takashi has inherited the ability to see yokai—traditional Japanese folklore spirits—from his grandmother, along with the burden of loneliness that comes from this ability to have experiences he can never share with anyone. At least, that's what he thinks at first. After a tragic, isolated childhood, we meet Natsume as he's settling in for the umpteenth time with his latest (and kindest) foster parents. Natsume has become more determined than ever to start a normal new life, but this rural small town is teeming with yokai.
Yokai are inconvenient, to put it mildly. They're childish at best and violently mercurial at worst. They express the kinds of innermost thoughts that everyone has, without a filter. They unabashedly want to love and be loved, to lash out and seek revenge, to be acknowledged and seen. They drop into Natsume's life abruptly and often inappropriately, the same way our emotions do. That's what creates the primary conflict in Natsume Yūjin-Chō—Natsume's instinct to be normal and hide feelings that might make others uncomfortable butts heads with the yokai cast's selfish but intensely relatable demands on his time, energy, and emotions.
That's the main premise, but there's a lot of depth to Natsume's Book of Friends, explored through a plot that grows and evolves as Natsume comes out of his shell. This beginner's guide will outline the themes that characterize each season, key episodes to watch if you want to catch up fast, and some of the special things that make Natsume Yūjin-Chō a spiritual shoujo must-watch:
Natsume Yūjin-Chō manga author Yuki Midorikawa first conceptualized Natsume's story as a bi-monthly standalone serial. This is most evident in the first season, which exists as a dozen standalone “yokai of the week” stories. This is the season where Natsume meets his first confidant, the powerful yokai Madara, who can hide himself in plain sight as a calico cat named Nyanko-sensei. Madara learns about the Book of Friends, Natsume's inheritance from his grandmother Reiko, and he lets Natsume know that when you control a yokai's name, you control the yokai itself. That means plenty of yokai are coming after Natsume to get their names back, so Madara insists on being Natsume's bodyguard in exchange for the Book of Friends at the end of Natsume's life. However, Natsume insists on not defending the powers of the book, but kindly giving all the names back instead.
In most of the first season's episodes, Natsume is usually the only human character we interact with outside of early plot setup or resolution. The season consists of Natsume talking to his cat and a cast of spiritual beings nobody can see, who we usually don't meet again. This wouldn't work so well if Natsume wasn't immensely interesting.
We learn that Natsume has been through a lot. People called him a liar as a child for pointing out things that only he could see. And yet, this troubled past has not hardened him. Instead, it's strengthened him to fight more fiercely for the normal life he's finally attained with his foster parents, Tohko and Shigeru. He's determined not to let anyone at school know that he can see yokai, even though the secret-keeping burdens him immensely.
But this is not a sad season—it's a hopeful one. Natsume's presence is a happy ending in itself. Since all of his tragedies are already in the past, there's reason to hope that the weekly yokai's struggle, though bittersweet, will surely result in a heartwarming ending.
The Little Fox's Hat — Yokai are already childlike by nature, so my favorite portrayals are those of actual yokai children. The Little Fox is yokai id at its finest, showing how they can become attached to humans quickly and easily. This episode also portrays Natsume's struggle to remain normal in front of his friends while not ignoring a yokai in need.
Ayakashi Exorcism — For the first time, Natsume meets somebody who can see yokai as clearly as he can. However, can he trust this city-slicker exorcist? Natori keeps yokai as servants and isn't above tricking Natsume into working with him. It's a contrast that shows us that Natsume is special and rare not only for his ability, but for his empathy.
Now that Natsume has been established as a character, the second season focuses on expanding his social circle. He begins to begrudgingly open up to people who he seemed reluctant to trust before. While the first season showed Natsume forming bonds with yokai far more easily than humans, this next season shows him making stronger ties to the secular world.
We see a lot more of Tanuma, Natsume's school friend who can somewhat sense yokai. As Tanuma continues to believe Natsume and seek out his company, Natsume starts to share more details of his talent. More importantly, we meet Taki, the new girl at school who's wrapped up in some spiritual world trouble and needs Natsume's help ASAP. Since Taki has a deadline before a yokai unleashes its curse on her, there's no time for Natsume to be coy about his abilities. If he wants to help, he has to act now. Then there's the return of exorcist Natori, who has weaseled his way into this series as a recurring character.
After the “yokai of the week” format of season one, season two is when I began to get truly attached to the world of Natsume Yūjin-Chō. It's a sylvan forestscape rendered in warm tones and punctuated with simple, percussion-heavy traditional music like a folktale. There's no shortage of big mysterious structures out in the sticks either, from Tanuma's family temple, to Taki's ancient estate, to the yokai mansion Natsume visits with Natori. And permeating all of it are emotional stories that draw me in, made more intense by a growth in recurring characters.
The Maiden's Circle — The world of yokai is one of private, painful suffering. That's why Natsume is immediately sympathetic to Taki's plight, when a yokai threatens to punish her for simply seeing him, and there's nobody she can turn to who will believe her. This is the first episode that introduces Taki, which is already significant since it's difficult for Natsume to make new friends. It also boasts a longer storyline and the first cliffhanger in the entire series.
The Name of a Monster — One of the most important recurring characters of the series has been dead since before it began. Natsume's grandmother Reiko is an intensely tragic version of how Natsume's life could have turned out. This episode explores Reiko's isolation as a lone human in the yokai world.
Yokai are simple creatures. They know what they want, if rarely how to get it. But as childlike as they are, they can also be incredibly dangerous. Last season, Natsume was captured and put in temporary danger, but this season introduces the first time Natsume and Madara's lives are truly at stake.
This season takes a turn for the violent, but it's not entirely the fault of yokai. More insidious are the crimes of human players, who know perfectly well what they are doing. It's the first time we meet Matoba, an exorcist who uses yokai to his own end without any concern for them. You can see how he might fill Natsume with righteous anger.
In earlier seasons, Natsume was self-reliant to a fault. But as the threats he faces become more imminent, he has no choice but to get a little help from his friends. From Natori and Madara to Tanuma and Taki to his yokai-ignorant foster father Shigeru, Natsume is beginning to trust people. Given that three episodes this season are flashbacks to Natsume's tragic past, this is no simple feat. The risk that Natsume must overcome in opening up to people is far scarier—and more rewarding—than any of the supernatural dangers this season brings.
That Which Is Not Human/Exorcist — These two episodes introduce Matoba for the first time. While the exorcist Natori is neutral at worst, Matoba actively seeks to harm yokai—and maybe Natsume too. Episodes like these betray a shift in Natsume Yūjin-Chō, where the resolution of conflict doesn't always result in a change of heart, but simply keeping the bad guys at bay.
The Broken Mirror — Tanuma and Taki try their hardest to support their introverted friend, but Natsume has never depended on them so much as when the trio have to search the school grounds for shards of a yokai's missing mirror. The plot culminates with Tanuma finding himself in his friend's shoes, when he obtains the temporary ability to see everything Natsume does.
Over the past three seasons, Natsume Yūjin-Chō has been slowly building its world from something small and insular that exists mainly in Natsume's head, to a rich tapestry of human and yokai characters, secular and spiritual haunts, and established relationships. Season four is all about playing with that complexity, resulting in bigger, riskier stories.
By bigger, I also mean longer. Within these 13 episodes, there are four multi-episode stories, several of which involve just about every previously introduced character. The planes of Natsume's world, once so strictly divided into school, home, and yokai, are beginning to intersect. For example, Tanuma and Natori meet for the first time, and Tanuma ends up visiting a yokai house. By riskier, I mean more emotionally taxing. Every glimpse at Natsume's past is another opportunity to pry our protagonist's shell open just a little bit wider, bringing more potential to emotionally wreck the show's increasingly invested viewers.
The Gap Between Humans and Yokai — Natsume's biggest fear is that somebody will get hurt by a yokai because of him. This is the story of that worst fear coming true. But as usual, the beauty of the episode isn't in the supernatural nature of the problem, but its relatability. Don't we all worry about burdening our friends in our own ways?
A Long Way Home — Natsume had a crappy childhood, but he wasn't the only victim. His ability frightened not only himself but everyone around him. The families he lived with often meant well, but simply couldn't adjust to taking in such a strange orphan. This episode shows Natsume's pain alongside that of his foster sister Miyoko's in a way that doesn't saddle either of them with blame.
After a five year break following 2012's Season Four, Natsume Yūjin-Chō is back! Now that you've got an idea of the emotional depth to this show, it might make more sense that longtime fans are so hyped about its triumphant return.
The show has been going on for this long, but there's still fertile ground to explore. How did Natsume's grandmother Reiko go from high school student to mother and grandmother? Did either of his parents have any spiritual ability, and did that in some way contribute to their deaths? What is this weird connection between all exorcists, and does it mean that Natori and Matoba are more to each other than just enemies? If Taki's magic circle is a shunned practice, does that make Taki's grandfather, who taught it to her, a criminal? As Natsume's world continues to expand, so does my list of unanswered questions.
I don't have any keystone episodes for season five yet, since it's only just begun. But so far, it has delivered on what previous seasons have promised. It's a return to this peaceful, rustic world far away from the bustle of daily life, where small human towns and the spiritual world exist side by side, a dynamic that feels as comfortable as a fairytale. It's a story that creates a perfect storm of bittersweetness by combining people like Natsume who hide their joy and pain with impulsive yokai who wear it openly and proudly.
While you don't have to watch every episode to get the gist of Natsume Yūjin-Chō's appeal, I challenge you not to find one story within these 60+ episodes of yokai struggles that feels a little like your own. In Natsume Yūjin-Chō, to understand yokai is to understand what it means to be human, even if we only figure it out one name at a time.
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