If you count the Alice in the Country of stuff separately, I read more volumes of this series during my vacation than any other.
The words I'd use to describe Natsume's Book of Friends are: warm, gentle, bittersweet. It's such a lovely series. I already knew that from watching the anime, and the manga didn't change my feelings. I had expected I'd get bored with the series, since, even eight volumes in, I still wasn't able to make it past events covered in the anime (although I think the anime may have shuffled some events around a bit). However, I really enjoyed it and would have read more if I had had the time. I'll definitely be reading more of this, next time I go on vacation.
Natsume's Book of Friends (manga, vol. 1) by Yuki Midorikawa, translated by Lillian Olsen – This series is, for the most part, pretty episodic, so I'll try to briefly mention which stories are covered in each volume. In this volume, Natsume learns about the Book of Friends and gains Nyanko-sensei as a bodyguard. Many years ago, Natsume's grandmother traveled from place to place, dominating yokai (spirits and supernatural beings) and forcing them to write their names in her Book of Friends. As the owner of the Book of Friends, Natsume could opt to control those yokai, but instead he decides to give as many names back as he can. In the second chapter, he helps a Dew God get his name back and sees that there can be good/bittersweet relationships between yokai and humans. In the third chapter, he learns that someone has been exorcising yokai in a particular area, and he discovers that one of his classmates can probably see yokai too. In the fourth chapter, Natsume helps a swallow yokai see the human who befriended her one last time before she fades away.
Even though I've seen the anime multiple times, and nothing in this volume was a surprise to me, it still made me cry. Natsume says he doesn't care for yokai and maybe sees giving them their names back as a way of cutting them out of his life. However, in reality, his efforts seem to increase his empathy for them. Natsume's a kind kid, and I think Nyanko-sensei senses that too.
The artwork is nice, but has a very wispy feel to it, different enough from the anime that it took me some time to get used to it.
Natsume's Book of Friends (manga, vol. 2) by Yuki Midorikawa, translated by Lillian Olsen – First story: Natsume is roped into visiting a haunted building by a classmate who suspects he can see yokai. Sasada just wants to thank a yokai that once helped her. Second story: Natsume is cursed and must deal with it before his life force is sucked out or he's eaten by the yokai's shadow. Third story: Natsume meets Natori, an actor who exorcises yokai on the side (or maybe he's an exorcist who acts on the side?). At first, Natsume is excited, but he soon realizes that he and Natori don't always see eye-to-eye where yokai are concerned. Fourth story: A yokai asks Natsume to lend his body to another yokai so that she can play music one last time.
This volume was nice, although it's already possible to see how the episodic format might get old. Natsume's explanations about Nyanko-sensei, Reiko, and the Book of Friends at the beginning of each chapter are a bit repetitive.
This volume has a mix of both bittersweet yokai-human relations, yokai-yokai relationships, and even a bit of slight horror (the creeping shadow, which I thought was creepier in the anime). While I liked it, it didn't move me in quite the same way as the first volume.
One thing: Didn't Sasada stick around much longer in the anime? In the manga, she moves away after the first story in this volume, and she didn't turn up again in any of the next few volumes I read.
Natsume's Book of Friends (manga, vol. 3) by Yuki Midorikawa, translated by Lillian Olsen – First story: A black Nyanko-lookalike steals the Book of Friends. Second story: Natsume meets a firefly yokai in love with a human who used to be able to see her. Third story: Natsume meets other exorcists chasing after a yokai-eating yokai. Again, he learns that not everyone feels as much empathy for yokai as he does. Fourth story: Natsume raises an egg, and then the little yokai that hatches from it, protecting it from a yokai that wants to capture it because it's considered to be a delicacy.
Yet another volume with lovely, bittersweet stories. The theme for this one seems to be lack of permanence. Humans die much sooner than yokai – Nyanko-sensei reminds us that he outlived Reiko and will likely outlive Natsume. Also, this is the first time it occurs to Natsume that his ability to see yokai might not stick around forever, and that this thought doesn't make him happy, even though his abilities caused him so much pain over the years.
The latter half of the volume wasn't quite as good. The bit with the exorcists opened up the world more and made it clear that there are many, many more exorcists than just Natori, although at this point in the series it's still not clear if Midorikawa plans to do much with them. The egg story was just “meh.”
Natsume's Book of Friends (manga, vol. 4) by Yuki Midorikawa, translated by Lillian Olsen – First story: A yokai enters a little snow bunny Natsume made, so that it can ask him to help stop its friend from hurting people. Second story: Natori invites Natsume on a hot springs trip that he fails to mention is actually an exorcism trip. Third story: Natsume acquires a painting that starts to slowly drain the life out of him. Fourth story: Natsume meets an orphaned fox yokai while on a school trip. Fifth story: Young Natsume clashes with a childish yokai that delights in scaring him. The yokai doesn't realize until too late that it actually likes him, and that its actions cause him problems. In the present, Natsume briefly reunites with this yokai. Sixth story: Nyanko saves a lost child, even though he pretends that the child annoys him.
I really like this series. It can be sad at times, but it's so gentle, sweet, and calming. I really feel for Natsume, who wants so badly for the Fujiwaras to like him. He's afraid to tell them the truth about himself, but at the same time he hates having to lie to them all the time. I feel for Natori too – he sees himself in Natsume and wants Natsume to be happy, but he's been “different” for so long that he can't behave like a normal friend/mentor/backup family member.
Again, we have bittersweet stories with fragile yokai (the snow bunny story) and tragically mortal humans (the yokai who pretended that her human friend disappeared because he went to live in the painting, when in reality he probably died). And again, there are a few “meh” stories in the mix. The bit with Nyanko saving the child was so-so, and the fox child story only stood out because I knew that character would reappear in the future.
Natsume's Book of Friends (manga, vol. 5) by Yuki Midorikawa, translated by Lillian Olsen – First story: Natsume goes on a study group trip and meets a mermaid and an old woman who believes she used the mermaid's blood to curse a friend of hers with immortality. Second story: Natsume meets Taki, a girl who draws circles that allow her to see any yokai that step into them, and helps her end a curse that has been plaguing her for almost a year. Third story: Shigeru (Mr. Fujiwara) tells Natsume about meeting an eccentric but kind girl when he was a child. Natsume knows that the girl he met was Reiko, and that she rid Shigeru's home of a nasty yokai. Fourth story: Tanuma wishes Natsume were more honest with him about the things he sees, because the way Natsume holds himself apart from everyone makes him feel a bit lonely.
The third and fourth stories were my favorites, in large part because I love stories that deal with Reiko in more depth and stories that deal with Natsume's relationships with other humans.
I love that Shigeru is so direct about telling Natsume that he knows he's keeping himself apart from them and that he'd like Natsume to trust them and think of them as family. The Fujiwaras are mostly background characters, but anytime they're around for even a little bit, they're always such lovely people. Even as a child, Shigeru was the kind of person who'd befriend a lonely girl like Reiko.
And Tanuma – poor guy, thinking he can't connect with Natsume. I can't wait to see their friendship deepen. Tanuma's barely been in the series so far. It's easy to forget that he exists.
Natsume's Book of Friends (manga, vol. 6) by Yuki Midorikawa, translated by Lillian Olsen – First story: Natsume meets a boy who seems to be like him – he can see and is being chased by yokai. He's also maybe being bullied. Second story: The little fox yokai decides to visit Natsume because he's feeling lonely. Third story: Hinoe tells the story of how she met Reiko. Fourth story: A one-shot completely unrelated to Natsume's Book of Friends. A student falls in love with the teacher for whom she often acts as an assistant. He chose his career over his girlfriend, and the student therefore does her best to hide her feelings, not wanting to mess things up for him.
I think this volume includes the first story in this series that might be called “lengthy,” although it somehow doesn't feel any longer than any of the other stories. This is also the first volume in which Natsume starts thinking about his future and the possibility that he might one day become a parent.
It was nice to see more of Reiko, although Hinoe's story was disappointingly skimpy. And the fox yokai was adorable.
The one-shot was...blah. Okay, for a teacher-student semi-romance, but blah.
Natsume's Book of Friends (manga, vol. 7) by Yuki Midorikawa, translated by Lillian Olsen – First story: Natsume investigates incidents of yokai getting their blood drained. He thinks the head of the Matoba exorcist clan is behind it – a theory supported by Nyanko and Natori's wariness towards him. Second story: Natsume and a bunch of yokai play shadow-tag. Third story: Unrelated to Natsume's Book of Friends. It's about a kid who gains amazing athletic abilities by drinking juice. He's secretly in love with a female friend of his, who he realizes loves someone else.
It's nice to finally meet the head of the Matoba clan, a character I enjoyed in the anime. However, this was very different from the usual Natsume's Book of Friends volume. I think Midorikawa does better with bittersweet short stories.
The second story is utterly and completely fluff. Nice fluff, with everyone playing tag with Natsume, who never got to do it with other human kids, but still fluff.
The third story, the one-shot, was an utter mess. Poor storytelling, plus a lack of focus. We have over-the-top stuff like the boy who gets amazing physical abilities from drinking ordinary juice, of all things, a lackluster romance, and a thief. Midorikawa has definitely improved since she wrote this.
Natsume's Book of Friends (manga, vol. 8) by Yuki Midorikawa, translated by Lillian Olsen – First story: Nyanko is resting due to events in the previous volume, so Natsume tries to deal with a weird yokai rock that keeps possessing people around him on his own. He doesn't want to ruin the cultural festival, which he's really looking forward to. Second story: Tanuma gets possessed by a yokai looking for shards of a mirror that could help her sick friend. For once, Tanuma gets to experience some of what Natsume goes through. Third story: A flashback to Natsume's childhood, when he tried to deal with a yokai feeding off his loneliness (or fear? My notes could be better). This was also the first time he met Toko and Shigeru. Fourth story: From Chobi's POV. Natsume helps a yokai remove a rock that fell on top of a bird's nest.
This is the first volume to include something that I don't remember seeing in the anime (Chobi's story).
I loved how the second story turned the tables a bit. Natsume learned how much it hurt to be avoided, even for his own protection, and Tanuma got a glimpse of what Natsume's life is like.
I also enjoyed getting to see Natsume's friends worrying about him at the cultural festival. It's nice to see that his ordinary, have-no-clue-he-can-see-yokai friends care about him and try to watch out for him. It's too bad that Natsume's first home, after his parents died, wasn't with the Fujiwaras.
And speaking of the Fujiwaras, the story in which Natsume first met them was one of my favorites in the anime. I was happy to be able to read it in the manga. It was so sad that, when he first met Toko, a part of him wondered if she was really a yokai, since no humans had ever shown signs of wanting him to live with them. And Toko! She was so adorable and awkward. I really do love the Fujiwaras. A part of me hopes that a future volume shows how Toko and Shigeru first met and became a couple.