Comic Books Magazine

Shoujo You Should Know: Natsume and the Book of Friends

Posted on the 21 July 2015 by Kaminomi @OrganizationASG

Helen: When I first found out that Natsume and the Book of Friends (Natsume Yuujinchou) was a shoujo manga I was surprised and confused. A few seconds later I thought “Wait no, I’m enjoying watching a cute boy get in and out of trouble with spirits with the help of an overly fat cat. I can totally see this appealing to other girls.”

Muse: I was also very confused, since I was introduced to it digging through the supernatural tab on Crunchyroll, and I’d never seen a shoujo series with a male main character. But while the art style and focus on (non-romantic) relationships do fall in line with shoujo fare, Natsume Yuujinchou presents itself in a way that is widely appealing while also expanding the shoujo genre as a whole.

Helen: As a quick note, Natsume’s full name is Takashi Natsume so for the sake of keeping things straight, he’s Takashi here in the review (even though it’s used pretty rarely in the show) and his grandmother is Reiko (Natsume).

Shoujo You Should Know: Natsume and the Book of Friends

Helen: So far we’ve talked exclusively about the original manga versions of the Shoujo You Should Know stories, and while I do like the manga for Natsume I actually enjoy the anime a bit more. The manga simply has a little bit of a rough start; the art is especially sketchy so it’s tricky to tell some of the side characters apart, and Midorikawa doesn’t make a big effort in the beginning to create a strong, recurring (human) side cast for Takashi to interact with. The anime smoothly creates these connections from the beginning and rearranges the chapters to create a stronger thematic tie to each season (plus it has a great soundtrack). This does happen later down the line in the manga but I’ve always wondered if she expected the series to be much shorter, as her second-longest works are only three volumes long compared to Natsume’s 19 and counting.

Shoujo You Should Know: Natsume and the Book of Friends

Muse: I remember reading in one of the sidebars for of the earlier volumes of the Natsume manga (you know, the ones where the author gets to talk a little bit about the work, their daily life, or whatever else comes to mind) that the author didn’t have anything in mind for Natsume other than having him wander around and meet yokai. This does explain a lot for the first few volumes of the work, but I agree that Natsume doesn’t start to shine until it starts using recurring characters and digs into Takashi’s history, creating a plot that has a lot to do with recovering and growing stronger despite what may have happened in the past.

Shoujo You Should Know: Natsume and the Book of Friends

Helen: I was surprised at how long it took for the series to dive into even Natsume’s own past — in the fourth season of the anime and around volume 10 or later in the manga — since that was one of the things that the fans were clamoring the most to see. So much of Natsume is tied to the past, and given that the story begins with Takashi being horribly jaded and distrusting of humans and yokai alike, he’s been passed amongst family members until he ends up with a loving couple who are barely related to him.  Still, he has the same surname as his maternal grandmother, implying a complicated family tree. In fact, given that much of the story’s information on Reiko comes from the memories stored in her book she’s still a huge unknown in the story; for me, finding out more about these characters and the others (Natsume’s friends, other exorcists etc) is what keeps me coming back. It’s a story tied together not by plot or necessarily ideas but by characters and connections themselves.

Muse: But despite the feeling that it doesn’t seem like all of that backstory was originally planned — given the amount of time that it takes for the manga to even get to it — it fits in perfectly with everything that goes before it. I’ll find myself re-reading early volumes and focus in on scenes that hint at Takashi’s loneliness and notice the space that he keeps between himself and other people. The slow start makes the gradual reveal all the more heartbreaking and poignant, probably because there is plenty of time spent showing how the characters interact in the present, and as readers we’re already attached to them. Personally, I feel like it could’ve come in a bit earlier, but when it is presented, it’s beautiful because we already know that things are going to get better.

Helen: The whole story has an almost wistful, bittersweet tone to it which is amusing because for every scene where Takashi makes a connection with someone there’s at least one scene of him being chased down by yokai who all want to kill and/or eat him (even his “cat” Nyanko-sensei wants to!). But yokai, who were the reason for his isolation as a child, become a part of how he becomes closer to other people. While he has several friendly classmates, it’s the ones who’ve also been half-caught up in this other world that he seems to be the most comfortable with. He doesn’t always agree with the various exorcists he’s met, but they are resourceful people who understand his problems (especially that “nearly getting eaten every day that ends with Y” problem).

No joke, punching might actually be one of his abilities

Muse: Yes, it’s important to point out that Natsume is not a sad manga. It has an excellent sense of comedic timing, mostly thanks to Nyanko-sensei and his banter with Takashi. Oftentimes it is more funny than it is sad or serious, but the manga also has a good sense of how to balance all of these things, so it never feels like it’s going out of its way to be either comedic or tragic. It has a good enough handle on its characters and their personalities and motivations that all of these interactions feel natural regardless of the current tone, which is something that’s difficult to pull off in any series in terms of the writing.

Helen: It’s a story that certainly has a lot going for it. It’s a great example of how cohesive a work connected by characters can be, and if you’ve ever enjoyed a supernatural manga then there’s sure to be something in there for you.

Missed it? Natsume is available in print and digitally through Viz Media. The anime is available via NIS America.

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