Orphaned Natsume has a secret: he can see and hear spirits called yokai. Labeled a troublemaking liar as a child, he is passed from one exasperated relative to another until fate brings him to the Fujiwaras’ welcoming home. As he cautiously settles in, he learns through local yokai that he has inherited his “gift” from his maternal grandmother, Reiko, an area juvenile delinquent who wandered the countryside challenging yokai to duels and collecting their names in her Book of Friends. Names accord control, and now that the Book belongs to Natsume, yokai of all kinds seek him out for help, vengeance, or power. After he accidentally frees a sealed yokai named Madara from a ceramic lucky cat sculpture, the two strike a bargain. In exchange for the Book when Natsume dies, Madara agrees to act as his bodyguard. But as gentle-hearted Natsume insists on making amends by returning as many names to their rightful owners as possible, his short-tempered, saké-swilling, food-loving guardian grumbles that there will be none left by the time he gets his paws on it.
Quality characters bring this series to life. Quiet, self-effacing Natsume is a born nurturer who understands that sometimes protecting something requires throwing one heck of a powerful punch. After years of trying to be as invisible as his visions are to everyone else, he’s finally learning to accept himself and to connect with and trust others, be they human or yokai. Through him, we get to know the kindly Fujiwaras; a soft-spoken local temple heir; an exorcist who moonlights as a famous actor and another who sees yokai (and even other humans) as nothing but tools; plus a handful of endearing high school friends and other acquaintances.
Midorikawa’s imagination produces a wonderful variety of yokai–from flocks of tiny, toothy fuzz balls to a giant horse-headed deity with an itty bitty frog familiar; from one-eyed old men who just want to sit and chat over drinks to towering, robed shadows with painted-on faces who’d like nothing better than to eat you and everyone you care about. There are mermaids and kappa and kitsune and tree spirits, all with their own histories and personalities.
And then there’s Nyanko-sensei. Due to his long imprisonment, Madara habitually takes the visible-to-humans shape of a very tubby calico, causing Natsume to nickname him “Nyanko-sensei” (“nyan” being the Japanese equivalent of “meow”). He’s selfish and a complainer and often inebriated (or trying to get inebriated), but he’s also loyal and brave and adorable (and more catlike than he’d care to admit). His past with Reiko is a mystery, but watching his bond with his “emergency rations” grow alongside Natsume’s other relationships is heartwarming and fun.
Midorikawa’s delicate, scratchy, and expressive linework echoes the emotional and atmospheric tone of the series and its rural setting where the worlds of humans and yokai overlap. Layouts are varied and backgrounds simple, often with just enough detail to give a sense of place: a glimpse of trees against the sky, rice-paper panels on the wall, a window frame and the top edges of a few school desks. Midorikawa balances cute with scary, silly with serious, and uses screentone liberally but wisely and without overpowering the images.
Considering how spare her linework is, it’s surprisingly easy to keep faces straight. But for those who need it, each volume has short bios for its most prominent characters. An element of the original serial publication, each chapter also begins with a three-sentence exposition sprinkled over the first few frames or pages. It’s just pithy enough to help those who are starting in the middle, and just unobtrusive enough and tied into the present plot so as not to overly annoy those who’ve been following along since the beginning.
A predominantly episodic series with a gradually developing continuity, Natsume’s Book of Friends will resonate with fans of other emotionally-engaging, folklore-steeped tales such as Yuki Urushibara’s Mushi-Shi or JiUn Yun’s Time and Again, though Natsume… is lighter, with a little more action, a good many more giggles, and a younger, more socially-integrated intercessor between humans and the denizens of the other world. Very rare light swearing and the occasional scene of “fantasy violence” (such as blood spatters and yokai eating other yokai) fit the publisher’s 16 suggested readership. The series has also been adapted into an equally lovely anime (currently in its fourth season at the time of this writing) which has been licensed by NIS America for DVD release in 2012.