by Yuki Midorikawa; adapted by Lillian Olsen
published by Viz; $9.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Takashi inherited the Book of Friends with the names of many spirits (yokai) and the ability to see these yokai from his grandmother. Knowing the names of yokai gives one power over them. However, Takashi didn’t inherit his grandmother’s belligerent personality. He has decided to give the yokai their names back. Reluctantly aiding him in this venture is a powerful cat spirit, Nyanko.
It’s surprising how similar the opening pages of this book are to the opening pages of xxxHolic. Both series begin with a high school boy being chased by spirits that only he can see. The protagonist stumbles onto a barrier that drives the spirits away. Beyond the barrier is a powerful being who befriends the troubled teen for a price.
However, that’s where the similarities end. Takashi ends up befriending Nyanko, a powerful yokai who wants the Book of Friends so he can control other spirits. Nyanko would just as soon eat Takashi and take the book as help him. Thankfully, Takashi is strong enough to prevent himself from becoming a meal.
Natsume’s Book of Friends (BoF) also reminds me of Mushishi. Both series deal with the interactions between humans and non-human entities, but in BoF, we get the reverse of Mushishi. It’s the humans whose interactions are troublesome for the yokai. These are stories of the yokai having to come to terms with the lingering aftereffects of their encounters with humans. Sometimes even an act humans think is benevolent has horrific consequences. It’s a series where we pity the spirits instead of the humans.
These are gentle stories with a sense of melancholy. Here yokai aren’t powerful monsters, but instead beings subject to as many limitations as humans. Midorikawa does a wonderful job of making the yokai sympathetic creatures. We can identify with their vulnerability and uncertainty. They suffer longing and unrequited love, just like humans. For lack of a better word, Midorikawa humanizes the yokai and makes us rethink our preconceived notions of them.
Takashi is a marvelous leading character. His parents died when he was young, and he has been shuffled around from relative to relative. His abilities to see yokai have made him an outsider. He knows what it’s like to be callously treated by humans. Takashi is also extraordinarily kind. So though he doesn’t necessary like the yokai, he can’t help treating them like any other person he would encounter. His own life has given him insight into their suffering, and he refuses to add to it.
Midorikawa’s line work is as delicate as the relationships and the emotions of the story. It complements her storytelling style perfectly. The sparse artwork adds to the mood of melancholy felt in the story. It’s easy to underestimate the art. There are no wasted lines, so the emotions come across vividly. Readers will learn a lot about visual storytelling by flipping through the book without reading the dialogue.
Just a quick heads up to readers: BoF was published on an irregular schedule. Because of this, each story after the first starts with a brief explanation of the setup. When reading these stories back to back, that gets a little repetitious. Thankfully, the explanation is very short, and you can skip it without worrying you’re missing something.
Natsume’s Book of Friends is a great Sunday afternoon read. The subtle, deliberately paced stores are perfect for quite, meditative moments. Fans of xxxHolic and Mushishi will find this series an excellent companion, especially with the final volume of Mushishi coming out in July. BoF is planned to continue at least into 2011.
Yuki Midorikawa has crafted a fabulous mature shojo series. Comic fans of all types are encouraged to give this series a try. (The publisher provided a review copy.)