Natsume’s Book of Friends 11

September 24, 2012

Yuki Midorikawa – Viz – 2012 – 14+ volumes

This series is just so charming and touching, I don’t think I could ever get tired of it. And that’s putting aside the fact I generally like folklore-y stories like this.

My favorite part of this volume was a story about Natsume’s past, where he goes back to visit the house he lived in with his mother before she passed away. He struggles with whether or not he should even go back to see it, and there’s a story involving the family he lived with nearby immediately after his mother died. Of course he left after behaving eccentrically due to a yokai, and the same one gives him trouble when he returns for a visit. This time, though, it threatens the family, and of course he needs to find a way to exorcise it without acting too crazy in public.

The story really does a good job balancing his struggle with this. It’s utterly tragic that he always tries to do the right thing and is ostracized as a kid who simply misbehaves or is of unsound mind. It’s terribly bittersweet in this way, and I find this to be much more touching than the occasional reminder that Natsume and Nyanko-sensei will have to part ways some day, as many of the yokai they meet part with their human companions.

The first story in this volume is about that, actually. Natsume and Tanuma happen to stumble across the large, rambling residence of Taki. Taki and Tanuma are Natsume’s two classmates that know he can see spirits, and sympathize with him. Taki’s house is currently being ransaked by a particularly vengeful and dangerous spirit, which Natsume has to clear out. This is pretty par for the course, but of course his friends who can’t see are here to support him this time. And there’s a sub-story about Taki’s grandfather, who couldn’t see spirits but loved them anyway. He attracted many to his house, and it’s the love of these yokai for Taki’s grandfather that really save the day in this one. So this was a double whammy of bittersweetness, in that it was about both Natsume’s ability to see yokai and how it does (or in this case, didn’t) make him an outsider, and about the impermanence of life. It’s beautiful.

And Midorikawa does such a good job with the yokai designs. I don’t really talk about that enough, but they are always very distinctive-looking, even the one shot characters. In this one, the vengeful spirit was a large kimono that had to collect skeletal body parts in order to gain its full powers. The friendly yokai were small, mask-wearing folk of various appearances. It’s a wonderful touch, and one of my favorite things about this series.

All of it’s wonderful, though. I really care about all the characters, and I love the one-shot stories in every volume. It’s probably one of the best shoujo manga running right now, and I hope it’s making its way into the hands of those who will appreciate it.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Yuki Midorikawa – Viz – 2012 – 13+ volumes

I had to follow up Kamisama Kiss with a volume of this. Both of them are quite good, though admittedly this one is the better series. I like Kamisama Kiss because I’m a romance junkie, but Natsume’s Book of Friends is an engaging story about lonely outsider Natsume connecting with those around him, both yokai and people, and making his world a bigger and better place. Sometimes there’s commentary about which of the two is actually more monstrous, but most of the time, it’s about Natsume slowly learning to rely on others and not be such an outsider. Seeing yokai caused him to be ostracized all his life, but he’s slowly embracing his gift, and making friends with both yokai and humans. It’s a sweet story, and I love the episodic nature.

This volume has two stories in it. The first is about an old classmate of Natsume’s who comes back and threatens to tell his new friends he’s an oddball unless he helps him with a problem. He wants to know if the girl he’s fallen in love with at the park is a yokai. Natsume thinks she’s human at first, but soon realizes she’s a hungry yokai that plans on eating his former classmate. The problem is, since he’s already pronounced judgement, his classmate calls him a liar, as he did in elementary school when Natsume could see yokai. Plus, the former classmate is in love. Natsume now has to think of a way to stop him from getting eaten by the yokai.

The second story is about a festival held between the god of the harvest and the god of pestilence every ten years in a particular region. But the god of the harvest hasn’t shown up, and the local yokai recruit Natsume to stand in and fool the god of pestilence and try to win the festival. If the god of pestilence wins, the region’s crops will fail for the next 10 years. The exorcist Natori is also hired to supervise the festival by interested parties, but his job is to exorcise the god of pestilence if the god of the harvest doesn’t win. He doesn’t want to exorcise a god, and tries his best to help Natsume win the festival so that the harvest god can prevail.

The art in this volume was quite good. I loved the costume designs on the gods of pestilence and harvest, and the front cover shows off Natsume in the harvest god costume. There were also some choice moments between Nyanko-sensei and Natsume, including one where Nyanko-sensei protects Natsume in the face of the god of pestilence, knowing that he won’t be able to win. Their friendship really is the best thing about this series, and Nyanko-sensei is my favorite character. And I love that the stories in this volume have soft edges. The first one starts out with the former classmate, who appears to be vicious and out to ruin Natsume’s new life, but by the end of the story the two have bonded, in a way. Same with the festival storyline. It turns dark for a second towards the end, but like many of the large-scale yokai stories, has a happy and very fanciful ending. In addition to capturing the spirit of friendship, Midorikawa is also great at capturing the spirit of the moment.

Basically, it’s still great. I’m not tired of the formula, and watching Natsume grow and change little by little is still a fun ride. I’m along for however many more volumes of these short stories Midorikawa sees fit to draw, but part of me is also curious about how this will end, too. Maybe it will just stop, and that would be fine. But in the meantime, I’m going to savor every single page.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Yuki Midorikawa – Viz – 2011 – 13+ volumes

More of the same in this volume, but I really can’t get enough of the type of stories in this series. I’d probably read dozens more volumes just like this one.

In the first story, Natsume helps a little fuzzball yokai who he finds being attacked by crows one day. Predictably, this leads to an altercation between the herd that this yokai belongs to and a larger yokai, who wants to burn down the entire area in order to find a ring she lost. Friendship prevails in the end, and Natsume’s good deed doesn’t go unrewarded. Again, it’s just like a lot of the stories before it, but with the longer and more serious plotlines that have appeared recently, I enjoyed a return to the simple yokai stories from the beginning of the series immensely.

Not to mention the fact that slowly, very slowly, these stories are changing for the better as all the yokai that Natsume has helped since volume one show up intermittently to help him when he has problems like this. The C-listers and the beautiful female yokai figure into the plot of this one, too, and it is still quite touching that the lonely Natsume is slowly making friends with these strange creatures while trying to undo the subjugation that his lonely grandmother put them through while she was “making friends” with them in the best way she knew how. But it’s not in your face about any of this. The yokai simply show up to help. That’s why this series is such a great read.

The rest of the book is taken up by one of the darker, more serious stories. Not that I mind. Matoba the Exorcist comes back to torture both yokai and Natsume again. Natsume first falls prey to a gang of yokai that insist on getting the Book of Friends for themselves, and go as far as attacking him at school in front of his friends. Both the hostile yokai and Natsume become Matoba’s prisoners later in the story, and Natsume dances around the issue of his grandmother as long as he can under Matoba’s questioning. The escape is difficult, moreso since Natsume can’t stand to leave the hostile yokai with Matoba.

This story is great, and has a lot of angles to it (the fact that Natsume still wants to help the hostile yokai, that perhaps the fact he wants to save them from the human Matoba means he favors yoaki over humans, and that the network of yokai that help him to try and figure out what’s up with the hostile yokai is friendly and fast). I don’t mind the dark tone or length at all, and I love that the themes of friendship and the question of where Natsume fits in best are being emphasized more and more in each book.

But really, the best thing about this story is an image at the end. For all his power, and all the yokai servants that Matoba uses to keep Natsume at his residence and answering his questions, it’s nothing like all the yokai that come and help him at the end of the story. The image of all of them flying through the sky at the end of the chapter has been one of my absolute favorites in this understated, but fantastic series.

Seriously. It’s quiet and slow, and I can see how it might not appeal to some, but every volume makes me love this exponentially more. It’s not really going anywhere in a hurry, and part of me doesn’t like that there’s not yet an overarching storyline, or even a passage of time element. But this series makes up for it with its fantastic characters. I love reading each and every story, and all are good, solid reads. I feel like this is probably a must for anyone that loves character-centric shoujo manga and wants to try something outside the romantic norms of the genre.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Natsume’s Book of Friends 8

February 29, 2012

Yuki Midorikawa – Viz – 2011 – 11 volumes

Aww, still such a sweet series! The first chapter is, unusually, about Natsume’s human friends. There’s a yokai threat, of course, but it’s rather ambiguous and minimal. In addition to his two friends that can see/sense yokai, his other two male friends that are always with him at the beginnings of the stories are also featured. Someone rightly observes that Natsume is more comfortable around yokai than he is humans, and the fact he’s being accepted in this town makes him so happy he cries. It’s just absolutely heartbreaking, in a good way. The first chapter is indeed a happy story, which is great. This series does happy stories the best, and it’s been awhile since we’ve had a fun one-shot like this.

The second story is a multi-part story about Natsume and his yokai-sensing friend Tanuma. Tanuma and Natsume both get caught up with a yokai possession, Tanuma bodily and Natsume has his eye affected. It’s another one of those stories where the yokai is being disruptive and evil at first, but when you learn the story behind them, it’s more of a bittersweet struggle that they’re forcibly getting help with. Again, I really like this type of story, and the friendship theme comes across here for Tanuma and Natsume. Tanuma has a hard time understanding Natsume’s yokai-infested world, and Natsume has a hard time sharing his troubles with Tanuma since he doesn’t want to scare or trouble him with the burden. But the yokai brings them closer, and Tanuma learns a little more, once again, just how different a place the world can be for Natsume.

Whenever I talk about these, I know it sounds formulaic, and I’m making it seem like there’s only a few types of stories where the same thing happens over and over again. But really, I can’t do them justice. They’re so sweet and touching every single time, and it’s one of the few series I can think of that has volumes of one-shot-type stories like this instead of an overarching plot that I still adore after so many volumes. It’s fantastic, and not only do I still adore it, I tear through the volumes like nobody’s business. I know I’m spacing these reviews out, but I read most of these volumes of this in one sitting. It’s really that good.

The rest of the volume has a couple cute one-shots. One is a very short story about Chobi running across one of Natsume’s good deeds, and another darker story about what would have happened had a more sinister yokai taken Natsume under his wing instead of Nyanko-sensei. This has bonus bonding moments between Natsume and Nyanko-sensei, and also talks a lot about Natsume’s family situation, both are themes I just can’t get enough of.

Seriously. Read this series. It’s really something special. It’s a quiet kind of awesome, but it’s still very much worth a read.

Natsume’s Book of Friends 7

February 25, 2012

Yuki Midorikawa – Viz – 2011 – 13+ volumes

This volume contains a darker story arc where Natsume meets with the exorcist Matoba. Matoba is unlike a lot of what we’ve seen from this series before. There have been very few actually evil yokai in Natsume’s various one-off encounters, and even the ill-tempered ones can almost always be reasoned with or vanquished with the right amount of effort. But Matoba is human, and he uses yokai to do his bidding and fight against/kill other yokai for his own personal gain. Having never come up against a human like this before, Natsume is at a loss as to how Matoba can be so powerful and care so little for other beings.

The plot is something along the lines of Matoba capturing Natsume and trying to learn more about him, or use him to awaken a very powerful and very evil yokai. Nyanko-sensei, Natori, and even other yokai that Natsume has barely just met advise him to stay away from Matoba, but Natsume can’t help but investigate, and he winds up in a position that leaves him vulnerable to Matoba finding out about the book of friends.

There’s an awesome moment at the end of this story where Matoba begins attacking both Nyanko-sensei and Natsume, and Nyanko-sensei loses himself for a minute and begins attacking blindly while injured in order to avenge Natsume. Natsume is the only one that can calm him down. The confrontation between them is brief, and wordless, but nonetheless extremely powerful. The bond between those two is one of my favorite things about this series, and I live for moments like those. It was wonderful.

In case this storyline is too dark for you, there’s a cute story at the end where all the yokai that Natsume has befriended play shadow tag. It’s a cute story, since the size discrepancies between them make for easy prey and excellent hunters. But it’s also nice to see Natsume having fun with his yokai friends, and seeing just how many he’s accumulated over the course of the series.

Natsume’s Book of Friends appears to be going darker places lately, but I don’t mind since the quiet character moments that made it great at the beginning are still in full force here. Plus, I like the longer, more involved plots, and I like the emerging themes that humans can be just as cruel as the yokai “monsters,” and Midorikawa seems to balance the darker stories well with much cheerier side stories. I’ve become a big fan of this series lately.

This was a review copy provided by Viz.

Natsume’s Book of Friends 6

February 20, 2012

Yuki Midorikawa – Viz – 2011 – 13+ volumes

This volume contains one long story arc, two short stories, and an unrelated short story in the back that was still cute. All of it was good stuff.

The longer story arc was about a child that Natsume finds in an abandoned house. The child seems to be a victim of bullying, but Natsume slowly begins to realize that the child may have bigger problems than simple human bullies. Natsume saves him from a yokai attack, but the final end to this story involves a rather ugly sealed yokai and an exorcist mission that Natori is on.

There are a lot of yokai and plenty of action in this story, but really, it’s once again about friendship. Natsume makes friends with the boy throughout the course of the story, and just can’t bring himself to leave the boy alone when it becomes obvious that the boy is involved in some rather sinister affairs. There’s also an issue at the end, where Natsume has to somehow deal with the fact that the boy believes Natsume betrayed him. That breaks Natsume’s heart more than any yokai attack. And I love that, for all the flashy fighting and action and whatnot that goes on in this series (all of it good, by the way), that simple things like whether or not a little boy likes him weigh the heaviest on the main character.

The short stories are simple ones, bonus stories rather than the one-shot chapters that appeared in earlier volumes. One is about a little fox yokai that begins following Natsume around, and the other is the beautiful lady yokai (the recurring character, the one that calls Nyanko-sensei by his real name) reminiscing about Reiko Natsume. Both are cute short stories, simple but effective.

The unrelated story is a shoujo romance story about a girl that falls in love with her teacher, how he rejects her, and how she attempts to make herself a better person so that he’ll fall in love with her. It’s an earnest love story, and while it shares some of the best qualities of Natsume’s Book of Friends (it’s touching, the character communication is a strength, and it’s sentimental and very of-the-moment), it’s a little strange to see a shoujo romance story in Natsume’s Book of Friends. I guess I hadn’t noticed, but romance is absolutely not a theme of this series. I like it even better now.

Natsume’s Book of Friends 5

February 11, 2012

Yuki Midorikawa – Viz – 2011 – 13+ volumes

This is my favorite volume of this series, and I have to say, it will be hard to surpass. There are three stories in this volume, all of them the same sort of quiet, enthralling monster encounters that show you just a bit more of Nyanko-sensei and Natsume every time. I also like that yokai are both good and bad in these stories. Sometimes bad, but misunderstood, other times simply evil, and sometimes they just want to be friends. They’re always just a little quirky, be they mermaids, gigantic monsters, or little guys that seem to scare everyone with their mustache. Chobi Mustache was my favorite in this volume, simply because he hung around far longer than necessary, and everyone screamed when they saw his face and adorable mustache.

The first story is about a mermaid and a little-girl-turned-old-woman. I’m fond of Japanese mermaid legends, and I was fairly excited when the story introduced the myth of mermaid flesh here, that one who consumes blood and flesh can live forever. It turns the story around, though, since the little girl asks for it for someone else, and then the mermaid turns it around one more time in the end. The moral of the story, though, is that once again lonely humans and yokai are finding each other, becoming friends, and parting. Leaving off on Nyanko-sensei and Natsume on the last pages of these stories is always a little hard to take.

The second story introduces Taki, a girl in Natsume’s class who can draw spell circles that, if yokai step into them, make them visible to her. This is also the story with Chobi Mustache, who comes into the story when he tries to get Natsume to convince Taki to stop drawing the spell circles. Chobi Mustache serves absolutely no purpose after that, but hangs around anyway and is more or less a friend by the end of the story. I love characters like Chobi Mustache, especially that they’re given cute nicknames like that due to the nature of the binding contract a yokai’s real name can make.

Anyway, Taki’s story is a sad one. A yokai that wandered into her circle one day cursed her so that, in a year’s time, the last 11 people whose names she’s called will be killed. She inadvertently calls Natsume’s name, so he’s drawn in to helping her find this yokai. The yokai is unrepentantly evil and human-hating, and at one point he blinds Natsume from seeing yokai. There’s a rather heartbreaking scene where Nyanko-sensei transforms into his yokai form, and the two of them sit in Natsume’s room, Natsume unable to see him and Nyanko-sensei remaining silent. Anyway, both Taki and Chobi Mustache come out the other end of this story as reoccurring characters.

The third story is about the couple Natsume lives with, specifically his uncle. The house is cursed by a yokai, and his uncle reveals that the strange “hauntings” have happened before, and when he was younger, a lonely, eccentric girl (who is almost certainly Reiko Natsume, the owner of the Book of Friends) put a stop to it. Natsume still can’t tell the couple about what he sees, for fear of being ostracized once again, but he does want to protect them from the yokai that haunts their house. Again, it’s a good story, but also a little sad, a little touching, and it develops the relationship between Natsume and the couple just a little bit more. It was also really nice to see Reiko Natsume in action, after hearing so much about her. She’s also a sad, lonely person, but doesn’t show it too much in this story.

There’s a short story at the end of the book that re-introduces Tanuma, the priest/classmate that can also sense Yokai. Tanuma tries to get closer to Natsume in this story, but makes the observation that what Natsume sees means that he lives in a world that is completely separate from the one everyone else lives in, and one that Natsume isn’t willing to open up about to other humans. It somehow makes Natsume an even sadder character, but it’s nice that so many humans and yokai are now in his circle of friends, most of them exactly like Tanuma, wanting to simply be there for him.

It’s a beautiful series, and this volume is just about the best example of why. I love that more and more characters are coming in and out of the story now, and yet there aren’t too many to remember. They are simply people, and we don’t have to remember their entire backstory, or really, anything about them. They are simply friends. As are the yokai.