April 18, 2011

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Natsume's Book of Friends Volume 1

Written by Yuki Midorikawa
Illustrated by Yuki Midorikawa
Viz

"You must be seeing things" is more than just a stock phrase for Takashi Natsume. He really does have the ability to see spirits, thanks in no small part to a grandmother who collected the names of spirits in a small notebook so that she could have power over them and make them her "friends." Unfortunately, many of the creatures are not too happy about the deal, leaving Natsume in a bind that's not of his own making.

Enter Nyanko, a conniving spirit accidentally freed by Natsume. In exchange for helping Natsume with the other spirits and showing him how to be rid of their presence, Nyanko gets the pleasure of controlling the book in the event of Natsume's demise. Some help!

The only way to lead a normal life is to try and meet every spirit his grandmother captured, no matter how small or scary. Natsume is driven to do all he can to free both himself and the spirits from...Natsume's Book of friends.

I think the best way to determine if you would be a fan of this manga is to think about your feelings towards Mushishi. If you like quiet, laid-back, episodic comics that can be read either together or in small doses, you are going to love Natsume's Book of Friends. On the other hand, if you like your action fast-paced and want there to be an ongoing story from chapter to chapter, this is probably not going to work for you.

Quiet ghost stories like this remind me of older prose tales that I read, such as Hawthorne or Poe, and thus have a soft spot in my heart. There's something infinitely relaxing about a rolling tale of the supernatural, where the spirits can be horribly evil without needing to show it every few pages. In this case, the fact that Nyanko is stuck in the body of a mobile good luck cat is perfect, because most of the time, evil is encased in a layer of adorable cuteness. Thus when Midorikawa decides to allow Nyanko to be fierce, the transition is striking and effective.

Not all storytellers can make a leisurely-paced tale work, but Midorikawa manages it quite well. Natsume is a good focal character, because while he doesn't want the spirits around, he also understands they're a part of his life and that they also have their own needs. We see this time and again, and it keeps the drama from becoming a one-trick operation where Natsume meets a spirit and tries to free it from the book. Each spirit that Natsume meets is original and his relationship with them grows increasingly complex. They may not be the human companions that Natsume longs for, but they are real beings with real needs of their own.

This is one of those manga that just keeps getting better as you move through the stories. With each each installment, Midorikawa gains further confidence in her ability to shape this world, culminating for me in the story of the sparrow spirit. In that chapter, Natsume takes great personal risks for a being he would have resented at the start of this manga. It's a great character progression and I can't wait to see that progression continue into further volumes.

I came away from Natsume's Book of Friends extremely impressed. I'll add my voice to the chorus of people singing its praises, with the caveat that action fans will most likely be disappointed. If you enjoy curing up by a fire and hearing haunting and touching stories of otherworldly figures, start reading Natsume's Book of Friends. You'll be glad you did.