Takashi Natume is a strange boy with very few friends because of a shameful secret: he can see Yokai. Because of this, and the way he acts and reacts around them, other children think he is weird, and he's been shuttled around from relative to relative in his family, because his parents died shortly after he was born.
But he's finally in a better position, being taken in by relatives who, though they may not completely understand him, do love him and feel happy to have him there. But as he is chased by a Yokai one day, he takes refuge in a shrine in the woods, and releases another Yokai, this one imprisoned in a ceramic Maneki Nekp cat statue. The spirit has been in the statue for so long that it spends most of its time in that form. In exchange for rescuing Natsume from the Yokai, and helping him, Natsume agrees to give the spirit, who he calls Nyanko Sensei, a book called the Book of Friends when he dies.
You see, Natsume's grandmother, Reiko, also was able to see Yokai. But since other people around her treated her so badly, she turned to the Yokai. Not to befriend them, but to test her spiritual power against them in battle. When she won, she forced them to scribe their sigil onto a piece of paper, which would make them come when she called on them. Nyanko wants this book for power for himself, but Natsume would rather free the Yokai from the book, despite his experiences with the book. In addition to helping him, Nyanko will be Takashi's bodyguard from angry Yokai.
And right away, Takashi discovers he can return a Yokai's name to them by taking the page from the book, wetting it with his saliva and breathing on the spirit's name. But doing so tires him out, as it takes spiritual energy to do so.
When a Yokai approaches him for the return of its name, the page its name is drawn on is stuck to another. He can't rip the pages apart- that would harm the yokai whose names are on the pages. All he can do is search for the Yokai on the second page. But as he does, he comes to know one who embodies the spirit of a shrine. Once many people came there to worship- now only one woman remains. But the Yokai has grown small from a lack of worshippers, and the woman is old. What will happen when she ceases to worship the Yokai of the shrine? And can Natsume find the second Yokai to free its name?
Next, two Yokai come to Natsume, not to get their names back, but to ask him to get rid of a Yokai exterminator that has been bothering them. While Natsumi is excited to run into someone who can see Yokai like he can and who might understand him, Natsume has begun to sympathize with the Yokai,but will this new person feel the same? And can Natsume find the real Yokai exorcist? And will he bond with a new kid who can feel and sometimes see strange things?
Next, Natsume goes to see a submerged village, visible because the summer is hot and the water has dropped. The Yokai there come to get their names back, but also reveal that Natsume is being haunted by yet another Yokai. But the Yokai only hitched a ride because there was a human it once knew that it wanted to see again. Can Natsumi find the person the Yokai wants, or has it simply been too long?
I love this series. I didn't expect much out of it at the beginning, but some of the stories honestly made me cry. Like the one about the Yokai who became the shrine God. The ending of it was so bittersweet and lovely that I just teared up. Yokai in Japan are very much like monsters, but not all of them are necessarily bad. Like European Faeries or Fae, most of them can be very, very bad for humans, but some of them are helpful, like brownies.
As soon as Natsume is befriended by Nyanko-sensei, he begins discovering that Yokai don't exist merely to make people's lives hard- they have their own lives and their own concerns, and only because humans live just about everywhere in Japan do their lives cross with those of Yokai. But while humans have moved on in technology and culture, that of the Yokai is pretty much stagnant. So looking at their culture is like looking back in time.
I really enjoyed this first volume in the series, and I want to read more. I feel that this series has a lot of the same things that attracted me to Fruits Basket- a kind, gentle look at the world, a damaged main character, and yet he is someone who doesn't resent the things that have made their life hard. Highly recommended.