Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Mar 17th 2012
Natsume's Book of Friends
Takashi Natsume has always been different – he can see yokai, spirit creatures both good and bad, and because of this has remained an outsider. But ever since he came to live with the Fujiwaras, he has come to terms with his abilities and made friends both human and yokai, learning to believe in his own happiness and security. In these three books, Natsume tangles with an exorcist, impersonates a Harvest God, saves his friend's home, and finally comes to terms with parts of his own past.
Life is never easy for those who defy the norm, and that holds doubly true for teenager Takashi Natsume, the protagonist of Yuki Midorikawa's quiet series Natsume's Book of Friends. Natsume's grandmother bequeathed him her ability to see and speak to monsters known as yokai, and with that gift comes alienation from those who don't understand. Natsume thus has spent most of his life being shuttled between relatives who either don't want him or think he is somehow crazy, and until the Fujiwaras take him in – a story we got in volume eight – his life was fairly miserable. By this point in the series, however, Natsume is beginning to feel secure enough in his environment and with his talents that he has made some friends, both human and not so human. The story has now moved to a place where Midorikawa can explore Natsume's emotions and allow him to be less restrained in his statements and actions, while still retaining that edge of uncertainty that tells him that at any given moment, everything could fall apart. This allows the series to move into more sequential territory while still emphasizing its strengths as small moments in Natsume's life, and it feels as though Midorikawa has truly hit her stride as the volumes progress.
Each of these three books has its strengths when held up to the other two. Volume nine, for example, has some very different yokai than Midorikawa typically draws – small fuzzballs who look like nothing so much as tribbles. Volume ten allows Natsume to forcibly demonstrate to exorcist Natori how he feels about yokai as opposed to humans, giving both of them a clearer understanding of each other. Volume eleven is the emotional standout of the three, with melancholy, bittersweet stories about family and being without those you love. Overall this is the strongest, with both of its storylines achieving an emotional depth that the series has touched on but not delved into before. The theme of the book would have to be “loss,” but in the sense that you cannot grieve and move on from one until you have fully accepted that a loss has occurred. Some parts of the second story, three chapters about Natsume returning to his parents' home, are genuine tear-jerkers, but without leaving the reader feeling manipulated. If a single word was to be applied to this series as a whole and to these three books in general, “gentle” would probably be the best choice, as it guides you, but does not force you, in the emotional direction that it wants.
Natsume's past is beginning to play a bigger role in the series, and not just in the quiet sadness of volume eleven. Volume nine's “Natsume Observation Log,” a series of side stories generally reserved for the fox kit who adores our hero, is told from the point of view of a girl who went to Natsume's previous school with him. She ponders his living conditions and the reasons for them, as well as his odd behavior, and one gets the impression that perhaps he didn't have to be as alone as he was. Volume ten brings back a boy from Natsume's elementary school days who used to bully him because of his otherwordly sight. Now that the boy has grown up some, he begins to wonder if maybe Natsume was maligned and, if that is the case, if Natsume can help him with a situation he doesn't quite understand. His arrival forces Natsume to begin to examine his previous situations in a different light, and in some ways serves as the catalyst that allows him to make the journey he does in volume eleven.
It should be clear by now that Midorikawa's initial intention of making this a series that could be picked up at any point with a full understanding of the story is no longer true, although she herself has not said as much. Recurring characters are no longer introduced when they reappear on the scene, and there is a definite assumption of familiarity on the reader's part with places, yokai, and humans. Overall this is an improvement, as it allows for the development of Natsume's character, but it does stumble at times due to the fact that drawing distinctively different people is not one of Midorikawa's strong suits. Yokai are somewhat easier to tell apart because of their supernatural features, but in general her artistic strength is in creating ethereal, pastoral images that exude mood and enhance the tone of the plot. The predominance of white in the artwork and the sense of open space given by a lack of detailed backgrounds works in this story, although reading too much of it in a row could make it grating. By and large, however, text and image work together to give the story an otherworldly feel.
Viz's translation is consistently good for this series, with everyone sounding natural, even if yokai speak in antiquated tones. The cultural notes included in some volumes are not as useful as they could be – it would be nice to know some of the more traditional yokai besides the kappa rather than yet another definition of “udon” - but in general these are some of their best done books. The only complaint is more of a yearning – to have more of Midorikawa's color artwork, as this outshines her black and whites, the cover of volume ten being an especially nice example.
Natsume's Book of Friends is special in a variety of ways. With its uncertain male protagonist, it is already a rarity in the shoujo field, but also its gentleness and slightly melancholy air set it apart. As Natsume grows as a person and his relationship with Nyanko-sensei evolves to one of real partnership, and as he begins to realize that he is allowed to be happy, Yuki Midorikawa's tale only grows more enchanting. If you haven't done so already, do step into Natsume's world. Your reading will be the richer for it.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ More consistent flow of story allows for characters to develop, some more variety in yokai designs. Genuine emotion rather than manufactured manipulation.
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