Natsume's Book of Friends Vol. #01 (Mania.com)
Review Date: Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Release Date: Tuesday, January 05, 2010
Frustrating toward the start and engrossing toward the end; here's hoping the next volume go smoother.
Writer/Artist: Yuki Midorikawa
Translation: Lillian Olsen
Adaptation: Lillian Olsen
What They Say
With friends like these, enemies are overkill. R to L (Japanese Style). Takashi Natsume can see the spirits and demons that hide from the rest of humanity. He has always been set apart from other people because of his gift, drifting from relative to relative, never fitting in. Now he is a troubled high school student who has come to live in the small town where his grandmother grew up. And there he discovers that he has inherited more than just the Sight from the mysterious Reiko. Takashi Natsume can see the spirits and demons that hide from the rest of humanity. He has always been set apart from other people because of his gift, drifting from relative to relative, never fitting in. Now he is a troubled high school student who has come to live in the small town where his grandmother grew up. And there he discovers that he has inherited more than just the Sight from the mysterious Reiko.
Like a lot of other things about Natsume's Book of Friends, Midorikawa's artwork starts off being fairly rough but improves noticeably throughout the course of the volume. She's opted to go for a wispy art style here, and the first couple of chapters lean a little too far in the direction of indistinct: at times I had to strain my eyes to identify key characters and settings. This problem was especially compounded during the first chapter with some odd framing choices -- at one point I'd swear that characters were actively trying to dodge being in-frame. Fortunately, while the second half of the book goes for the same basic art style, it seems to be a little less heavy-handed about it; in the latter couple of chapters, the art starts complementing the story rather than distracting from it.
Overall, Viz's packaging efforts are fine. Olsen's translation flows naturally, with an extra page of cultural footnotes included in the backmatter. A four-page afterword, plus some sidebar notes sprinkled throughout the volume, gives Midorikawa an opportunity to discuss some of her artistic choices throughout the volume. I normally tune these kinds of editorials out -- shoujo manga artists seem to love drifting into unrelated topics like cats and video games -- so I was pleasantly surprised that Midorikawa's commentary gave interesting little glimpses into her artistic process, discussing things like her personal dislike of internal monologues.
Contents (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Unfortunately, it only took the first few pages of Natsume's Book of Friends for my expectations to drop pretty low. A lot of my disappointment admittedly wasn't really the series's fault: in what was clearly made as pilot (and confirmed as such in the end notes), the first chapter is quick to point out that the eponymous lead Takashi Natsume can see spirits which are invisible to everyone else. This is a premise that I've been seeing pop up in a lot of series I've been reading and reviewing lately; although it's served some of them well (xxxHoLiC and Mushishi among them), others -- I'm looking at you, Yokai Doctor -- have compelled me to feel a weird sense of genre fatigue nearly every time I see any kind of supernatural/spiritual premise pop up in a new series.
Adding to my initial disappointment, the first couple of chapters suffer from Midorikawa's own uncertainty about whether the series is going to catch on. The opening chapter rushes to fill in as much as possible about the series's back story; the narrative starts in a literal rush, no less, with Natsume in the middle of being chased by angry yokai. In the process, Natsume accidentally unleashes a spirit named Nyanko, now free to follow Natsume home despite still being trapped in the form of a ceramic lucky cat statue. It turns out that Nyanko wants the same thing as the yokai chasing Natsume: Natsume's late grandmother Reiko passed down her so-called Book of Friends to Natsume, which she had long ago used to seal away the names of numerous yokai. Not wanting to give up the book completely, Natsume agrees to restore the yokai's names on a one-by-one basis, seemingly establishing the narrative goal for the rest of the series. Admittedly, for the first half of the chapter or so, I liked that Midorikawa seemed to be getting the establishment part of the story over with as quickly as possible; but that dissipated as the chapter kept going on and on about the backstory, effectively displacing the chance to build in any interesting dramatic elements.
Having dispensed with the "what" early on, the second chapter proceeds to give the reader their fill of the "how" and "why". The story at this point plods through an explanation of how the yokai seek out Natsume (repeating quite a bit from last chapter for the benefit of new readers) with a coda that flashes back to Reiko's motivation for creating the Book of Friends in the first place. These explanations are framed around a mostly-uninteresting story involving a miniaturized deity. It's transparent why these first two chapters are structured the way they are -- Midorikawa openly admits that she wanted them to stand alone as shorts in case Book of Friends didn't catch on as a serial -- but I found her tendency to favor procedural stuff over everything else to be counterproductive, making it a minor chore to work through these two chapters.
But something interesting happens as the volume heads into its second half ... any doubt about the series's future having apparently been lifted, it starts focusing a little more on tightening up the storytelling rather than bombarding the reader with infodumps. The third chapter is still only moderately successful at this, though, with a storyline that has Natsume trying to find a yokai exterminator at the behest of several yokai. Like the previous two chapters, it suffers from languid pacing, although here it's the fault of a protracted build-up to an underwhelming plot twist. Still, despite the pacing issues, I appreciated the tighter focus on mythology and character development that starting showing up as the chapter progressed. Where these developments really pay off is the fourth chapter, where Midorikawa sets up a fascinating mythology for a sparrow yokai that accompanies Natsume for the rest of the story. At its best, this closing story is reminiscent of the sort of rich supernatural tales you'd find in something like Mushishi -- and considering how much I like Mushishi, that's not a bad thing at all.
It seems to take a good half of the volume for Midorikawa to get completely settled into the series; the end result is a volume that's completely forgettable at first but slowly gets more promising as it goes along. If Midorikawa can keep up the storytelling quality that she reached in the last chapter, we might have a winner on our hands. But until the second volume gives a better idea for which direction the series is going to head, readers might want to adopt a wait-and-see approach before getting too invested in the series.
Mania Grade: B-
Art Rating: C+
Packaging Rating: B+
Text/Translation Rating: B+
Age Rating: 13 and Up
Released By: Viz Media
Orientation: Right to Left
Series: Natsume's Book of Friends