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Friday, September 9, 2011

Manga Review: Natsume's Book of Friends GN 8

Natsume's Book of Friends volume 8
Author: Yuki Midorikawa
Viz Media/Shojo Beat
192 pages

Spoiler warning: Contains some spoilers for the Natsume Yuujinchou manga series so far. Read on with caution!

Nyanko Sensei is recovering after being wounded in the last yokai incident, so Takashi is on his own when he accidentally releases a yokai right before the school festival. With new friends and his ever-strengthening relationship with the Fujiwaras, Takashi has more reasons than ever to keep the supernatural at bay. But does he stand a chance without Nyanko Sensei's power to back him up?

This may be odd to say about a manga that is steeped in the supernatural and Japanese mythology, but this latest volume of Natsume Yuujinchou could be summed up in one word: human. It is achingly human in its focus and its stories, especially when it focuses on the life and history of Takashi Natsume, a boy who has clearly lived a hard and grief-filled life since the start. He did not ask for his special sight but as it is painfully revealed in this book, the things you cannot change are the ones that change your life the hardest. With Nyanko-sensei out of the picture for a percentage of the action, it is nice to see Natsume's growth as a character played out more explicitly on the page. It’s not easy being Takashi Natsume but it is ridiculously easy to see how superbly drawn out his story is.

In this volume, we see the start of Natsume’s slow acceptance of where he stands when it comes to his particular abilities and how it affects his place with humans and with yokai. He is coming to the realization that his relationships with his fellow humans are just as important as those he has with the yokai who frequently cross into his life, whether they are after their own name or not. We also see more of Tanuma, the young boy who can sort of sense yokai but certainly not as clearly as Natsume; their relationship might be one of the most important Natsume has in the entire series so far. Natsume also realizes that he needs to be more open with his close friends, as the possession arc makes it startlingly clear that the boy’s tendency to keep quiet about his dealings with the spirit world do more harm than good.

It seems that in every volume of Natsume Yuujinchou, there’s at least one story arc that is liable to get me crying, and volume eight is certainly no different in this respect. In this volume, we see Natsume’s life shortly before living with the Fujiwaras, and it is not an easy one. Every family he lives with thinks he’s a freak and can’t wait to get rid of them – some even abuse him – and none of his schoolmates think he’s worth interacting with because of his odd habits. Alone and confused, Natsume ends up the victim of a yokai who vows to make Natsume lonely forever by eating up every person around him. It just might be the most emotionally turbulent and melancholy set of chapters to appear in the series yet, and it puts Natsume’s current character into a context that has always been vaguely hinted at but never clearly seen until recent. To see Natsume slowly work through his pain and his issues in order to try and make a better life for himself is the greatest highlight of this book; fans of his character will be immensely satisfied by his growth and seeing how far he’s come since the beginning of it all.

So – is it possible? Can this series really be so consistently excellent and then some? Oh, yes, it can. Natsume Yuujinchou continues to grow in quality with each volume while still remembering what it is at heart: a very human, very sincere supernatural series that can be dramatic and humorous and beautiful at the same time. The more of Natsume Takashi’s character is revealed, the more depth is brought to the story. Natsume is such a complex and fascinating character that it is hard not to like him or his daily adventures with Nyanko-sensei. As his circle of friends grow, so does the intimate focus of this series, and it becomes harder to deny how truly excellent this story is. This series continues to be as emotionally heart wrenching and beautiful as the day it started and for a manga at volume eight, that is a miracle worth praising.