Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions, Series Reviews > Natsume Yuujinchou 3 Episode 1 – Friends in High Places

Natsume Yuujinchou 3 Episode 1 – Friends in High Places

There’s a stereotype that slice of life shows are primarily aimed at the seinen audience; likewise, one expects shoujo series to be romantic comedies, doomed romantic loves, fantasy epics involving grand romance and/or reverse harems, or something else which involves romance in some way, shape, or form (or maybe BL). The reasons such stereotypes exist is because they are usually true.

Occasionally, however, you find shows that don’t fit into a typical mold. Natsume Yuujichou, based on a long-running shoujo manga series, is one such show. It features a male protagonist, Takashi Natsume, who spends his days helping youkai, the spirits/demons/Shinto gods who make up the supernatural landscape of Japan. On the surface, there’s nothing all that shoujo about it save the bishounen.

But, to indulge in another stereotype, shoujo romances usually outclass shounen or even seinen ones, to the extent what shounen or seinen series do can even be properly called romances. The reason for this is that shoujo works usually have more detail and nuance written into their characters, and that part of the pedigree, at least, clearly gets its due here.

Youkai run the gamut from animal spirits to fairy-like creatures to monstrosities better thought of as demons. It's the latter that gives Natsume the most trouble

Natsume has always been a loner, whose ability to see spirits long led to him being treated as a freak by his extended family, who thought he was always lying about the creepy things he claimed were always around. Eventually, he finds his way to some distant relatives who welcome him, and learns how to keep his particular ability from disturbing them. Once there, however, he discovers his family legacy.

His grandmother, Reiko, also could see spirits, and was ostracized much as he was as a result. In response she spent most of her time with the spirits themselves, whom she liked to challenge to fights. Whenever she won (that is, every time), she had the spirit write its name in her “Book of Friends” (yuujinchou); this gave the possessor of the book some power to control them.

Natsume can return names by "breathing" them out. I'm not certain why his first response to receiving his grandmother's legacy was to destroy it, but he learns plenty about her as he takes up the task

No sooner does Natsume have the book than he is beset by spirits trying to get their names back, or who want to possess the book for its power. Natsume eventually decides to return the names to whatever spirits come to ask for it. In the process, he is constantly meeting new spirits, learning about their past history with Reiko, and—having gained a reputation for being friendly toward youkai—helping what spirits he meets with their problems.

Of these spirits, the most important is “Nyanko-sensei,” a very powerful spirit who normally takes the form of an overweight cat (a form which can be seen even by normal humans). He claims he’s just hanging around until some youkai eats Natsume, so he can then lay claim to the Book of Friends. But it’s obvious he’s come to care for his human charge a great deal.

While Nyanko-sensei's real form (seen above) is far more impressive, he spends most of his time in cat form serving as comic relief. It's a good thing I like cats

Much of Natsume Yuujinchou has an episodic flavor, a “monster of the week” format where the monster is helped and not defeated. At its heart, though, the show is about Natsume developing and maturing as a person, and coming to form deep and lasting friendships with both spirits and humans. We see in the course of his encounters how Natsume learns to open up and let others into his life. It’s not over-the-top melodrama or massive dolloping of teenage angst. It’s just slow, character-driven story lines done at a soothing slice-of-life pace. Except when a youkai tries to eat Natsume.

Slow-moving character development and episode by episode tales of Natsume helping youkai (or occasionally humans) with problems won’t be to everyone’s taste. But the stories are well-crafted, the applications Natsume gains from his work meaningful and not cliche, and the overall “spirit” of the show quite refreshing. This is show which places a premium on the protagonist and his experiences. To the extent that you can identify with them, it has plenty of appeal.

The only human relationship that gets explored this episode is the one Natsume has with his adoptive parents, for whom he will do anything to protect from the spirit world

Unfortunately, the premiere episode of the third season doesn’t quite capture the charms of the show. There’s too much effort to reestablish basic concepts for new viewer, like the importance of Natsume’s growing human connections, the contrast this forms with his grandmother Reiko, the fact that youkai are can be both dangerous and benevolent, etc. This felt like an episode trying to be too many things at once, and the conflicts and characters seemed a bit too forcibly introduced.

That false start will hardly keep me from following the series. Natsume Yuujinchou isn’t a show that antiotaku will cover, mainly because writing a 900+ word posts on the incremental developments Natsume makes through his latest supernatural encounter is far too daunting a prospect. But while this isn’t a show that benefits from extended commentary, it is one which provides a unique and ultimately uplifting experience. My advice is to start with the original premiere and see what you think.

This particular episode's plot is how Reiko mistook a youkai for a human for a long time, while the youkai mistook Reiko for a spirit. Clearing up the confusion didn't do much for Reiko's mood

You can watch the new season, and both old ones, here. Given each season is only thirteen episodes long, it won’t be too difficult to start at the beginning—and it will be worth it.


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