Reviewby Rebecca Bundy, Apr 15th 2010
Natsume's Book of Friends
Takashi Natsume can see youkai (spirits and demons), an ability that his grandmother, Reiko, possessed when she was alive. Reiko passed the Book of Friends, filled with the names of various youkai, onto Natsume, who is now trying to return the names of the youkai to their original owners. Madara, aka “Nyanko-sensei,” is a powerful youkai that lives with Natsume in the form of a fat kitty and protects him from other youkai like Lord Shigure and “Mary,” but only because when Natsume dies, he's promised to give him the Book of Friends; or at least the names that are left in there. But can Natsume find a balance between protecting his friends and new family, who know nothing of his ability to see youkai, and staying alive in the face of evil youkai who want to take the Book from him? And how will Shuichi Natori, the first person Natsume's met who can see (and exorcise) youkai, affect him when he realizes that the exorcist isn't as kind towards youkai as he is?
Like a breath of fresh air, Natsume's Book of Friends is one of those rare manga series that reminds people that it's possible to break free from the stereotypes that most series cling to. Gone are the complicated romances and relationships, characters who strive to be the best at what they do, and epic battles for the fate of the world. In their place are stories filled with centuries-long pain that's healed with the gentlest of touches, a realistic look at what happens when two very different worlds collide, and a tale of overcoming great loneliness and the feeling of isolation that comes with being just a little bit different from everyone else.
The four stories in volume two are meant to stand alone so that new readers can pick up in the series whenever they'd like, but even with the basic story being told ad nauseam at the beginning of every chapter, you really need to read the first volume to fully enjoy the unique relationship between Natsume and Madara; it may seem to be more comic than symbiotic, yet time and time again Madara steps forward to put Natsume's safety above everything else, from insisting that he escape on his back in order to break free from Lord Shigure's barrier to jumping into the middle of Natori's powerful spell to absorb some of the damage so that Natsume isn't hurt as badly. Does it make sense for a demon to go to such lengths to guard a human he insists he wants to see dead so that he can run off with the Book of Friends? Not at all, and it just makes their love/hate relationship that much sweeter and more rewarding for readers who've been around since volume one.
Natsume himself is a bit of a conundrum: he's not really a living, breathing character per se, but instead represents a time in most people's lives when they've felt cut off from the rest of the world simply because they're a little different. You don't need to be able to see ghosts in order to feel this: just about anyone who loves things like anime, manga, video games, etc. has gotten “that look” when you try to explain something you love to someone else who thinks you're too old to be watching cartoons or playing games. And just as Natsume lies about what he can see and keeps what he does a secret, so too have many of us learned ways to “hide” our true passions in order to preserve a mask of normalcy and protect the ordinary things in our lives until we (and they) are invested enough to let the veil slip.
Having to do this is obviously a very lonely and sad thing, and the chapters within literally drip with this gloomy mood. Natsume often reflects on how he's determined to not let anyone too close, especially since he's finally found happiness, yet he completely misses how self-destructive it is to find joy from protecting others from the truth. Youkai like Lord Shigure, Hiragi, Asagi, and Akagane all struggle with their own types of sadness and regret, though none are as touching as Hinoe, who sheds a tear for Reiko and wistfully scolds herself by saying, “Human life is so short. I need to stop liking them.” Even the art, which is sketchy and breezy, emphasizes large open spaces of black, white and gray over complicated designs and patterns as if to say that everyone is hiding their true selves behind sweeping blank, conforming slates.
Not everything is bleak though. While the chapters focus heavily on the sad and sometimes downright scary youkai Natsume interacts with, the introduction of Natori is definitely the highlight of the volume. Natsume and Natori finally find someone else to confide in, yet their conflicting morals and different ways of dealing with youkai makes Natsume realize that just because someone sees the same as he does doesn't mean they're the same as him. Likewise, not everyone has to be like him in order to feel like him. Natori brings Natsume hope by reminding him that he isn't as alone as he thinks he is.
In addition, certain scenes, such as Natsume giving Lord Shigure's name back, are drawn with such simplicity that they become exceptionally beautiful and inspirational; you can literally feel your spirits being lifted as the swirling characters rise up off of the Book's page. While it'd be nice to see more of these peaceful and light moments drawn out instead of cutting away to yet another shot of a tree against a cloudy sky, it just makes the critical scenes, like Hiragi walking to her death through shredded paper that more closely resembles fallen blossoms, all the more poignant.
For all of the loneliness and gloom, the series never feels bogged down by it. In fact, the mixture of Natsume reflecting on his own feelings and putting the feelings of the youkai around him before his own makes the story a stirring one. Though the series isn't as episodic as it wants to be, and it's disappointing when characters like Sasada, Hinoe, and Natori don't stick around for very long, the art, characters, and story all work flawlessly together to bring about a perfect balance between isolation, sadness, inspiration, and true friendship.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Interesting characters, gripping stories, and themes of both sadness and hope that effortlessly capture the reader's attention.
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