In one of those funny timing things that happens every so often, I began rewatching Natsume’s Book of Friends (Natsume Yuujinchou) this year. As I was nearing the end and wishing the end wasn’t so soon – one of 2016’s biggest pleasant surprises occurred – a fifth season of Natsume was announced for the Fall 2016 season.
I was elated. I was ecstatic.
I was worried.
The production for season 5 was going to handled by a new animation company – Shuka. On one hand, the principle people at Brains Base, including director Takahiro Omori, who worked on the first four seasons of Natsume and so many of the other hits that made Brains Base a favorite left the company and formed Shuka several years ago. Meaning many of the people would be the same; however, their first work as Shuka, a continuation of Durarara, looked almost painfully inferior to the first season. I eventually dropped this continuation, but, that could be chalked up to the story descending into an utter chaotic mess. The poor animation just made it an easier choice to make. Thus, the effect of a new studio, compared to an established studio equipped to handle animation production, can’t be overlooked either.
I didn’t expect a vast improvement in their production of Natsume, though, I consoled myself with the thought that it might not matter as much.
The bigger change for this fifth season potentially would come from seeing the director, Takahiro Omori, assuming the role of “chief director” and Kotomi Deai (director of Silver Spoon 2 and Rolling Girls) taking over as director. If this change was similar to the situation at the Shaft animation studio then Omori would have very little actual oversight of season 5.
So, I was worried. I was worried that there would be no episodes that would overwhelm the viewer with that uniquely special feeling created from watching the very best episodes of Natsume. I was worried that this fifth season of Natsume was going to be decidedly inferior to the first four seasons. I was worried that, worse case, this fifth season would be bad enough to ruin my enjoyment of the first four seasons.
Were these fears unfounded?
Yes and no.
Since I’d just watched all four seasons some things were glaringly obvious.
The production side of things suffered. They pulled a Shaft by not having the ending song animation done until it was half over. They heavily relied on the nature of the show to reduce how much animation needed done and the animation was still full of jagged bits that they lacked the time to smooth out. Further, my rewatch reminded me that there were scenes of great animation in Natsume and the almost complete lack of such scenes in season 5 did hurt the show.
The tone of the fifth season was subtlety “different”; however, I’ve been fooled by this before. Seen in isolation, the thawing of Natsume’s melancholy in the second season bothered me as it was a change from the first season. Later, I rewatched seasons 1 and 2 then continued into season 3 and saw this change of tone, that began in season 2 and continued into season 3, as a reflection of the growth and change in Natsume’s personality that was occurring as a result of the events shown in these seasons. And having just seen the first four seasons, the change in tone of the fifth season fits into the arc of change displayed by Natsume over the course of the entire series.
So, I’m okay with the change in tone found in the fifth season because it shows that Natsume continues in his desire to find peace with his circumstances while becoming a normal happy, well-adjusted, and flourishing teenager (who just happens to be able to see spirits).
The reason why Natsume has been able to achieve this is also the reason I’m talking about Natsume today (and by today I’m pretending I’m not a week late posting this).
After a string of good to great episodes in this fifth season of Natsume I needed to see just one more thing before I could completely relax from my worrying over one of my all-time favorite series. I needed to see an episode that went past “great” and into the exceptional level.
Episode 10 starts so innocuously with Touko’s laundry almost getting drenched from a surprise shower but being saved by a crow cawing a warning to Natsume. This led Touko to reminisce about a time before Natsume came to live with the Fujiwara family when she befriended a crow. From there she went into the events that lead Natsume into ending up with the Fujiwaras. I don’t want to spoil it too much, so, I’ll say that by the end of the episode tears were pouring from my eyes. I wanted to see a soul-stirring exceptional episode that matched the best from the first four seasons and I got my wish.
As I reflected on this episode, the importance of finally finding a family able and willing to welcome Natsume and continue to love him, even when he says or does something slightly weird, really reached clarity. The Fujiwara family provide a bedrock that Natsume could depend on and this allowed him to slowly become that happy, well-adjusted, flourishing person we see in season 5. Without the Fujiwaras, then the best case scenario for Natsume would have been to emulate Reiko’s lonely life. (And, as episodes this season shed more light on the exorcist side of things, I’m wondering now if Reiko was killed by an exceptionally strong youkai.)
A season 6 of Natsume Yuujinchou was announced for 2017. I am elated. I am ecstatic. I’m not worried. And I wonder what new revelations will this season contain; there’s still so much to learn about the characters and the world. It probably won’t be the end of the franchise, though, when Natsume’s Book of Friends does eventually end, I’d like to see a flash forward of Natsume happily married and explaining to his young child what the strange creatures no one can see are and why their pet cat can talk, drink saké, and transform.
As an aside, I have a feeling I know what Touko means in this line, but, not knowing for sure is killing me.