A lot of people, when I tell them about my love of anime, mention Spirited Away, by Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki’s first real success story in the western world, it tells the story of a girl called Chihiro who is forced to work in a bathhouse in the spirit world in order to save her parents from being eaten by the spirits. I mention this because, if you saw Spirited Away, loved it, and want more of the same, then I might have the perfect little TV show for you.
Natsume and the Book of Friends is a TV series, currently with 52 episodes, split into 4 seasons. It’s based on a manga (comic book strip) that is still going, and, in that strange way that’s typical of the manga/anime world, whenever enough of the comic has been written, they make more of the TV to mirror it.
It tells the story of a young man named Natsume who can see spirits – good, bad, friendly, funny, scary, all of them, walking or floating around the human world and causing trouble. No one else can see them, making Natsume feel very alone and isolated and making everyone else think he’s strange or insane from the way he reacts to, or runs away from, nothing.
He moves in with new foster parents in the town where his grandmother grew up, and is given a box of his grandmother’s old things. There, he learns that his grandmother could also see spirits, and similarly isolated from society, would go around challenging the spirits to fights, beating them, and making them write their names in her book, the Book of Friends. This is a powerful artifact, because anyone who owns the Book and knows the spirit’s face can call out their name and make them do their bidding. As a result, Natsume is frequently assaulted by spirits who either want their own name back, or want the book for its power.
With his loveable lofty cat spirit bodyguard named Nyanko-sensei (which I guess would translate to something like “Master Kitty” – both respectful and cutesy), Natsume tries to make friends with spirits and humans and live a life without hating either of them.
The story is incredibly well written. Nothing is rushed, no details are hurried out, and a lot of details of Natsume’s past and of his grandmother’s life are delivered in little tantalizing images or scenes. It has a way of telling the stories of the spirits that is often poignant and always intriguing. At the same time it manages to add humor in the relationship between Natsume and Nyanko-sensei, who will never admit to being friends.
The artwork is great, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes creepy and disturbing. Some of the spirits that attack Natsume can be pretty scary. The music shifts with the mood, and, unlike most anime, doesn’t choose shouty J-Pop songs for the intro and for the credits. Some of the end songs in particular are wonderful.
If you’re looking for an anime that is fast-paced and full of adventure, then this is not the anime for you – yes, exciting and dangerous things happen, but they’re often incidental to the touching tales of love and loss and hate and fear in the spirit world. But it’s an excellent slice of Japanese culture and tradition, with characters that you grow to love and care for. If you liked Spirited Away, then give it a try.