Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Manga Review: Natsume's Book of Friends

Natsume's Book of Friends is one of VIZ's latest releases and dare I say it's one of the best manga I've read in a while. The book, which was created by Yuki Midoikawa, was released in Japan in 2005 and since then nine volumes have come out. There's been an anime too, though no American licensor has picked it up for release here quite yet. It took over four years for the manga to make its way to our shores, and I dare say that the wait was well worth it.

Taking place in modern day Japan Natsume's Book of Friends follows the life and times of Takashi Natsume. Takashi is a bit of a loner and tends to move from place to place without family (or friends for that matter). He's always been viewed as something of an odd duck and this is mostly attributed to his random freak-outs and spastic reactions to nothing. Little do most people realize that Takashi has a rare ability, the power to see spirits and demons known as Yokai. If you were to open a door and see a one-eyed monster licking its chops at you, you'd probably run the other way as well. To say that Takashi has looked upon this power as a curse would be an understatement, but he soon discovers that it's an ability that has its uses with the proper application.

While on the run from some hungry and persistent Yokai Takashi inadvertently breaks a rope (Kekkai) that was used to seal in yet another Yokai. This spirit appears as a cute porcelain cat named Nyanko Sensei, but it's merely the form it chooses to use for humans because in reality this kitty is a fearful monstrosity. It's soon revealed that Takashi smells like a woman named Reiko Natsume, who happened to be his grandmother. Since young Takashi doesn't really know his family, he's naturally struck by this and even more so when the cat spirit tells him about Reiko's incredible powers over Yokai.

The pieces slowly begin to connect under the advisement of Nyanko. Basically Reiko could not only see Yokai, but entered duals with them in an effort to get their name collected in a book. Once a name was in the book it belonged to Reiko and the spirit could no longer act by themselves or against her will. Naturally this was a fearful thing for Yokai, and since Takashi smells like Reiko they are tracking him down to get their names back or kill him, whichever is easiest. Nyanko is different though, his name is apparently not in the book, but he makes a deal with Takashi to travel with him and collect the book when he dies.

Death may come sooner than one might think considering Nyanko constantly makes comments about how weak Takashi is and how easy it would be to eat him. In one chapter Takashi wakes up from sleeping to find his head in Nyanko's mouth. It's hilarious, yet not because it forces the kid to stay on his toes at all times. This basically makes him more formidable and you can see his development throughout the course of this first installment.

The whole point of Natsume's Book of Friends is to introduce us to the various Yokai trying to get their names back. Takashi is more than happy to oblige, but it's very taxing and dangerous for him. In this book we receive four chapters, and all are quite good. The one that stands out the most involves a Dew God who is down to his last follower. There are many moments in this story that really show Takashi's maturity for someone his age.

The artwork in Natsume's Book of Friends is quite good as well. Yuki Midorikawa's designs are quite detailed and every panel is a feast for the eyes. Some of the Yokai tend to look alike, but there are a few that really stand out. The backgrounds are handled nicely and the character expressions are great. There are also some notes included throughout the book from Yuki and some reference material to some of the terminology in the back.

From the first page to the last Natsume's Book of Friends is a very entertaining read. It's original, looks great, and contains just the right balance of humor, drama, and development. I'm really looking forward to the second volume and hope the anime gets licensed. This one has the makings of a hit and VIZ's first release should be considered highly recommended.

Maki Rating:

Review material provided by VIZ.

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