It isn’t news to anyone who regularly reads my blog that I am seriously in love with Natsume Yuujinchou as an anime. It is my go to binge watch when I’m needing just some calm bliss in my life and I’ve come to love each and every moment of the emotional journey Natsume takes the viewer on. That said, I was a little cautious about diving into the manga. Once you fall in love with something seeing it in a different form is sometimes hard to take and I couldn’t imagine a book could capture the same wonder as the anime had.
Well, I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.
This was a new reading experience for me in a number of ways. I don’t read a lot of manga and this is certainly the first episodic manga I’ve attempted to read. In volume 1 we are given 4 stories and while they are connected through Natsume’s character as they are in the anime, realistically you could read any one of these stories in isolation and have a great time. It means there are some good resting places and you aren’t driven to complete the entire thing in one sitting allowing you to savour each story and contemplate it before making some time to sit down and read the next one. The volume ends and while I was gleeful to go on to the next book I didn’t feel unsatisfied with the stories I had read.
As such, I’m going to do some general notes about the manga and then I’m going to look at each story individually as they each had strengths and weaknesses worth mentioning. That said, I was already familiar with each of these stories given they all appear in the first season of the anime and are ones I’ve watched many times so it was more just experiencing them in a different form.
Overall, there are some beautiful illustrations in this volume. The start of each chapter and some of the larger panels are glorious to lose yourself in. And in most stories there’s plenty of space with quite a few panels depicting the sky or light. Where it is less appealing are in the tighter panels that focus on characters as many of these just didn’t really appeal to me. I will admit, as I kept reading, the character designs grew on me and I got used to the style, but that was probably my biggest complaint with the volume.
Chapter One: Nyanko Sensei’s Grand Entrance
This first story is great fun as we meet Natsume running from the yokai and ending up at the shrine where he accidentally frees Madara (Nyanko Sensei). There’s a genuine sense of danger as Natsume is trying to fend off the yokai who have mistaken him for his grandmother and we get Natsume’s backstory or at least a bit of it and it is enough that it begins to sketch in the very lonely boy we are encountering.
It is a great introduction to the overall narrative of Natsume inheriting the book of friends and taking on the task of returning the names in it. But it is also a great story by itself as we see Natsume take his first steps at dealing with yokai rather than running from them.
However, while the plot and characters are great, this is where the art work is probably its weakest. There are a lot of dark and shaded panels, for good reason, but it ends up making pages look cluttered, and some of the facial expressions are just odd. There’s one in particular where Nyanko Sensei is hit by Natsume and his head is so distorted you can barely tell which character it is.
Still, by the time I’d finished this first chapter I knew I was hooked with this manga.
Chapter Two: The Dew God
The Dew God is a great follow up story because where the first story introduced us to violent yokai, this second story introduces us to the calm Dew God who simply lives in his shrine and is happy to hear the prayers of the one person who still comes to leave offerings. He comes to Natsume to request his name be returned, but to do so they also have to find the yokai that Natsume’s grandmother Reiko challenged after the Dew God as their names are stuck together.
It sets a very different tone from the first story and these two do an excellent job of setting up the contrasting tones in Natsume. We do have dark and scary moments but we also have peaceful days and yokai who mean no harm. It is important that this is established so early and it means that the audience will never be sure when we meet a new yokai what we’re going to get.
We also have the idea of the different time yokai live compared to humans emphasised. This was raised by Nyanko Sensei in the first chapter where he commented that he hadn’t realised how much time had passed and that Reiko would be gone, but here we see the real loneliness that can come of this as the Dew God has watched over Hana for her whole life and seen her age and now sees her ready to die. It’s a fairly powerful follow up and one that I think I loved reading even more than watching.
Chapter Three: Natsume vs Human
Chapter 3 introduces us to a bunch of characters who will be sticking around in this narrative for a long time to come. Having safely established Natsume and Nyanko Sensei over chapters one and two, we are now introduced to the mid-level yokai, Misuzu and to Tanuma. The story that unfolds is one where the yokai feel they are threatened by a human and wish to recruit Natsume to exterminate a human. Needless to say Natsume refused but he does agree in the end, after much nagging, to look into the matter.
This story, other than bringing a plethora of new characters into the mix, does an excellent job of letting us see the impact humans have on yokai even inadvertently. While it is fairly easy to paint the yokai as tricksters and monsters, in this case the yokai are genuinely the victims and being driven out of their place and we see Natsume begin to sympathise to an extent with them. This trait will continue to grow in Natsume over time and it is one of the things that distinguishes him from other human characters who have regular interactions with yokai.
I loved all the character interactions in this chapter and while it might have been harder to follow if I wasn’t familiar with the story, I felt each character was given sufficient introduction in this story and they’ll get fleshed out more over time.
Chapter Four: The Swallow Underwater
The last story was my favourite and that is because I found this story incredibly sad when I watch the anime and reading it just gave the whole thing even more impact. This is the first story where we see Natsume possessed by a yokai and it definitely reminds us that even though we’ve been encountering some harmless yokai, they aren’t all that way. In this case, the yokai possessing him simply wants Natsume’s help to meet another human she knew long ago. Recognising her loneliness, Natsume agrees, and we see a fairly bitter sweet journey because there was never any other way for it to end (other than tragically).
However, we are also reminded that there are in fact yokai that just want to eat Natsume and in the process of helping one yokai he is tricked by another. Fortunately Nyanko Sensei actually lives up to his bodyguard title or things may have ended quite a bit worse.
I really enjoy the stories that focus on the human emotions yokai feel and Natsume working toward understanding himself and others through his encounters. I was really happy with this final story in the volume and was really glad I decided to read this manga. Anyway, onto a volume 2 review shortly.
If you’re interested in reading Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 1 it is available on the Book Depository.
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 1
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 2
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 3
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 4
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 5
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 6
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 7
- Natsume’s Book of Friends Volume 8