Natsume’s Book of Friends

Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 1 by Yuki Midorikawa

I always tend to like manga about yokai or spirit hunters, especially when they incorporate interesting storylines and unexpected character designs. Natsume’s Book of Friends seems like a great addition to the yokai genre of manga. Natsume is a boy who was passed around from relative to relative after his parents died. People didn’t want to get close to him because he acted strangely due to his visions of sprits. As a teen Natsume is living with a new family and has just transferred to a new school. Yokai hound him, calling him “Reiko.” Natsume runs away to a nearby shrine where he meets a powerful spirit who has taken the form of a lucky cat statue. Natsume discovers that his grandmother Reiko had the same abilities as him, except she used to beat up Yokai when she was lonely. She captured their names in a book which gave her power over them. Natsume has now inherited this “Book of Friends” and he has the power to release the captured yokai by munching down on the page that contains their names and exhaling. Natsume calls the cat Nyanko Sensei and they strike a slightly ominous bargain. The cat will aid Natsume as he attempts to give the names back, but if Natsume dies unexpectedly the cat will inherit the book and its power.

I always enjoy seeing different illustrations of yokai. Midorikawa’s illustrations range from delicate to surreal. Some of the spirits look almost human and signal their otherworldliness by wearing masks or fabric over their faces. Others have cyclops eyes or long hair that almost covers their bodies. Nyanko Sensei’s usual form may be that of a lucky cat, but is actual appearance as a giant feline spirit reveals his true power. I enjoyed the developing relationship between Nyanko and Natsume. Nyanko keeps commenting about Natsume’s weakness as he expends energy in giving back the yokai their autonomy. Nyanko threatens to consume Natsume, but I think he secretly enjoys having a human companion to boss around. The rural setting of the manga gives it a pastoral feel, as Natsume is often being chased through forests or finding shrines in a field.

My favorite stories in the collection explored the connection between yokai and humans. A tiny shrine spirit who wears a noh mask has shrunk as his worshipers have died off or lost faith. Only a sick old woman named Hana still makes offerings at his shrine. The spirit comments “I’ve always felt that humans were such sweet creatures.” I always think it is a good sign in a first manga volume when it concludes on a strong story. By far my favorite story in Natsume’s Book of Friends was the final one, about the spirit of a swallow who wants to visit a man who helped her when she was a fledgling. Natsume ends up playing fairy godmother to the swallow’s Cinderella, as he enters a yokai contest to win a special kimono that will allow her to take human form for one night and visit the man that she has cherished in her memory for twenty years.

I thought it was refreshing that Natsume’s Book of Friends was published under the Shojo Beat imprint. It isn’t about high school romance, and it has a boy as a main character! I’d like to see the human aspect of Natsume’s life explored more in future volumes. There were brief glimpses of him falling asleep in school and the perplexed reactions of his classmates, but it looks like Natsume might be inching towards making more friends who aren’t yokai. I’m going to be on the lookout for the next volume of this series. This manga would be a good pick for fans of Mushishi or Dokebi Bride.

Review copy provided by the publisher