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First Date Review: Natsume's Book of Friends

Gia checks out the first volume of the manga version of Natsume Yuujinchou.

Since we just finished the anime of Natsume Yuujinchou, and the first volume of the manga just came out, I thought it was an excellent time to do a quick First Date review!

 

Vital Stats:

Title: Natsume's Book of Friends
Creator: Yuki Midorikawa
Original Publisher: Hakusensha
Genre: Supernatural

Release Info:

Publisher: VIZ Media
Date: 01/05/10
MSRP: $9.99
Length: 208 pages
 

The Story:

Natsume is a high school age orphan who keeps getting passed from relative to relative-- not due to any bad behavior per se, but because he creeps them out. See, Natsume has the remarkable ability to see and interact with youkai, traditional Japanese demons.
 
But now things seem to have gotten worse: youkai are coming after Natsume more frequently now, and they keep calling him "Reiko," which was his grandmother's name. After unintentionally unleashing a demon stuck in the body of a maneki neko (a lucky cat statue), Natsume learns that his grandmother, like him, could talk to demons, and began bullying them to sign their names to her "Book of Friends," giving her control over them. Natsume has inherited the book amongst his grandmother's things, but decides that he doesn't want to simply give the book, a rare example of a family memento, up. Instead, he decides to return the names to the demons who own them.
 
A task which proves more difficult than he might have anticipated; fortunately the cat demon-- dubbed Nyanko-sensei --becomes his bodyguard, in exchange for ownership of the book whenever Natsume passes away.
 

The Review:

I'm coming to this manga as a fan of the anime, which does color one's expectations, but for those of you who, like me, watched the first two seasons and are now considering picking up the manga, you'll find the stories both familiar and also substantially different. For example, Natsume's participation in a youkai drinking party comes about from an entirely different story than it did in the anime.
 
In other words: it's more Natsume content in the same overall shell, so buying the first volume won't be only repeats of stories you've already read (although a couple of chapters are). You may find the visual style very different from the anime, however, which was vaguely watercolor-y but pretty clean, versus the much sketchier, stylized look of Midorikawa's art. This isn't a bad thing, just a little bit different.
 
For those of you coming to the manga fresh, as it were, Natsume's Book of Friends is probably best compared to Mushishi in style, in that it's an episodic supernatural story, but with a peaceful undertone that belies the drama and action of Natsume's interactions.
 
Decidedly of note: at first glance it would be easy to look at Natsume's cover and think that it was something more along the lines of Kekkaishi, a shounen supernatural battle series. But Natsume's Book of Friends is actually published in LaLa, a shoujo manga anthology that also prints Ouran High School Host Club, Vampire Knight, Kaichou wa Maid-sama!, and many other series that are popular (and often with both genders despite its "target"). So don't expect MANLY MEN and big battles, but rather the story of a boy who finds where he was meant to be, and who he was meant to be with. 
 
Also of note, VIZ's translation here is a bit unusual, for them and in general. Rather than attempt to translate words like "kekkai" and "tanuki"-- a barrier and a raccoon-like animal --they're left in romanized Japanese and translated in the back of the book. I don't know that either of those words are necessarily in your average manga-reader's dialect, although "youkai" (or "yokai") and "sensei" are certainly common enough (and also left in Japanese).
 
Good times all around. I would definitely recommend this first volume to any manga fan, provided that you don't get bored and distracted whenever a few pages go by without a battle. Looking forward to volume 2!
Sigueon Jan. 7, 2010 at 5:28 p.m.
I'm surprised Viz didn't try to localize more. I expect whoever is in charge of this particular translation realized that the setting is very Japanese and that it would probably be best to try and leave much of that intact. It's a good thing they left "sensei". I can't imagine being able to read it if Natsume called Nyanko "Mr. Kitty" or something along those lines. "Kekkai" could have been translated to "barrier" or something along those lines without really losing anything, though...
giaon Jan. 7, 2010 at 8:28 p.m.
@Sigue: Yeah...it struck me as a bit out of character for VIZ, but a good sign for them overall, at least, that they're trying to listen to what readers want.
Sigueon Jan. 8, 2010 at 1:06 a.m.
@gia: They just have to find the right balance. Some words, like "kekkai" feel out-of-place when they aren't translated. It isn't a name or a word with no real English equivalent, nor is it particularly important to the atmosphere or the story. At least they're trying, though.
Karasuon Jan. 8, 2010 at 1:37 p.m.
I'm still getting over how lame the title sounds in English. [My brain: "oh, yeah — I wanna read that."]  >_>

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