Natsume Takahashi has had the ability to see “ayakashi” (spirits, gods, and other supernatural entities) since he was a small child.
This premise is not at all unusual in anime or manga– in fact, quite a few are built around “seeing spirits, dead, demons, monsters” etc. including shonen properties such as “Bleach” or “Blue Exorcist.”
But the Natsume Yujin-cho anime wasn’t built from a shonen manga premise. The manga written by Yuki Midorikawa appeared first in the shoujo (girl’s) serial “Lala DX” and then the main Lala serial as it gained popularity and acclaim. (The manga was nominated for the first ever Manga Taisho award in 2008.)
In fact, Natsume’s upbringing is not cause for cheer. We learn fairly quickly that he is an orphan who has been passed around frequently between relatives. He also has not been able to make many friends. Natsume’s responses to the spirits as a child has often resulted in driving away other people who believe him odd or a liar (when he speaks of something he sees).
If this were a shonen manga premise, Natsume would have turned out to be a rough and tumble orphan with a cheerful disposition who beats up ayakashi before making them his friends and battling new ones. (Ayakashi-mon!) However, we have the opposite kind of character in Natsume — a polite, cautious young man who is desperately afraid of having his secrets uncovered and losing the life he is trying to build.
The anime premise begins with his move to a new town. Two things happen to start the series — first we learn that he has come into possession of some of his deceased grandmother’s effects including a “Book of Friends.” Second he accidentally frees “Madara” who is a powerful spirit that resided for a while in a lucky cat vessel. This spirit demands Natsume give him this “Book” as it holds names of various ayakashi that formed agreements to help serve Natsume’s grandmother. (Anyone who holds the book in possession could hold mastery over the other ayakashi.) However, Natsume refuses Madara . Madara or “Nyanko-sensei” agrees to stay and protect Natsume on the pretense that someday he gets the book.
Natsume knows little of his grandmother, but he pledges to return the names of the ayakashi. The anime largely follows Natsume as ayakashi come to reclaim their names or attempt to take the “Book of Friends” from him. Through the course of the series, Natsume comes to a better understanding about the ayakashi that otherwise he found troubling as a child. The series also introduces Natsume to others who see these supernatural beings (namely exorcists) — including those who would use and destroy them. In this “coming of age” anime, these experiences help him learn more about his grandmother, about relationships with people, as well as his own shortfalls as an individual.
“Natsume Yujin-cho” is very hard to peg down in terms of its genre. At times it seems like a “monster mystery” of the week serial mixed with “slice of life/high school” themes. It is quite adept at pulling the heartstrings as evidenced by the comments from male and female Crunchyroll viewers. Although it seems very dramatic in nature, the show itself isn’t lacking in action or humor. But while its trappings appear youth friendly, the anime raise profound questions about how we choose to live life. These questions and the careful exploration of characters is what makes this show interesting for older viewers. In addition, it is essentially a show that is very “Japanese” in some respects — for those who are curious about the modern Japanese view on gods and demons — this is a good one to watch.
One would think it would get very formulaic quickly in that every episode introduces a problem that is usually resolved at the end of the 25 minute arc. However, its rich storytelling made it hard to stop watching and not destroy a few tissues along the way.
As the manga from which this anime is based is still ongoing, watching the anime will not resolve in a complete story. However, the manga is being published in the U.S. (by Viz Media) and it’s the expectation of many fans that the anime will someday return with more material.
Conclusion: Natsume Yujin-cho is a character-driven show that delivers “good feels.” Excellent anime for household viewing and trying out with the non-anime crowd.
Currently four seasons of Natsume Yujin-Cho are available to watch for free at Crunchyroll.
- Seasons 1-3 are bundled at : http://www.crunchyroll.com/natsume-yujin-cho
- Season 4 is located at http://www.crunchyroll.com/natsume-yujin-cho-shi