“We all like hearts that seek something dear – and burn with life.”
Manga Title: Natsume Yuujinchou
Mangaka: Yuki Midorikawa
Genres: Drama, Supernatural
Natsume Takashi is a teenager who can see ghosts. His grandmother could also see ghosts and was notorious for beating them in competitions and making them subject to her will. After defeating any ghost, she’d write its name in her ‘Book of Friends’ so that she could call on them to do her bidding. If a ghost from the book was called, it would immediately have to do what Natsume’s grandma, Reiko, wished.
After Reiko passed away, Natsume inherited the book. Not knowing what it was for, the book remained unopened for many years.
Natsume goes through a semblance of a normal life with his caregivers, trying to avoid giving his unique abilities away. One day he’s chased by a ghost and runs across another spirit who’s trapped inside a shrine. Accidentally freeing the spirit, which is shaped like a maneki neko (lucky cat), it informs him that the ghosts are chasing him as they hate Reiko and want to get their hands on the Book of Friends.
It turns out that the cat, called Madara at first (later to be named Nyanko-sensei by Natsume), also wants the book, but to use it for his own ends. Natsume strikes a deal with him, agreeing that he’ll give Madara custody of the book should anything happen to him – on condition that Nyanko-sensei helps him with his dilemma.
Nyanko-sensei explains that many of the spirits wish to be released from their binding in the book and shows Natsume how to return the names to the ghosts. First visualizing them, the Book of Friends will then turn to the appropriate page with the spirit’s name. After that, Natsume needs to place the paper with the name in his mouth and blow out. The spirits are then freed from their binding.
What follows is the tale of Natsume and Nyanko-sensei as they encounter the numerous spirits that Reiko wrote in her Book, gradually freeing them one by one, whilst drawing other entities to them. Many of the ghosts often aren’t friendly, bearing grudges against Natsume’s grandmother whom he resembles strongly.
In the process of clearing the Book of Friends Natsume comes across a variety of spirits. From small temple gods to the spirit of a passed bird, each is different, bearing their own unique tales.
The characters in Natsume’s Book of Friends are a varied bunch. Natsume himself is initially a naive student who doesn’t know anything about the spiritual world he’s capable of seeing. After meeting the conniving Madara he starts to have more of an insight into them, and here’s where the magic of Natsume’s Book of Friends lies.
The spirits he meets are very human. Though their appearances have mostly gone beyond normal, they all still have hearts and needs that Natsume sympathizes with, and as we come to discover, his late grandma did too. When freeing some spirits, Natsume gets a peek into their existences when they were alive and sees that each soul had a poignant story to tell. He begins to like the spirits and to see their similarities to living people, in the same way Reiko did.
Nyanko-sensei acts as Natsume’s character foil. Constantly reminding Natsume that he wants his book only, he appears to be happily waiting for Natsume to meet his demise. Nyanko-sensei inadvertently helps Natsume a lot to deal with the spirits he meets, suggesting that a friendship between the two is blooming unbeknownst to them.
Towards the end of volume one Natsume encounters a boy, Kaname, who is also able to sense the presence of ghosts and will perhaps find a companion in him.
Natsume’s Book of Friends is a heartwarming tale that deals with a concept we’re all too familiar with – however ends up quite different. His journey of discovery about the realm just beyond our vision is touching and thought-provoking. Who would have thought that the ‘friends’ Natsume always sought, would be those who are not of this world?
In the tradition of GeGeGe no Kitaro, the manga pictures spirits in forms that are a mix between comical and spine-chilling. Whether you’re used to eastern ghost stories or not, Natsume Yuujinchou is a refreshing take on this familiar genre.