Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Aug 4th 2012
Natsume's Book of Friends
In the continuing adventures of Takashi Natsume, the boy who can see things that others can't, Natsume and Nyanko-sensei encounter a yokai looking to return a mirror to a long ago friend, another who needs their help to read an old letter, and somehow get caught up in a yokai plot to revive a recently escaped spirit.
What is the difference between humans and yokai? Why is it not a good idea for the two to become involved? This is a subject that has come up several times over the course of Yuki Midorikawa's achingly beautiful supernatural series, and it's about to rear its head again. It says something about Midorikawa's ability that it hasn't gotten old yet and can still strike a chord in the reader's heart, as she amply proves in the first two chapters of this most recent volume.
Natsume's Book of Friends' twelfth book comprises three stories in five chapters. The first two, both single chapter episodes, are markedly stronger than the three chapter arc at the end, although none could be fairly called “weak.” The first story is perhaps the most heart-wrenching. It deals with a barely-masked yokai man who needs Natsume's power in order to summon a yokai who has the ability to restore paper. He has a letter from a human woman he interacted with years ago, and he cannot rest easy until he knows what she wrote. “Yearning” is really the central theme of this tale, and his comes across clearly as he tells Natsume what happened in the past both in person and through the medium of dreams. This is the most bittersweet of the three (although the second is pretty close) and that is emphasized by the fact that this is one of the most human yokai we have seen. Most of his face is visible despite the mask he wears and the beard he has grown somehow separates him from the other yokai we have read about. In some panels we even see his eyes, the part most often concealed behind a mask, giving him an even more human feel. This seems to have been done to highlight the story's message about human/yokai interactions and it is very effective. If one story this volume makes you tear up, chances are it will be this one.
The second story, however, also has plenty of pathos to it. In this tale Natsume discovers a small cup on legs wandering around under his house. Nyanko-sensei explains that it is a “cup ghost,” the spirit of a well-made cup who protects those in need. Nyanko warns Natsume to be careful, as the cup ghost's appearance may betoken danger. No sooner has he said this than Natsume runs into a yokai who looks very, very human – so human, in fact, that Natsume is not the only one to be fooled. This yokai once borrowed a mirror from someone she believed to have been a yokai, but many years have passed and she has been unable to find her to return it. Like the previous story, this one deals with the differences between humans and yokai and the tolls that can take on both parties, albeit with a different focus than the previous tale. Both stories are quietly, sadly beautiful and encapsulate the mood that makes this series stand out from the supernatural crowd.
The three chapter story arc that concludes the book is less moving, although Midorikawa's end notes indicate that it is meant to show Natsume thinking about his own loneliness. It does accomplish this, but with less finesse than the previous two stories. Natsume finds himself at the mercy of a group of yokai bent on serving him up as dinner to their master, a recently freed malicious spirit, and Nyanko-sensei and Tanuma go after him to help. The main issue here is that too much happens in these chapters while, at the same time, nothing of great import is accomplished. While it does have its moments – the end is especially strong – it simply lacks the elegance and charm of the other two chapters. It does, however, explain the image on the volume cover.
Midorikawa's art remains much as it has been throughout the series, with an ephemeral quality that nicely compliments the story. Feet are a particular weakness this time, as for some reason she seems to draw more of them than usual. Light haired characters can be hard to tell apart at first glance, but generally speaking, the art, while not as strong as the writing, is still pleasant. Several of the bonus illustrations between chapters are wonderful, such as one of Nyanko-sensei sitting on a wall with other cats or the pre-story illustration of Reiko on the beach.
Natsume's Book of Friends, despite the weaker chapters, remains a beautiful story underwritten by melancholy. While it is still very much a series of interconnected short stories, it has achieved an overall coherence that makes rereading it pleasant and that enhances Natsume's character growth. It is the kind of series that you want to read in a field, hidden by the tall grass, so that when you put the book down and look up, you aren't quite sure who you might see.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B+
+ First two stories are very strong. Beautifully rendered mood.
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