Natsume has always been able to see yokai, spirits from Japanese mythology. His second-sight has always made him feel different from other people. They don't understand his fear, and they think it's creepy when he "talks to himself". Natsume doesn't have parents and has been shuffled around a lot, too, and he's become very isolated. At the beginning of the story, he's finally found a home with some distant relatives on his father's side. He's very appreciative, and he wants to keep his ability a secret so he doesn't freak them out. But that might be harder than it sounds.
Natsume has always tried to stay uninvolved with the yokai he sees, but now they've started seeking him out. They think he's his recently deceased grandmother, who, as a girl, bullied yokai into entering their names into her "Book of Friends". She had complete control over the yokai in the book, so naturally, they want their names back. Natsume is about to be eaten, until a yokai in the form of a lucky cat helps him out. This cat, whom Natsume calls "Nyanko-sensei" agrees to help Natsume under the condition that he gives him the "Book of Friends" upon his death. So begins Natsume's strange quest to empty the "Book of Friends".
At first glance, I didn't think I'd like this manga. There are a million manga involving kids who see demons, and I wasn't very impressed by the first pages. It was too hectic, with Natsume running from one yokai after another. The sentiments about loneliness seemed cliche. I'd heard it was good, though, so I flipped through the rest, and it looked like it got better. And so it did.
This manga isn't so much defeating yokai as befriending them (thus the name). Many of them are lonely like Natsume, and he ends up helping them with their problems. Natsume's not the kind of character who just has to help people in need, either. The whole thing is really a hassle to him, but he ends up getting involved with the yokai in spite of himself. He sees the same loneliness in them that he lives with. I liked this approach very much. Characters who are just altruistic by nature come off as unrealistic do-gooders to me. I tend not to care about them very much.
But Natsume is a good character. At first, he seemed like any other lonely, orphaned manga character. But he's not angsty or mopey. His reaction to his isolation is more realistic. He keeps to himself, and he doesn't always take care of himself, which makes his loved ones worry. He does want to connect to other people, but doesn't seem to grasp that his own nature is part of the problem. Nyanko-sensei is the only other recurring major character, but he still needs some development. He helps Natsume, but only to benefit himself, and he really would like to eat him. You just know he'll warm up to Natsume eventually, though. This kind of character is pretty common. Still, Nyanko-sensei is pretty funny, and I look forward to seeing him progress. One other character worth mentioning is Reiko, Natsume's grandmother. She appears in memories and doesn't show up much, but I liked her a lot. She's a tough girl who has trouble making friends. It may not be so ironic that she calls her list of yokai servants her "Book of Friends" after all.
As I said before, the stories here are touching. The yokai are sympathetic characters, and they're pretty well developed for characters that get only one chapter apiece. The stories tended to start out as cliche shojo stuff, using common techniqes to play upon the emotions. But they're long stories, and they got more involving as they went on. They were actually pretty unique and emotionally realistic. One or two even had twists that surprised me a bit.
The art is pretty. It's simple, not as sparkly and doe-eyed as a lot of shojo. I liked that simplicity. The yokai have interesting designs. They seem to be closer to actual Japanese folklore than the yokai in a lot of other manga like this. And there are some really nice natural scenes, too.
"Natsume's Book of Friends" is off to a good start. The stories fall prey to some chiches in their beginnings, but they still manage to develop into something more real. Natsume's a great protagonist, realistic and sympathetic, and he carries the story well. This manga is really about connections between both humans and yokai, and how they're really the same inside. It's subtle and sweet, and I look forward to reading more.