Natsume's Book of Friends Vol. #03 (Mania.com)
Review Date: Friday, July 02, 2010
Release Date: Tuesday, July 06, 2010
Midorikawa already tweaking Natsume's tone? Probably not a good sign.
Writer/Artist: Yuki Midorikawa
Translation: Lillian Olsen
Adaptation: Lillian Olsen
What They Say
Takashi is busy returning the names his grandmother trapped in her book and helping the local yokai with their problems. But he has to put his good deeds on hold when a black Nyanko Sensei snatches the Book of Friends! Takashi and the real Nyanko trail the bad cat to a secret yokai meeting deep in the forest. Will they be in time to stop the impostor's wicked plans?!
One of the nice points of the afterwords to Natsume's Book of Friends is that Midorikawa often provides important context to understand why certain stories developed the way they did. Her commentary is especially insightful for the third installment of Natsume, which struck me as a more lightweight read than the previous two volumes: turns out the difference can be chalked up to Midorikawa experimenting with working more comedic elements into her storytelling this time around.
Not that the changes constitute a dramatic retooling, with Natsume's Book of Friends suddenly turning into an obnoxious gag comedy or (heaven forbid) harem series. Midorikawa's experimentation is fairly restrained, all things considered, with most of the added gags revolving around Nyanko and his contentious personality. For example, the opening chapter works in some sight gags with Takashi running into a black Nyanko double; these gags are even loosely relevant to the story, which involves Takashi and the real Nyanko chasing the black Nyanko into a meeting of yokai in order to find the stolen Book of Friends. Or look at the closing chapter, which has a sequence where Takashi tries to convince an uncooperative Nyanko into laying on a yokai egg. These sorts of jokes aren't out-of-place or poorly-done, exactly, even if they are a touch uncharacteristic for the series.
The real importance of these jokes isn't the jokes themselves, but that they're a symptom of Midorikawa's confessed difficulties with continuing the story for this long. This problem is evident in the volume's last half, two stories that lack the focus that's made the series's best entries so entertaining. The former, which reunites Takashi with Natori and Hiragi, is frankly pretty boring: their mission to exorcise a particularly nasty yokai is sidetracked by meeting with other exorcists, so much so that the actual yokai hunt feels like an afterthought. The latter deals with Takashi finding a yokai egg, which eventually hatches into a young yokai that imprints on him -- as I mentioned before, there are some cute gags about Takashi trying to get Nyanko to help hatch the egg, but the story takes a disappointingly predictable direction not long after the actual hatching takes place.
Still, the first half of this volume does offer up two fairly strong entries. While the first chapter (the one which involves the thieving black Nyanko) suffers from a rushed ending, the way the fake Nyanko works as a comedic foil is enough to make the story interesting anyway. The second chapter, on the other hand, features a strong enough plot for the story to stand on its own without the benefit of added humor. The story of a love between a man and a yokai (tragically ended by the man suddenly losing his ability to see yokai) features the rich, intricate weaving of folklore and the present that's made the series's high points so appealing.
Midorikawa mentions in the afterword that she's tried to structure the first three volumes so that new readers can enter at any point. Considering this volume's underwhelming closing half, and the fact that she's admitted to struggling to expand the story, it feels like this restriction is starting to hold the series back; the added humor is a nice touch, but always not enough to make up for the surprisingly weak plots tacked onto three of the volume's four stories. Although the one exception to the weak plots -- plus one chapter that's carried by the humor in spite of the storyline -- is probably enough to justify a purchase for people already into the series, newcomers should look to last volume as a better place for diving in.
Mania Grade: B
Art Rating: B
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