Sunday, August 11, 2013

review: Natsume's Book of Friends

by Midorikawa Yuki
Rating: 5/5
manga: 15 so far, 14 released in English
anime: 4 seasons with 13 episodes each (52 episodes all in all)
Mature content: no
Genre: shōjo, supernatural, slice of life

Natsume's Book of Friends (or Natsume Yūjinchō) has grown to be one of my favourite mangas and animes. It's a really precious gem. So gentle, beautiful and bitter-sweet.

Natsume Takashi can see things others can't see: yōkai, some kind of Japanese demons. He's an orphan, having lost his parents rather early. He was living with different family members, but never for very long since his ability to see yōkai got him in trouble and nobody understood. Finally he comes to live with the Fujiwaras. He likes them very much and they try to take good care of him and make him feel like part of the family. But he keeps his distance, he doesn't want to trouble them in any way, especially not with his supernatural business.

The Fujiwaras live in an area where Natsume's grandmother Reiko used to live. She could also see yōkai and she often bullied them into giving her their name - which gives her power over them. She kept the names in her "Book of Friends" and Natsume inherited it. Most yōkai don't care much about gender or the passing of time, so Natsume often gets mistaken for his grandmother Reiko and after moving to the place where she used to live, yōkai seek him out to get their name back - or their hands on the powerful Book of Friends.
Natsume makes a deal with a mighty wolf-like yōkai called Madara, who was sealed away and accidently freed by the boy: the yōkai will be his bodyguard and after Natsume dies he can have the Book. Unless he transforms into his true form, Madara -  called Nyanko Sensei by Natsume - takes on the form of a Maneki Neko and can be seen by normal humans, too (who generally think he's an ugly fat cat).

So much for the setting.
Natsume's Book of Friends is a very episodic manga. Some plots span over several chapters, but mostly it's one story per chapter. Perfect for reading before going to sleep.
The stories often are very bitter-sweet, a frequent theme is loneliness. I don't think I cried that much while reading any other manga (and I usually don't cry very much). But it's hardly ever a purely sad, unhappy ending; there's still something good in most endings, but quite often characters you've come to like will disappear. You've been warned: keep tissues at hand.
Maybe me being alone most of the time is a reason why I like this series so much. I know the warmth and happiness when I can "return home" to visit my parents.

As I said, it's very episodical, but the story follows Nastume as he's trying to make friends and find his place between the two worlds of humans and yōkai. He often gets dragged into the yōkai's affairs and helps them out. He's really not good with people and interaction with humans often turns out rather awkward. He feels uncomfortable about having to lie to people so often. His communication with yōkai ist much more stress-free.
But he still, slowly, manages to make some human friends, some of who can at least sense supernatural beings. He tries very hard not to trouble anyone, especially his friends and foster parents, which doesn't really make things better. Over time though, he learns to loosen up a bit. So, there is quite some character development, and still more to come I guess.

He also gets introduced to the society of human excorcists but - being friendly with yōkai - he distrusts them and they do not know about the Book of Friends. He can talk to yōkai and hear their screams, so exterminating them is not an option for him. Mr. Natori is a young actor and an excorcist, his ways cross with Natsume a few times and they might even be friends, in a way. Matoba, on the other hand, is the cold-hearted young head of a clan of excorcists, a mysterious villain (eye-patch and all).

But one thing I wonder: Reiko is portrayed as someone who hated humans and was alone all of the time. But in order to have a grandson, she must have had sex at least once and become pregnant and give birth to a child (Natsume's mother). I wonder whether we'll ever learn who the father was. Maybe the exorcists had something to do with it? Natsume doesn't seem to wonder about that.

You'd expect there to be a lot of battles, but there aren't that many and they never last long. And even though it's technically being a shōjo series, there's also hardly any romance.

The art is very simply and sometimes hazy but pretty and it's not difficult to understand what's going on. Midorikawa manages to make the yōkai look all very different, there's all kinds, big small, gross and cute (like the kitsune cub) and all of them have their own story.
The anime adopts the gentle atmosphere and the watercolour look of the manga, especially the soundtrack is nice and calm.

Natsume's Book of Friends is not released in German, but luckily I can import the English books via amazon. Now I just wish for a RC2 release of the anime and that I could get my hands on merchandise more easily.

I feel like this review doesn't really do Natsume's Book of Friends much justice, so please just see for yourself.

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