Natsume’s Book of Friends 1 by Yuki Midorikawa: B+

natsume'sbook1Takashi Natsume has been able to see yokai ever since he was little, an oddity that resulted in the boy being shuffled from one relative to the next after the death of his parents. Lately, though, the yokai are getting more insistent, mistaking Natsume for his grandmother, Reiko, and pestering him relentlessly. After an encounter with a yokai residing in a ceramic cat, Natsume learns that his grandmother bound many yokai to her by capturing their names in a Book of Friends—which he has inherited—and vows to return their names to them. The cat, hereafter referred to as Nyanko-sensei, agrees to help with the stipulation that should Natsume get eaten by an angry and powerful yokai, possession of the book will fall to him, enabling him to rule over his brethren.

The first volume consists of four stand-alone chapters in which Natsume returns some names, gets to know a diminishing dew god and his one remaining worshiper, fields a request from some yokai to get rid of a meddlesome human, and helps the spirit of a swallow catch a glimpse of a man who was kind to her and cured her of bitter feelings towards humanity. The tales are each entertaining, though it’s the last, referred to in the Afterward as “The Swallow Underwater,” that is my favorite. It’s both moving and lovely and admirably showcases the true potential of this series.

On the surface, Natsume’s Book of Friends may appear to be simply an episodic series of stories about yokai, but it works on several additional levels as well. Because of his experiences in the past, Natsume has been regarded as strange and never made any close friendships. And yet, we see through the course of this first volume that he’s partly to blame for this. He gets so wrapped up in his supernatural endeavors that he fails to see the friendly overtures some of his classmates are making towards him. It’s only when he gets the chance to meet another person who can see spirits that he takes any initiative to get to know a human and, after that point, spends a bit of time with his other classmates, as well.

His feelings towards yokai evolve throughout the book, too. As he interacts with them, he begins to recognize that many are lonely, just like he is. Gradually, his feelings towards them change from dislike to “I don’t mind lending a hand” to, finally, risking danger to himself in order to give the swallow spirit the best possible gift he could. His outlook on a childhood interaction with a yokai also undergoes a metamorphosis; what he once saw as a betrayal he can now view as an act of kindness. Natsume isn’t a very expressive character, but he is extremely kind. Though his trusting nature might come to cost him later—even Nyanko-sensei is occasionally tempted to eat him—his ability to have faith in and sympathize with yokai makes him extremely sympathetic in return.

Midorikawa’s sketchy art matches the tone of the story well. It reminds me a little bit of Chica Umino, actually, though much calmer. Natsume and his classmates have pretty average character designs, but a lot of creativity shows in the designs for the yokai, from the tiny, Noh-masked dew god to the powerful spirit forced to dwell inside a tubby ceramic cat to all sorts of one-eyed, animal-faced creatures in between.

In the end, Natsume’s Book of Friends is a very unique title among the Shojo Beat line. I’m extremely eager to see where the story will go from here.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

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