Hanasaku Iroha VS. Natsume’s Book of Friends

HanasakuVS.Natsume

Hanasaku Iroha VS. Natsume’s Book of Friends Seasons 1-3

Watched via Crunchyroll/DVD/BD

WHITNEY

CRYSTAL

PLOT: Ohana Matsumae is a high-school girl who has grown up raising herself and taking care of her mother. While not an ideal situation, she has grown accustomed to it. Her life abruptly changes one day when her mother tells her that she is eloping and leaving Ohana behind in the care of her mother’s mother.

When Ohana gets dropped off at her grandmother’s hot spring inn, she is allowed to stay, but only if she earns her keep as a maid. It is quite disheartening to see two family members treat a young girl with such disdain. Usually in an anime series, a young lady is abandoned through the unfortunate death of her parents, not by their purposeful negligence.

Luckily that’s just the set up, and the plot gets more upbeat from there. Ohana is a stubborn optimist, and takes everything in stride. She may be naive and a klutz around the inn, but she does her best to befriend the staff, earn her grandmother’s affection, and to be worthy of being in the family business.

While there are story arcs, I’d say that the show is pretty episodic in true slice-of-life fashion. This didn’t really bother me though, because the various themes of family, love, and friendship glue the series together instead.

I should also note that this story does involve a bit of love, though in a very secondary way. Ohana’s best friend confesses to her before she moves, and shows up in various ways throughout the season. I didn’t think it was that big of a plot point, but I did appreciate the relationship between them as a connection to her old life. I also liked the new angle on love, with their affection being more off screen. Then there is a bit of a love triangle within the staff which rubs several characters the wrong way when Ohana joins the inn. In time, this too gets dealt with, but in a way that I believe says more about friendship rather than love.

PLOT: Natsume’s Book of Friends focuses on a high school student, Takashi Natsume, who can see spirits. His parents died when he was little, and he’s subsequently been passed around by family members who eventually become weirded out by him and pass him along to someone else. He recently moved in with the Fujiwaras, a nice, middle-aged couple who live in the town where Natsume’s grandmother lived. Natsume desperately wants to keep his powers from the Fujiwaras for fear that they’ll reject him, just like everyone else he’s ever lived with.

Natsume’s grandmother, Reiko, could also see spirits and died young, leaving her Book of Friends behind. Natsume owns this book, and soon finds out that it contains the names of various spirits that Reiko encountered and defeated. Natsume and the book attract the attention of Madara, a strong spirit who’s been sealed into the shape of a lucky cat (where he goes by the name “Nyanko-sensei”). Madara wants the Book of Friends so he can have power over the spirits in it, but he agrees to let Natsume watch over it and decides to wait until he can eat Natsume someday, guarding Natsume until then. The two establish a friendly camaraderie, and Madara protects Natsume as he returns names from the Book of Friends and encounters various spirits.

The series has a rather formulaic setup, much like Mushishi or related series. However, Natsume’s Book of Friends manages to refrain from feeling too formulaic or forced by adding in new characters or exploring characters’ emotions in intriguing ways. Natsume eventually makes human friends, which he’s never had before, and he learns about the world of exorcists and other humans who can see spirits. Natsume also encounters many spirits who were attached to his grandmother, leading him to deal with her past relationships and to reflect on his own relationships. Over the course of the series, Natsume and those around him grow a good deal, which keeps the show fresh and makes it worth coming back for each season.

I’m not a huge fan of shows about spirits. After a while it seems like a giant check list of monsters. However, I’m interested to hear more about the human friends that Natsume makes. Depending on how integral they are to the plot, I may give this show another shot.

SETTING: I rather enjoyed the “new” type of setting. Many slice-of-life series focus on high-schoolers moving to new schools, which is still the case here, but the focus is on the home life rather than school life. The roles and inter-relationships between characters are rather cliche, but the alternate setting helps keep the story from becoming stale.

Not only is the inn a uniquely simple local, but it is the life force for all of the characters in Hanasaku Iroha. Since the majority of characters work at the inn, they are driven to overcome the battles that challenge its survival together. This helps make up for the lack in overall plot by creating a thematic support. In essence, so long as the inn stays functioning, or so long as Ohana works there, there will always be a story to tell.

I’m intrigued by Hanasaku Iroha’s setting, especially since few teenagers in anime have to work jobs. I also wouldn’t mind watching an anime set at an inn that isn’t Love Hina.

SETTING: Most of Natsume’s Book of Friends takes place in a small town in the countryside, where Natsume and the Fujiwaras live. Because Natsume just moved there, Natsume and the viewers can explore the town together and are both surprised by new knowledge, like the well that has a bunch of spirits sealed inside of it. Natsume’s new friends become very helpful when it comes to knowing information about the area, and everyone gets to show their merits.

Sometimes Natsume travels to other towns, though this happens more as the show goes on. As Natsume meets others who can see spirits and is introduced to exorcists, Natsume does a bit more traveling. He does travel for some stereotypical reasons, like a study trip with his friends, but most of the traveling relates directly to the spirits he can see in some way.

CHARACTERS: The cast members in Hanasaku Iroha are rather stereotyped, but act out their personalities rather mildly. This helps make their characteristics less aggravating and easier to digest.

Ohana is your typical overly optimistic bumbling idiot. She always gives everything her best, and continues to battle to overcome obstacles, even after being walked all over. While her character type can be a bit annoying at times, she isn’t blind to reality, she just chooses to move past it. It’s her strength and dedication which really set her apart. Also she isn’t above stooping to low levels in order to achieve the results she desires, which makes her much easier to relate to than the typical pure naive heroine.

During Ohana’s time at the inn, she befriends Minko and Nako, two other young ladies and classmates who work there. The former is a cook assistant who is short tempered and competitive. Nako, another maid, on the other hand is shy and easily flustered. Over the course of the series their friendship with Ohana helps to strengthen their faults and mellow them out. Another classmate of Ohana’s, Yuina Wakura, is the heiress of a rival inn and serves as a foil to Ohana’s loyal familial dedication. By befriending Ohana, she begins to stop taking for granted the opportunities which have been set before her.

The rest of the cast all have their place within Kissuiso Inn. In many ways Ohana acts as a catalyst to bring them all together in ways they hadn’t before. This is especially true for Ohana’s grandmother, Sui Shijima, who is cold and stoic. Throughout the series we begin to learn more about Sui and her life dedication towards the inn through the eyes of her granddaughter. The backgrounds for each character are slowly revealed to the viewer, and even help to redeem first impressions of them, such as Sui. Though, I don’t think there’s anything that could redeem Ohana’s mother.

I’m glad Ohana’s not just a naïve twit. I’ve watched the first episode of this, and from that I was worried about how much of an optimistic airhead she’d be, so it’s good to know that she has some other personality traits to balance herself out.

CHARACTERS: Since this series focuses so closely on Natsume and the Book of Friends, I had expected to be underwhelmed by the amount of characters present. However, the series has two stable main characters in Natsume and Nyanko-sensei, and the many secondary characters occur often enough over the course of the series for the viewer to connect with them.

Natsume, though lonely, is a likable boy who doesn’t brood too much. His problems feel real to me, as he’s both an orphan and an outcast among his peers because of the spirits he can see. At first I had a hard time picturing how difficult it was for Natsume to make friends, but the series follows this angle several times, showing how Natsume would react to spirits others couldn’t see, talking to them like they were people and creeping out anyone around him. Essentially, the other children thought Natsume was crazy or seeking attention, leaving him alone and making it hard for him to make friends. Now that he has friends, Natsume tries hard to keep his differences from them while also figuring out how he feels about spirits. Does he dislike them because of how they’ve made him feel? Or does he like them because they can understand him? Natsume does a great deal of thinking and growing over the course of the series, which I really enjoyed watching.

Nyanko-sensei, on the other hand, sees less development than Natsume, but that makes sense because he’s an old yokai. He does visibly grow closer to Natsume over the series, and he’s always good for comic relief. His main role is to be the solid background support for Natsume, which Natsume sorely needs.

The secondary characters of the show are also strong and interesting without anyone being too annoying. I love the Fujiwaras dearly for how they love and take care of Natsume, though he’s understandably slow to rely on them. Natsume’s friends are also fun and care about him a lot, and eventually he makes friends with others who know about spirits. The exorcists who appear pique my interest, especially the actor Shuuichi Natori. Finally, there are the spirits themselves, who are always interesting and find new ways to intrigue me.

I still don’t know about that cat… There’s just something about him I don’t quite like. Maybe I just like my mascot characters a little more spunky. I’m glad Natsume gets rounded out, he seemed really dull in the first episode.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: The animation for Hanasaku Iroha is very beautiful and colorful. The inn is set in a small charming country town full of lush scenery. To match, the architecture of the inn is elegant and old fashioned. The uniforms for the staff work wonderfully with the feel of the inn. I especially enjoyed the updated uniforms the maids wear when they are trying to revitalize the look of the inn.

kimono

Isn’t it adorable? What I really appreciated about this series was how tame the fan service was. The character designs are super cute, but not so over-the-top that I feel like a sleazy old man watching it. I’d say the animation has just the right amount of moe for a slice-of-life series, which makes it much more accessible to male and female fans alike.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Natsume’s Book of Friends has mid-level animation for a TV series from the past decade. The first two seasons are only available on DVD, and they don’t suffer for it, because the show’s noticeably mediocre. Some animation gets reused frequently, while there are a handful of animation shortcuts each episode. The show certainly doesn’t look terrible, but it’s very middle-of-the-road for the first two seasons. The third season, though, is available on BD, as well as DVD, and that season shows a slight improvement in the animation and coloring. It’s still not a spectacular-looking show, and the best art is on NIS America’s boxes, but it does improve over time.

The character designs are pretty basic, with everyone having standard face and eye shapes with slight variations for different characters. The characters do have realistically different hairstyles instead of resorting to crazy means to tell characters apart, but after a while everyone looks the same, even the spirits. The spirits pull from the same well of Japanese folklore as other shows about Japanese spirits, so if you’ve seen one of those, none of these spirits will really surprise you. I still find them entertaining to learn about, but it’s nothing new or groundbreaking. The freshest character in the group is Nyanko-sensei, who’s stuck in a cute shape that counters his real appearance so strongly that it can’t help but be hilarious. He’s also a strong, curmudgeonly mascot character for the series.

OVERALL: Hanasaku Iroha isn’t terribly profound or moving. It won’t knock you over-the-head with its awesomeness, yet there is something pleasantly charming about how simple and optimistic this series is. I loved watching this show as it came out every week on Crunchyroll and it was easily my favorite series of that season.

That said, this is a show aimed at slice-of-life fans. Even the romance is downplayed to push family and friendship to the forefront. So if you’re in for the romance, you may be sorely disappointed.

Since it’s so easy to obtain (it’s streaming on Crunchyroll) there’s no harm in checking out an episode or two for a nice little relaxing afternoon.

I’ve always meant to watch the rest of this show, I just haven’t gotten around to it with everything else I need to watch. It’s good to know that it’s worth watching, though, for whenever I get around to it.

OVERALL: I wasn’t expecting to have such a strong connection to Natsume’s Book of Friends when I began watching it, as I was just expecting it to be like another season of Mushishi with different characters. However, Natsume’s Book of Friends takes the time to slowly develop the characters so that I feel a real attachment to them. I want to know more about Reiko, and I want to see Natsume continue to make more friend and become more sure of himself and those around him. Natsume’s ability to see spirits is definitely a selling point of this show to people like me who love Japanese folklore, but it’s not its strongest point. The show excels at being warm and inviting, drawing you in with characters you enjoy spending time with while also letting them grow as individuals. I guess you could consider this show to be a parallel to Aria, with fewer girls, more spirits, but just as much heart.

So long as it’s more than just about spirits, I think I’ll give this another shot, but I can’t guarantee that it’ll jump to the top of my to watch list.

FINAL SCORE: (8/10) FINAL SCORE: (8/10)
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One thought on “Hanasaku Iroha VS. Natsume’s Book of Friends

  1. this is a great posts about two of my favorite anime series. Though I love Hanasaku Iroha, Natsume Yuujinchou always had that very special place in my heart forever.

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