What They Say:
Because he inherited his grandmother Reiko’s ability to see yokai (strange beings that are invisible to most people), Natsume has always been an outcast. After moving to his grandmother’s hometown and accidentally releasing a yokai imprisoned in a Lucky Cat statue, he learns about one of Reiko’s keepsakes, the “Book of Friends.” Inside are the names of the yokai she defeated, and possessing it allows the wielder to command the yokai named within. Since then, Natsume’s life has gotten much more hectic! Yokai now visit him on a daily basis, seeking to either get their names back or to take possession of the Book of Friends.
The audio presentation for this release is straightforward as we get the original Japanese language only in stereo encoded at 192kbps. The series works pretty well with this mix as it’s mostly dialogue driven and with some bits of ambiance as well as a dose of action. The dialogue side is naturally handled well with one or two characters talking at a time and it’s mostly center channel based with a few throws the left or right here and there. The action plays pretty well too overall when it happens since it’s usually quick and intense but never overpowering. The mix of the two different elements works well and when it shifts from talk to action, it goes big and quickly but never overwhelming. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and we had no problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally airing in 2008 and 2009, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. The two seasons are spread across four discs, two per season, each following the same pattern of seven episodes on the first disc and six on the second. The show is light on supporting materials so it’s all about the show itself and the transfer captures it pretty well. There’s a softer palette used for this show to blend the countryside feeling of the story with the more magical yokai aspect and all tht comes bteween that blending. The animation has a good, smooth look to it and the colors hold up really well with very little in the way of background noise and no cross coloration or line noise. The show has the right look to it and definitely pleases overall.
The premium edition version of this release works similar to what previous editions have been like for other series and it’s definitely a pleasure. The oversized heavy chipboard box has a really great feeling to it with the paper style used that adds a richness to the colors and artwork. The front side features Natsume under an umbrella with yokai around him set against some green leaves and otherwise off white background. The reverse side does similar with a different configuration of characters that focuses on Reiko while providing the wraparound connection in a subtle yet beautiful way. The combination of the different aspects of the box really brings it together in a way that makes it feel wholly appropriate for the series, right down to the logo font.
The hardcover book included is spot on as well as it’s designed like the book within the series as it brings us a full color episode guide, a look at the various human and yokai characters and some gorgeous full sized images of the various promotional pieces from the series. While it could have done a bit more to tie in thematically within the book, the overall package for the book is fantastic. The two clear thinpak cases included in the release are pretty good as well, though more traditional, as we get one case for each season where the first is a dark piece and the second has a more spring like feeling that works nicely. The character focus is all on Natsume and Nyanko to good effect though. The back covers are laid out similarly as it has a big block of images for each season, a breakdown of episodes by number and title and a good look at the extras. Add in the clean technical grids that are accurate and you’ve got a package that is just perfect for this series. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.
The menu design for the release definitely captures part of the essence of the show and its animation style. Each disc is laid out differently with a seasonal kind of feeling to them with static imagery that shows off something that feels like great illustrations of various characters configurations. There’s that sense that it’s just right on paper that you can touch at times that’s really great to have with it. The navigation is simple with its offerings as there’s little here beyond the show and a few extras and only the original language track. Navigation is a breeze to move around and it’s every quick and easy to access. The menus do the job right in setting the mood and being very easy to get around in.
The only extras included on this release are the clean versions of the opening and closing sequences for each season as well as a small sampling of commercials for each season.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the shojo manga by Yuki Midorikawa which began in 2005 and has run for thirteen volumes so far, Natsume’s Book of Friends is one of those rare shows that has managed to eke out four seasons so far, the first two of which are in this set. The manga series, running in LaLa DX, has proven quite popular as the title has sold well over five million graphic novels so far. With new seasons coming in 2008, 2009, 2011 and recently in 2012, it’s managed to buck that rare trend of one or two and you’re completely done. And for a show that largely sticks to episodic storytelling, it’s all the more surprising.
The series takes place in the present day where we’re introduced to Takahashi Natsume, a high school student who has had a rough life. Orphaned young, he’s found himself shuffled around to different homes within the family but he ended up not staying long in any of them for quite some time. The problem that kept coming up was that he has the ability to see yokai, and they know it, which has lead to him being called a liar or just plain weird by those he’s with. With the way he seemingly yells at the air, argues with it and often flees from it since the yokai go after him, nobody has really wanted him. What’s helped is that as he’s grown up (and survived these chases by the yokai), he’s ended up with a middle aged couple in the countryside that have taken well to him, and him to them, that he’s worked hard to not talk about what he sees or draw them into it at all.
Where things change for him is the reveal that his grandmother Reiko died recently and she was much like him in her ability to see things. What she did in her youth though in this area many years ago though was to compile her “Book of Friends,” a work in which she tricked and manipulated various yokai into giving up their name to her that ended up written down there. With the book coming into Takahashi’s hands, he suddenly finds himself beset upon by a whole lot of yokai that want him did. Amusingly, he gets a bodyguard in the form of Madara, better known as Nyanko-sensei, a powerful yokai that’s in a lucky cat form that will wait out his time to gain the book and its list of names for himself. He befriends Natsume and makes a verbal contract with him that allows Natsume to be less afraid of the yokai and to gain more understanding by working with Nyanko.
Natsume’s Book of Friends uses this as its launching point but it doesn’t get very far. And that’s not a bad thing. Over the course of the two thirteen episode seasons we have in this collection, we’re introduced to an array of yokai, big and powerful to small and intriguing. It’s a vast world of yokai and there’s a good variety that we get exposed to here as some come angrily to get their names back while others try a more compliant approach into doing it. And in the midst of it, you have Nyanko who is trying to protect him, educate him but also waiting for him to die before all the pages and their names are returned as that’s an ability that Natsume has. Spreading this out over two seasons, it does become a yokai of the week kind of series but one with a rather relaxed approach that allows it to work in a really engaging way.
The one that leaves me uncertain is more of an actual player in events as we’re introduced to Natori, a relatively mid-level famous actor who is also secretly an exorcist. Like Natsume, he can see them, but he’s long since been unafraid of them and has worked as an exorcist quietly on the side. He’s drawn to Natsume, not knowing about the Book, but there’s something darker to his affable nature that leaves you wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. He does provide help and there are angles he’s privy to that opens up Natsume’s world a bit more, but with Natsume’s trusting nature and hope that people are inherently good (and yokai as well), he’s the kind of person that you find yourself always wary around, and that’s a welcome addition to the show.
Natsume’s Book of Friends gives us two seasons worth of material here and it’s pretty good stuff. I like the whole theme and setting of it with the more naturalistic approach that reminds me of a few other shows of this nature, though not quite as striking when it comes to its yokai or application of supernatural skills. But it hits many things right and executes it well even as it plays things very similar episode to episode. It does break out of the yokai name release of the week idea pretty quickly though and goes to expand on the story rather nicely, but there are almost always some yokai involved and always a nod towards what Natsume can do. I really like these aspects and it is the core of the series, but I also really and thoroughly enjoy the other story of Natsume finding his own friends and family and becoming a settled, complete young man. This definitely has me looking forward to the next two seasons and what they bring.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Clean Openings, Clean Closings, Japanese Commercials
Content Grade: B
Audio Grade: B
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: A
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B-
Released By: NIS America
Release Date: October 9th, 2012
Running Time: 570 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70″ LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.