I’ve been on a non-mainline anime kick lately. Just craving something a little different, a little out of the ordinary, with less of the aggressive screaming (why, DBZ, why??) and the hyper sexualization of female characters for no real reason (too many anime to call out here…but you know who you are). The Book of Friends fell into my lap at the absolute perfect moment as it meets this criteria very well.
The story focuses on a young orphan who inherits a strange book filled with many names from his deceased grandmother Reiko. We learn fairly early on that our hero, Natsume, has the ability to see youkai (spirits) which has caused him to be rather isolated as a little kid, and seen as a little weird by his peers. Quite by accident, he releases a sealed powerful youkai named, Madara, he learns that the book he inherits actually holds the names of the spirits his grandmother Reiko vanquished. More importantly, since he is the owner of the “Book of Friends” he now controls and is responsible for the names of the youkai written in the book. The book is a dangerous possession as many powerful (and some foolish) yokai desire it so they can control those written in the book. Natsume has much less spiritual power than his grandmother, so he becomes a target for a relentless amount of attacks by various youkai fended off by Madara who hopes to one day get the book for himself.
Instead of keeping the names of the youkai and using them for himself, Natsume makes the decision to return the names to the youkai, and what follows is the story of his encounters with the many varied spirits that had once come into contact with his grandmother.
Natsume is a bit of an outcast due to his abilities, he struggles with understanding them, and why he of all people has them. He isn’t super powerful, the story is not about him training to become some hot shot Shinto exorcist, there’s never any mention of him someday erupting with repressed talent. His story is not one of frenetic battles, and gratuitously violent eradications of the youkai he encounters. Quite the opposite, Natsume, above all else wishes to live a quiet uninterrupted life with his adoptive guardians, and finds his powers to be more of an annoyance and a hindrance than a gift. As the story progresses he begins to find both acceptance and understanding for himself without needing to compete with others. Something that caught my eye about him as a character and made him (to me anyway) different than the run of the mill supernatural anime hero.
The Book of Friends will relax you, it has an easy going flow that progresses steadily and smoothly through the story. It’s beautifully drawn, and has an episodic, slice-of-life element to it that makes it feel homey, and comforting to watch. Some of the episodes have a sweetly tragic end while others end relatively happily making it a poignant cathartic experience overall. It’s makes interesting connections between the spirit world of Japanese mythology and social culture at work in modern Japan, as Natsume slowly discovers himself and his purpose in the world. As far as supernatural anime go, it is unconventional in all the right ways, choosing a strong story line, and interesting characters over super power ups and gratuitous sex and violence. There are fighting scenes and some suspenseful scary moments in a few episodes, but nothing I would say is offensive or worrisome for children 11 and up.
There are currently two seasons of Natsume’s Book of Friends and you can watch them both on Crunchy Roll.