We all inherit things from our grandparents, but in the case of Natsume Takashi, his grandmother Reiko left him with a rather unusual legacy. Not only can he see sprits and supernatural beings, but he also has her ‘Book of Friends’, a collection of contracts binding various spirits to Reiko’s will. Naturally, such a powerful item is of interest to many, but all Natsume cares about is tracking down the spirits in the Book of Friends and releasing them with their contract. It’s no easy task, but with the help of ‘Nyanko-sensei’- a powerful spirit who usually takes the form of a lucky cat- he might just be able to manage it.
Anime has more than its fair share of supernatural series, and, mildly entertaining though many of them are, they usually tend to run towards the more mediocre end of the spectrum. Fortunately, despite a slightly shaky start, Natsume Yuujinchou turned out to be a cut above the rest, proving the old adage that fat cats really do make anime better.
Admittedly, at first the series felt a little contrived; for example, despite laying claim to the Book of Friends if Natsume ever died, Nyanko-sensei chose to protect rather harm the main character- as if to make sure that the series didn’t end prematurely. Similarly, it initially wasn’t clear why Natsume really had to go to so much trouble, but fortunately, as the series progressed and we got to know the characters a bit more, their motivations seemed more logical- and with such matters cleared up, Natsume Yuujinchou proved itself to be thoroughly enjoyable. Despite sticking with a standard episodic format, the series managed to strike the right balance between developing the characters whilst at the same time coming up with strong one-off stories that rarely failed to entertain.
At the heart of the series is Natsume himself, and one of the most satisfying aspects of Natsume Yuujinchou is watching our hero develop and mature. Thanks to his unique ability to see spirits and his desire not to stand out or cause trouble, Natsume starts off as being very detached towards the world; it is only over the course of the series that he slowly starts to realise the value of getting involved with people. Somehow it is eminently satisfying to see him start to form links with others over the course of the series, providing a growth that is often neglected in episodic situations.
That being said, the character who truly steals the show is none other than Nyanko-sensei, the powerful spirit who spends much of his time in the form of a fat cat. Despite continually reminding us that he isn’t really a cat (his true form resembles a giant version of the wolf god Amaterasu from Okami, and he can also transform into a human female), Nyanko-sensei is as greedy, selfish and lazy as any real feline, with his laconic and self-motivated attitude providing much of the humour in the series. Even a filler episode entirely about the minutiae of his life cannot be criticised, because it’s just plain good fun.
Of course, apart from these two, there are a range of minor characters, including Natsume’s foster parents, friends and various minor spirits. None of them particularly stands out in anything more than a supporting role, but with a second season on its way, there’s a chance for other cast members to grow and develop too.
Visually, Natsume Yuujinchou relies on attractive character designs and a subdued pastel palette, making for a pleasant, understated look that nonetheless remains memorable. Background music serves its purpose, but isn’t particularly noteworthy outside the context of the series.
After an average start, Natsume Yuujinchou quickly finds its feet and proves itself to be a cut above the average supernatural series. With proper main character development, a solid episodic format and a scene-stealing fat cat, this series has all the ingredients for success- and the upcoming second season is more than welcome.