Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Natsume's Book of Friends Volume 5

By Yuki Midorikawa. Released in Japan as "Natsume Yuujinchou" by Hakusensha, serialization ongoing in the magazine LaLa. Released in North America by Viz.

I noted with surprise that I hadn't actually reviewed this series since Volume 1 came out a year ago. I have been keeping up with it, and it's quite a good title. It's an especially welcome change of pace from Shojo Beat's line, which tends to focus on the romance aspects of shoujo. And while this volume of Natsume may introduce its first main female character, romance is still not an issue here. Instead, we continue to look at the world of yokai, and what it means to be one in the modern world of humanity.

As always, there's a very special love-hate relationship between the yokai we meet and the humans they've found themselves intertwined with. The first chapter deals with the immortality that the blood of a mermaid can give, and how it can be a horrific thing once you realize, years later, what life is meant to be like. THe best part of this chapter is likely the mermaid herself, who manages to be quite nasty throughout, but still maintains a sort of nobility towards the end.

The 2-part story in the middle introduces the girl I mentioned earlier, Taki. Much to my detriment, she's wearing a peaked cap, which immediately makes her sexy. (OK, not really - this manga doesn't do sexy that well - but girls in delinquent outfits are hot.) Despite her outfit, however, she's very quiet - and we soon find out why, as Natsume gets caught up in her effort to destroy a yokai who has promised to eat the first 13 people whose names she says out loud. He being the first, of course. Natsume has gotten much better at this protagonist thing, but he still tends to be emotionally passive, and as an action hero he's fairly miserable. So there's a sense of genuine danger to the proceedings that works very well. It's also good to see a 2nd student he can talk about things with, even though she can only see yokai in special circumstances.

The last main story is about Natsume's relationship with his aunt and uncle, and their relationship with Reiko, his grandmother who started the whole story rolling with her own spiritual powers. It's meant to show exactly why Natsume is so bad at letting people in, and that it's not always just a matter of trust and caring - people who get closer to him ARE in more danger. However, there are also rewards. Reiko clearly judged that the risks were too great. Will Natsume do the same thing? (Also, for all that I said Natsume wasn't an action hero, he does really well here in trapping a demon trying to destroy his relatives.)

There's also a final mini-chapter that ran in LaLa DX (the first four volumes were in DX; starting with this volume the series moved to LaLa proper, but like many shoujo series it returns for 'half-chapters' every few months or so), which features Natsume's friend Tanuma, and his ambiguous relationship with our hero. Like Taki, who can only see yokai when they move into the circle she draws, Tanuma can sort of see yokai - but not very well, and only as shadows. He's somewhat envious of Natsume, but as the chapter shows, seeing yokai has its own huge pile of disadvantages as well. I also note this chapter reads like an apology to the yaoi fans who make up a large percentage of Natsume's audience. "Sorry about the girl on the cover and in the main storyline - here's some guy friendship for you!"

Technically there's an element of horror to this series - but it's a very peaceful sort of horror, and the whole thing feels like it takes place in a world of gauze. Not that that's a bad thing - Natsume's Book of Friends has created a very evocative world, and people who aren't reading it due to the lack of romantic interplay are missing out on some excellent stuff.

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