Teenager Takashi Natsume has been able to see spirits and demons called yokai since he was a kid. One day he meets Nyanko-sensei, a yokai who has been stuck in a ceramic cat, who tells Natsume he’s the grandson of Reiko Natsume, a woman who was also able to see yokai. Reiko owned a book called Natsume’s Book of Friends, which contained the names of many yokai whose lives are controlled by the book. Natsume decides to take on the mission of giving the yokai back their names, and Nyanko-sensei joins him as his protector in the hopes of taking the book once Natsume dies. But as the series progresses, Natsume finds himself doing more than giving the yokai back their names – he also helps the yokai out time and time again, even against Nyanko-sensei’s warnings.
The series is told in an episodic fashion, with each chapter featuring Natsume’s encounter with a different yokai, so over the course of the four volumes I’ve read so far the series doesn’t have an overarching plot. While some of the yokai are vengeful and wish to eat humans, others are innocent or have even become attached to a human. So far, many of the softer stories have stood out as favorites because they’re poignantly bittersweet. The fourth story in volume three features a yokai (named Tama) who hatches from an egg, and Natsume decides to take care of him. The first scene between them is adorable – when Natsume hears Tama sneeze the second he leaves the egg, he rushes to get a bowl of hot water for Tama to sit in so he can warm up. Because Tama is a Tatsumi chick, he took the form of the first thing he saw when he hatched, which was Natsume himself, and he becomes very attached to him. He refuses to eat because he’s afraid of growing and one day having to leave Natsume, but Natsume promises him that it’s okay for him to grow because Tama can come visit him even after the time for them to part ways comes. Another favorite story of mine is “Natsume’s Special Observation Diary part one,” a short story at the end of volume four. It’s told from the perspective of a young fox yokai who often gets picked on for being useless. One day, Natsume beats up the yokai who were taunting him, and the fox begins following Natsume. At first, Natsume tries to hide from the fox because he’s afraid of him getting too attached, since they would have to part ways since Natsume was only visiting the forest on a school trip. However, he ends up saving the fox again, and in turn the fox gives Natsume a large leaf to shelter him from the rain, and even once the two part ways the fox no longer feels useless because he was able to finally help someone. Little moments like these stand out, and showcase how touching and memorable Yuki Midorikawa’s storytelling can be.
Because of the series episodic nature, there aren’t many recurring characters except for Natsume and Nyanko-sensei, who have a fun dynamic (even though Nyanko-sensei is a powerful yokai Natsume isn’t afraid of him at all, and he simply puches Nyanko-sensei when he threatens to eat him). One character who pops up occassionally is Shuichi Natori, an actor who can see yokai. He enlists Natsume’s help a few times, and the relationship between the two is interesting – Natsume finds someone he can relate to in Natori because he knows what it’s like to see things normal people can’t, yet he dislikes the fact that Natori is an exorcist. I tend not to care much for series that don’t have developing plots – but the short stories in Natsume’s Book of Friends are well-crafted enough to capture my attention. And although the plot doesn’t develop much, Natsume’s character goes through tremondous growth, which I find doesn’t always happen in episodic series. Natsume is a wonderful character – he has been traded from family to family and always grew up feeling alone. He’s afraid to get to close to people because of past experiences of being called a liar and teased by other children for being able to see yokai no one else can, and thus doesn’t tell his classmates or the family he’s staying with his secret. Natsume’s grandmother Reiko faced similar hardships, which led to her cruelty toward yokai and her desire to own their names simply for her pleasure. Yet through his experiences with yokai he learns not only to feel sympathy and attachment to yokai – he also learns how much the fragile relationships with humans he’s made mean to him. Natsume’s kindness is the biggest reason I’m enjoying Natsume’s Book of Friends, a series that’s so different from the majority of the shojo manga I’ve read that I’d recommend anyone to at least give it a shot.