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Young teenager Takashi Natsume (Western name order is used, but Natsume and his school friends are all referred to by their family names, as is typical among schoolmates of that age) has had a lot of trouble in his short life. He's an orphan who's been bumped from relative to relative because he's so strange. The worried relatives are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in Natsume's of behavior. In truth, Natsume is troubled because he has the ability to see youkai - traditional Japanese spirit creatures. His grandmother, Reiko Natsume, had a powerful ability to control spirits and youkai. She also had a temper and did not get along well with other human beings (who thought she was a freak), so she magically bound the spirits of many youkai into a book by using their names, thus gaining command over the creatures, Natsume has some of his grandmother's abilities, and he also has her book: the Book of Friends.

Natsume's mystical aura makes him attractive to youkai who crave human flesh, and knowledgeable youkai typically wish to steal the Book of Friends from him so that a human will no longer have such power over them. The result for Natsume is a continuous series of attacks by and encounters with youkai. Not only do some of these situations put him in grave physical danger, but they make it hard for Natsume to hide his strangeness from his current guardians, a kind couple who are cousins of his late father. Fortunately, Natsume gains a surprisingly ally in the first book when he accidentally releases a powerful youkai, Madara, who was sealed in a shrine in the form of a lucky cat statue. After being trapped in that form for so long, Madara finds it easiest to stay that way most of the time - so Natsume refers to him as Nyanko-sensei (basically, KIttycat Teacher). Nyanko denies any appearance of friendship in this arrangement: he's just staying close to Natsume so that if Natsume is killed, Madara can have the Book of Friends.

As with Mushishi, which it in some ways resembles (smillaraaq called it Mushishi's gentle younger sibling), Natsume's Book of Friends is episodic, with each chapter or short set of chapters forming the equivalent of a short story. There doesn't seem to be any main story arc beyond these stories, although there is a feeling of menace as more powerful antagonists - not all of whom are youkai - seem to be zeroing in on the Book of Friends. There are also some nice bits of character development between Natsume and his guardians and Natsume and his classmates, two of whom - sickly but kind Kaname Tanuma, who can see spirits also, but only dimly, and earnest Tooru Taki, who normally can't see spirits at all but who can cast a magic circle that allows her to do so - became his actual friends. Natsume also makes some youkai friends, ranges from the relatively powerful Hinoe, a human-looking female who carries a huge torch for Natsume's grandmother, to a crew of rather low-class youkai in a nearby forest who will come to aid Natsume if he calls.

In addition to Mushishi, the story makes me think of xxxHolic. However, Natsume lives a much more typical Japanese teenager life than Watanuki does, and the series lacks xxxHolic's pervading sense of tragedy and loss and the constant offstage lurking menace of Great Events Moving in the Universe. Some of the youkai stories are deeply melancholy, but others are whimsical or even humorous.

Midorikawa's drawing style is delicate and almost spidery. The pages are often fairly dense, with many small irregularly shaped panels. Sometimes an outdoor scene will generate a set of tapering wedge-shaped panels, like the slats in a fan, which effectively carry the expansive feel of the open sky. As in many shoujo manga, the action often escapes the panels together.

I'm enjoying this series quite a bit, and the Mr. is reading it too.

Comments

( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
estara
Oct. 2nd, 2011 08:28 pm (UTC)
How nice to see you enjoying this, too - especially since smillaraaq told me she discovered the series via a discussion of the ending music of the anime which the two of us had on one of sartorias' birthday posts! I've happily read a previous works of hers in scanlation and I can see the growth, but also the strength she had even then.

I like that Natsume has two totally ordinary male friends at this current home, too. They are recognisably the same boys every time they are drawn, and they obviously have befriended him even without any feeling for youkai and mystical stuff on their side. I hope the mangaka eventually draws the story of that friendship, too.
smillaraaq
Oct. 3rd, 2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
I'm hoping to eventually sit down and armtwist Cho into watching a little of the anime, I think she'll enjoy it a great deal too! ^_^

Which earlier series of Midorikawa-sensei have you read? I have not yet looked into any of her other works.
estara
Oct. 4th, 2011 12:12 pm (UTC)
The three volume Akaku Saku Koe (The Voice that Blooms Red) which is a school/mystery/esp plot romance that works ^^.
estara
Oct. 4th, 2011 12:25 pm (UTC)
Oh and The Scarlet Chair, too - but I had the feeling that series was rushed. It's actually fantasy intrigue. Akaku Saku Koe is complete at that length, though, it's well rounded.
smillaraaq
Oct. 4th, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you! *scribbles notes*

Hmm, and I know sensei has mentioned that there is never going to be a major romance plotline in NY because her editors/publishers pushed her to include one in an earlier title where she didn't think one was needed...I wonder if that's the series she was talking about?
estara
Oct. 5th, 2011 07:26 pm (UTC)
I don't think it could have been Akaku Saku Koe, because a large part of the plot depends on this relationship... I would expect it to be another series or single volume that I haven't read yet ^^. If you should check it out, you'll realise in the first volume that the love story is necessary.
estara
Oct. 4th, 2011 12:24 pm (UTC)
Oh! Have you seen that on of her one-shot stories is being made into an anime, too?
http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2011-09-01/hotarubi-no-mori-e-anime-film-trailer-streamed
It's very quiet and subtle, too. This is the manga the story was in.
smillaraaq
Oct. 4th, 2011 09:40 pm (UTC)
Ooooh, that looks gorgeous. <3
chomiji
Oct. 4th, 2011 11:51 am (UTC)

Except those two guys are usually being used as simple comic relief! For myself, as a kid who was convinced, while growing up, that she was weird, the friendships with Taki and Tanuma (who know that Natsume is actually seeing things that are there) are much more important. The story seems to be pitched to mainly 12-13-year olds, and that can be a very lonely age if you don't fit in with other kids easily.

estara
Oct. 4th, 2011 12:15 pm (UTC)
I agree that those two friendships are more important but I like the fact the mangaka took time to show that Natsume is able to have a normal life at his new home even when not meeting people who can understand him better. Those two boys are around him before he even meets Nyanko Sensei at the start.
smillaraaq
Oct. 4th, 2011 08:25 pm (UTC)
Along with his new schoolfriends, mundane and supernaturally-gifted alike, I particularly love how fundamentally kind and decent his new foster family is, and how realistically drawn the flashbacks of his less-pleasant foster homes are. There's no Harry-in-the-cupboard-under-the-stairs cartoonishly exaggerated abuse, just a lot of convincingly ordinary people who are weirded out by his behavior and vaguely resentful of the burden of caring for him -- they're very humanly selfish and callous, but not especially cruel. And I really love how she shows that finally having friendly schoolmates and foster-parents doesn't magically make everything easy and perfect, because Natsume's life prior to this point has not left him with the social skills and self-esteem to relate to people who are nice to him, and he's slowly having to learn how to trust people (human and otherwise) and let himself get close to them.
lady_ganesh
Oct. 5th, 2011 01:11 am (UTC)
I remember when I wrote the RH Plus story I did for Yuletide, I deliberately tried to create a situation that was bad for one of the characters without going to Harry-in-the-cupboard. It's a lot harder and I'm pleased that this manga does it. (Which is not to say the horrible stuff doesn't happen, it's just nice to see something that's not Total Extreme.)
smillaraaq
Oct. 5th, 2011 02:34 am (UTC)
*nods* And I even enjoyed the cartoonishness of the situation in the HP books because it made it easy to hate on the Dursleys in a satisfyingly vicarious sort of way that's harder to do with more understated portrayals, don't get me wrong...but this is just a quieter and subtler sort of story.
estara
Oct. 5th, 2011 07:27 pm (UTC)
Yes, this. You say it so much better.
lady_ganesh
Oct. 3rd, 2011 11:54 am (UTC)
This looks super-cute! What ages would it be good for? Amazon says Grade 7-up but I don't trust them.
smillaraaq
Oct. 3rd, 2011 08:48 pm (UTC)
Cho will have to tackle the parental-review side of things, but I definitely wouldn't have had a problem reading this younger than 7th grade! It's very, very low on romantic or sexual content -- there is some talk of minor characters with romantic interests, including the awesome lesbian youkai Hinoe who was fixated on Reiko, but I can't recall any particularly fanservicey depictions of any of the characters. There's a little more in the way of physical/emotional violence and scary stuff -- several characters have been victimized by bullies, Reiko used to go around picking fights with youkai, and some of the youkai are scary-looking and threatening -- but for the most part things are fairly mild, the threats are averted or overcome and even some of the scary creatures become friendly. There's not a lot of really explicit, extreme violence or gory/squicky horror right on the page. Some of the storylines are a little sad, but for the most part I'd say the overall mood is very gentle and hopeful and heart-warming and the happy endings and funny bits outnumber the melancholy or scary stuff.

The anime is also excellent, and streaming on Crunchyroll if you want to check it out? Ishida Akira voices one of the recurring characters, a heartthrob young actor with a secret sideline as an exorcist, and Inoue Kazuhiko does an almost unrecognizable cranky-old-man turn as Nyanko-sensei. (And I cannot imagine any Saiyuki fan being able to read/watch the episode about the little orphan kitsune boy without being reminded of wee!Gojyo...)
lady_ganesh
Oct. 5th, 2011 01:12 am (UTC)
Thank you!
smillaraaq
Oct. 4th, 2011 02:12 am (UTC)
chomiji
Oct. 4th, 2011 11:45 am (UTC)

As smilla says, there's very little that could be construed as "adult" content. Hinoe's crush on Reiko is treated as just that, and in many contexts could be read as just something along the lines of a passionate friendship. I think it falls along the level of Kekkaishi as far as that sort of thing goes.

Some of the incidents with youkai are mildly spooky. Whether they would be disturbing to any given child depends on that child in particular. A kid who still gets freaked out by the possibility of horrors lurking in unused corners of the house will find some of those fears realized - and yet, as smilla says, most such incidents are resolved without gore or even much violence, and in some cases the creatures even become friends.

smillaraaq
Oct. 4th, 2011 08:39 pm (UTC)
Yeah, unless you're talking about a kid who is really easily freaked out by even mildly spooky/scary stuff, the monsters really aren't that bad. Other than that, some of the sadder storylines might be a little upsetting to a particularly tender-hearted kid who'd rather see happy-ever-after endings where everyone lives? That doesn't always happen here, although even the sad endings are generally hopeful and peaceful, not meaningless tragedies.

Can she deal with Miyazaki and Disney films, or Harry Potter? IMO none of the monsters here are quite as terrifying/grotesque as some of the creatures in Princess Mononoke or the HP flicks, none of the emotional violence is as harsh as the roughest stuff in HP, and none of the deaths are as gut-wrenchingly traumatic and unexpected (and violent) as Bambi's mother or the various characters Rowling kills off. If she can handle the spooky/scary bits in Spirited Away and Totoro, I'd say NY is at a roughly comparable level? (And if you want to do the anime rather than the manga, it's so episodic that it would be no trouble at all to just cherry-pick the lighter episodes and only let her watch those.)

Edited at 2011-10-04 08:40 pm (UTC)
lady_ganesh
Oct. 5th, 2011 01:12 am (UTC)
She's been reading HP (she said the latest book was "Sad, but good,") so I think she'll be fine.

Thanks to both of you!
smillaraaq
Oct. 5th, 2011 02:01 am (UTC)
Ooh, yeah, if she can handle HP just fine with nothing being too scary or sad or upsetting, I think NY will probably be OK? None of the deaths that we see directly on the page ever feel quite as gratuitous as some of the bigger casualties in HP -- they're sad, but it's often a more peaceful and satisfying kind of sad where they're dying for a purpose or because it's their time? Nothing here has left me outraged at the author for being manipulative and cheap, or frantically searching for fix-it fic, the way some of the HP deaths did...
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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