by Yuki Midorikawa; adapted by Lillian Olsen
published by Viz; $9.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Takashi’s grandmother used to bully the local forest spirits (yokai) and get them to write their names in her notebook, thus gaining control over them. Takashi has come to sympathize with the yokai and is returning their names. He is aided by Madara, a powerful spirit, who hopes Takashi’s goodwill will get him killed, so Madara can claim the Book of Names for himself.
Natsume’s Book of Friends is a quiet, character-driven manga. The emotional core of this series is Takashi’s coming of age. Takashi grew up being shuffled from relative to relative. He has finally been taken in by a couple who is committed to raising him. Now that he has a stable home life, he is beginning to take root and blossom as a person. He’s opening up to his schoolmates and making friends for the first time.
As Takashi becomes settled in his home life, he is also more open toward yokai. His kindness and sympathy toward them continues to grow. His own experiences of loneliness and being a social outcast have served to prepare him to minister to yokai. In a very real sense, he acts like a Buddhist priest for the spirits. Takashi is the only one willing to listen to their stories, to understand their pain and heartbreak, and to help them find wholeness. He is even beginning to gather a group of followers and assistants.
In these two volumes, Takashi finally encounters others with abilities similar to his own. However, they are all exorcists. They only see the yokai as something to destroy. Even those that have taken on familiar spirits see them as nothing but tools to use and use up. It’s ironic that Takashi finding a place in human society and among the yokai is alienating him from the people who share his abilities. He refuses to objectify the yokai and instead insist they be treated as people. The others simply find this idea too foreign to even comprehend.
Midorikawa’s art continues to be the perfect complement to her storytelling. The understated nature of the art serves the tender emotions of the stories well. Midorikawa is excellent in evoking mood, be it dark and creepy or sweet and loving. I’m happy this is a shojo series. The free-form page layouts convey this sense that Takashi is creating his own space in the world, and he doesn’t fit in any of the established molds.
These volumes have solidified my opinion that Natsume’s Book of Friends is the perfect follow-up to Mushishi. Both series tell gentle, episodic tales of the borderland between humans and other beings. Takashi isn’t as enigmatic as Ginko, but he is as unusual in his sympathy with non-humans. This is a great series for people looking for supernatural fiction that breaks away from the genre clichés. Natsume’s Book of Friends may be labeled shojo, but anyone can enjoy this series regardless of age or gender.
(The publisher provided review copies.)