Thursday, December 01, 2011

Natsume's Book of Friends, Volume 7 by Yuki Midorikawa

Ever since Takashi Natsume was little, he's been able to see the creatures called Yokai, and because of that, he's been rejected by normal humans who can't see the same things he can. Now, he's finally situated with a family who loves and accepts him- but he keeps the truth of what he can see from them because he doesn't want to cause them trouble. But Natsume is also keeper of a book compiled by his grandmother, Reiko, who could also see Yokai and was rejected by normal people because of it. Taking her anger out on the Yokai, she challenged them to contests, and when she beat them, she demanded that they write their names down in her book.

Using the book, she could compel them to help her. So even though the Book is known as "The Book of Friends", it was really a book of Yokai enslaved to her by their names. Natsume, though, doesn't blame the Yokai for his problems. So even though Yokai attack him to try and get the book of names, or because they think that he is his grandmother, he doesn't hate them for it. But he has promised the book to another Yokai, Madara, who acts as Natsume's bodyguard while he is alive. Madara isn't happy that Natsume is glad to return the names in the book if the Yokai ask- he wants the power of the book for himself, but he lives up to his promise. And since Madara was imprisoned in a Maneki Neko statue or a Lucky/Beckoning Cat, people see him as an actual cat- even normal people. Only Natsume can see Madara's true form, and then only when Madara assumes it. In this form, Natsume calls him "Nyanko-Sensei", Nyan being the sound cats make, -ko being a suffix meaning small, little or cute and "sensei" meaning teacher.

It is almost time for the Summer Festival, and Nyanko-sensei is hungering for eel. Natsume buys him some, but then bumps into a woman coming down a set of stairs and finds a drop of blood on his clothes. Following the stairs back to where she came from, he discovers a small, seemingly abandoned shrine littered with the bodies of Yokai and a strange shadowy figure who sees Natsume and thinks he is also Yokai and attacks him as well, trying to strangle him. But a winged female Yokai who isn't quite dead springs up to save him and carry him off.

Nyanko sensei is glad to see that Natsume is safe, but reveals that someone is out there killing Yokai and draining their blood- presumably for use in spells, which would mean that the attacker was human. Bit who would go around doing that to Yokai? Meanwhile Natori meets with Mrs. Nanase, who reveals that her bosses, the Matobas, are in town, and tells him not to interfere with them- they are dangerous. She also wants to know where Natsume lives, but Natori won't tell her. Natsume goes looking for the human who is killing Yokai and finds a large, shadowy Yokai attacking the bird woman who saved him at the shrine. Madara banishes him, ripping off a mask that the Yokai is wearing. Soon after, Natsume encounters a young man with a scratch on his arm where he scratched the attacker at the shrine, and the man introduces himself as Matoba. He's interested in Natsume, because he realizes that Natsume can see Yokai, but Natsume doesn't trust him after the incident at the shrine and declines to tell the man his name.

But when Natsume and the female bird-Yokai are attacked, who should show up to protect him but Natori. Natori explains that Matoba and his entire family are powerful Yokai exorcists, or killers- but what so interests him in this region. Natsume and Nyanko sensei realize that the Yokai who attacked the bird woman wasn't even a real Yokai, but one created by a spell. By mapping the attacks on a map of the area, they find where the attacks started and find where Matoba is staying. Apparently, he is interested in enslaving a very strong Yokai imprisoned in the area, and Natori feels that Matoba is up to something strange in the area. But can Natsume do anything to stop Matoba from finding and freeing the Yokai, which both Madara and Natori feel would be an exceedingly bad idea, or to stop his plans to set it free? And whose side is Matoba on= that of the humans, that of the Yokai, or that of himself? And is there anything Natsume can do at all? And even if he manages to make a difference, what interruptions to his life will come from attracting Matoba's attention?

Then, Natsume and Madara are invited to a drinking party by several lesser Yokai, the event to take place under a full moon. This is very unusual, as humans are almost never invited to Yokai parties. Natsume introduces them to a new human game, known as "Troll". One player is the troll, who tries to step on the shadows of the other players. The first person whose shadow is stepped on is the new troll. But when Natsume falls down a hole when he plays, will the other Yokai think to rescue him?

The volume ends with a stand-alone story called "A Midsummer Sigh". A boy named Yajima is hiding two secrets: his abilities to run and jump expand exponentially when he drinks juice, and that he likes a girl who has long been his friend. But when he confesses the first secret to his female friend, he inadvertently puts them in danger from a thief. Can he find the courage to confess his other secret, or will it be too late already?

This volume of the series was mostly one long story, and we get the feeling that most Yokai exorcists are not nice people. All of them seem to have problems, and this Matoba most of all. He's less menacing than seemingly actively malign, and Natsume only manages to prevail because of his favorable friendships with Yokai. But this makes him stand out when we see how humans are more evil and more dangerous than seemingly even the most dangerous Yokai-or at least the ones Natsume has encountered, anyhow.

The only Yokai Exorcist who is less than malign or threatening is Natori, and I suspect that this is the influence of Natsume on him, and even he is slightly shady and resorts to practices and methods that Natsume finds troubling. The only problem is that I suspect that the other Yokai banishers want to use him as a tool, and Natsume, even with all his spiritual power, is too weak yet to take them on. And they have no interest in being softened in their attitudes towards Yokai for him to affect them. And while anything is possible, I just can't see it happening- unless a lot of very powerful Yokai stand with him to take them on... and Natsume just isn't there yet.

Despite the rather intense and frightening humans in the volume, the story was intense and satisfying, and the generally happy nature of the drinking party story was the perfect antidote to the story before. This series continues to impress me and I enjoy it more with each volume I read. I wonder where the greater story is going, and how long the series itself can last. In any case, if you get a chance to read it, please do. It's one of the best manga I have read in quite a while. Highly recommended.

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