Natsume’s Book of Friends is an anime adnaptation of an ongoing manga series that started publication in 2005. It’s at thirteen collected volumes at the moment and is still ongoing. Only four seasons of thirteen episodes each have been aired and adapted from the manga, and NIS has licensed the rights to all four seasons. This collection is season 3 of the anime with seasons 1 and 2 being released together in one boxed set on DVD. NIS America has bundled season 3 together more like their other anime I’ve reviewed with 2 Blu-Ray Discs and 2 DVDs each containing the same material but obviously higher quality on the Blu-Ray for big screen tvs. The set comes in a collector’s case with artwork that fits well with the previous release along with another artbook that largely resembles the first with different content. The series itself provides a nice mix of both laid back stories and creepy horror-themed episodes to a few really touching episodes that make for an interesting season.
Season 3 continues the story of Natsume Takashi, the grandson of Natsume Reiko, who can see the supernatural spirits around them known as Yokai. Yokai can take an animal form but often take on a more human appearance, some indistinguishable from regular humans except for the fact that only Natsume can see them. He’s often mistaken for Reiko by the Yokai who aren’t exactly up on their human lore as the two look very similar, but they have very different personalities. Reiko used to collect the names of the spirits she defeated and put them in a book the series is named after, only now most of the Yokai want out, either tired of being attached to Reiko or seeking release now that she’s gone. Anyone who possesses the book can summon and command any spirit whose name appears within the pages. Worse if the page with the Yokai’s name on it is destroyed it could take the spirit with it.
Takashi has taken a different route with the book from his grandmother and is releasing the Yokai as they come to him as only the saliva of a Natsume will dispel the ink from the page which releases them. Not every Yokai is happy to be in the book, and not every Yokai wants them to be freed either, as the Book of Friends only has power so long as the names are contained within it. So not only are there Yokai out to steal the book from him, but there are those out there that want to devour him, as being able to see them means he has more power than normal humans, who most Yokai hold in equal distaste. Takashi’s nice personality, thoughtfulness and selflessness attracts Yokai who are willing to not only protect him, but help him free the spirits from the Book of Friends. Madara, known as Nyanko-sensei by Takashi because of his fat â€˜lucky cat’ form, is one of his main protectors and guides. He, too, wants the Book of Friends, but has made a deal with Takashi that he will assist him so long as he lives, and then the Book will fall into his possession. There’s much more going on there, though, as Madara tries to not only guide and protect Takashi, but also becomes good friends with him, though the spirit cat won’t readily admit it.
Another thing separating Takashi from Reiko is that Takashi hasn’t had as hard a life and has friends where Reiko was completely ostracized by the community she was living in and they finally really touch on that in this season. While the first two seasons were full of more or less self-contained episodes that had a slow-moving over-arching plot as new characters were introduced, the third season really builds on the previous two as more characters from those two seasons make a return appearance here and in some cases really wreak havoc on Natsume’s life. His friends have come to accept his strange behavior and some even believe he is seeing the Yokai and seek him out for advice. Several episodes tie into each other forming mini-story arcs within the season’s overall arc making the show feel less like â€˜sprit of the week’ and more like we’re really getting into poor Takashi’s life.
Appearing for the first time is Matoba Seiji, an exorcist who got a mention in the second season, who shows up to wreak havoc and quickly becomes something of an arch-nemesis to Natsume as he is almost the exact opposite of him and instead of trying to free the Yokai, he’s out to kill them to use for his own ends. While Matoba won’t show up again after his two back-to-back appearances this season, just looking ahead he’s a major player in Natsume’s life in season 4. A few of the Yokai Natsume has helped before return to either ask for help again or are already involved in something that Natsume was checking into.
Apart from having a slightly darker tone, there are a number of really good episodes that get you into Takashi a bit more with â€œIn Younger Daysâ€ which we get to see what being young for Takashi was like and a bit into the life of a Yokai who was trying to get noticed by him but would scare him to do so. It’s a very reflective episode which ties into the first episode of the season a bit, â€œA Yokai’s Nameâ€ where we are shown a nicer side of Reiko and a bit more of her motivation for collecting the Book of Friends in the first place, making her a far more tragic character. Overall I like this season over the two previous if only because of the momentum taking you through it having built the world up with season 1 and 2. The story-telling quality is spot on and lets you move easily from one episode to the next.
Similar to the animation in the previous seasons, it is well done with a filter that blurs the image on screen just slightly giving it that soft and surreal tone that fits the show well. There are a number of really well done scenes with more action to them spread out through the show that really suck you into the scene reminding me of the techniques the older animation houses used to use in their films. There is no English dub on this release, giving you the original Japanese audio only which is fantastic between the voice cast and the more subtle audio cues giving the show its atmosphere. I’m actually happy they split the remaining two seasons up into two sets as we get the Blu-Ray discs along with the DVDs and while the DVDs on the first set upscaled well, the Blu-Rays will always look better on an HDTV. The extras on the discs themselves are limited to clean opening and closing animations and commercials. The premium part comes with the other items.
Like the other releases that come bundled with both Blu-Rays and DVDs, each half of the season is packaged in two slim cases with different artwork for each along with the matching DVD and Blu-Ray disc. There’s also the large but sturdy slip case that holds the thin cases and the artbook that comes with the set. The outer clip case has different artwork from the first Premium set but still fits within the theme and they will look good together on a shelf. Like the artbook in the first set, this one is also designed to look like the Book of Friends and shares a similar layout to the first. There is a synopsis for each episode of the season within the artbook along with screenshots from the episode in question. You also get a breakdown of key characters from the season with details about them to flesh them out a little more along with artwork that may have been used for reference by the animators. Towards the back is the full page artwork that I really get artbooks for, well when I was really collecting them anyway. These are different from the first set and are equally well done.
While these sets can be pricier than others, it is comparable to the first collection and others from NIS America. An anime fan on a budget might take an issue with it, and yes the slip case does take up more room on a shelf, but at the same time it looks great while it’s doing that. If you’re really picky about space you can always pack up the outer box and leave the thin packs out on your shelf. Most of my DVDs and Blu-Ray discs end up in binders with the cases packed away simply because I don’t have room for them, but the cases from these sets do look good on the shelf just below my TV and make for easy access. They’re very much like the coffee table art books or picture books you might see in someone’s living room only in an anime format and that I can live with. The show has me hooked, and I’m looking forward to Season 4 when that set is released. NIS has a bonus where you can get 2 Nyanko-sensei keychains in limited supply, and it’s running on sale there, like the other sets did when they came out. I’d recommend anyone who likes supernatural shows that don’t involve someone dying every week to check this out, although there is a bit of a body count this time, human and otherwise. Even if you’re just into dramedy as a genre there’s something here for you as well although this season does handle things in several episodes with a darker tone.