Yuki Midorikawa instantly becomes one of my favorite new comic book creators with her charming and sensitive portrayal of a young man who bridges two very different worlds -- the human and the supernatural -- in Natsume's Book of Friends.
There is no doubt that humans who see supernatural goings-on have become a rather repetitive and unimaginative story device in manga. Midorikawa, however, manages to offer a completely fresh and endearing spin on this concept with her portrayal of Takashi Natsume and the many creatures (and this includes humans) who inhabit his world. Natsume has inherited his ability to see spirits from his grandmother, along with her "Book of Friends," which is where she keeps the names of the supernatural spirits (or demons) known as "yokai" she often tricked or challenged to a duel. In doing so she became their master...of sorts. In truth, Natsume's grandmother, alienated from the human world, used the book to create relationships with the very spirits whose names she unthinkingly captured in the book. Now that Natsume is the owner of the book, spirits start seeking him out and while some demand to be freed, others have much more complicated needs that Natsume feels compelled to help meet.
Early in the book, Natsume acquires a spirit companion which takes the form of a little ceramic cat but appears to be a fairly powerful being. At times, he changes to what one assumes is his actual form -- a giant fox-like beast who is just on the other side of terrifying. Natsume and this spirit -- who he calls sensei or "Nyanko" (another word for cat) -- have a hilariously ambivalent relationship, in that it is both companionate and adversarial all at once. Nyanko wants the Book of Friends for himself but he seems oddly content to follow Natsume around and point out what a silly boy he is for catering to the needs of lesser spiritual beings. And oh yes, he likes to threaten to eat Natsume whole every few pages. Natsume, for his part, takes Nyanko with a grain of salt and attempts to conduct his new mission of freeing the "friends" without becoming attached to all the spirits who cross his path. Natsume's particular baggage is that he has come to distrust the fact that the spirits he meets aren't always what they appear to be. Emotionally Natsume is struggling to makes sense of the knowledge that by seeing things others can't, his world -- his very existence -- appears "unstable." When he starts on his mission to free the "friends," he beings to provide a special kind of stability to his life that only he can.
Although there is a certain structure to each chapter -- Natsume comes in contact with a spirit or demon and must resolve some issue -- it is very loose one which allows for a variety of interactions between Natsume and his spirits. This is because each spirit is quite unique in their history, in their desire to have their name "freed" from the book, or even in their desire to simply express certain feelings to Natsume. I love the balance of Natsume's practicality and sense of wonder -- he may approach each new spirit straight on but that isn't to say he isn't occasionally charmed and moved by their circumstances. Importantly, the ethereal art and lightly defined figures nicely reflect the mixing of the spirit and human world, so much so it is almost impossible to distinguish between those realms -- and therefore Natsume's perception of the world -- in this work. The art and story complement each other beautifully and I highly recommend this thoughtful exploration of one boy's experience of the beauty, dangers and possibilities of the supernatural world.
Review copy provided by Viz Media.