Pleasantly spurred on by the recent reviews and attention this beautiful work has received, I thought I perhaps could toss my hat into the ring and speak a little about Natsume Yuujinchou. Stunning in it's simplicity, meaningful in it's message, this is a manga that I believe always could use a little more love.
At it's heart, Natsume Yuujinchou presents a rather simple story depicting the day to day life of Takashi Natsume, orphan and loner from a very young age. In almost every way, Natsume is a normal fifteen year old child, shy and somewhat cut off from the people around him. The one thing that sets Natsume apart (and the thing that caused him much stress in his earlier years), is his inheritance from his grandmother Reiko. An inheritance of a beautiful face, a strange book, and the ability to see and communicate with youkai. It is this ability that has led to him being deemed strange and odd by most people, shunned for the weird tales he tells.
But as he grows and meets more people he wants to protect, Natsume must work to discover a way to balance the world of humans in which he belongs, and the world of youkai in which he is a part of regardless of his desires. Both of these worlds and the denizens that fill them come to hold meaning to Natsume, and many of the important lessons in the story are derived from him protecting them... often from each other.
The second, and probably most important, aspect of the story is the titular Book of Friends given to Natsume by his powerfully gifted grandmother. In this book are the names of numerous youkai bound to contract by Reiko's power to be summoned at any time. Natsume has no need for youkai armies and gladly returns names (and independence) to those who ask. Of course, some prefer to take rather then ask, putting Natsume in a great deal of danger. Luckily, he stumbles across some help in the form of Madara.
Madara is a youkai hidden in the form of a lucky cat, and visible to humans only in this form. He agrees to protect Natsume from the other youkai claiming he is only doing so, so he can obtain the book once Natsume dies. What starts out as merely a job blossoms into a humorous caring relationship between the two. Madara bickers, he snarks, he provides much of the comedic relief, but at his core he desires to protect Natsume and he does so without hesitation.
Together with Madara, Natsume struggles through issues we all can relate to. Finding his place in the world, protecting all those dear to him, no matter what they look like or where they come from. He works tirelessly in his quest to understand that which is different and frightening. His is the journey of life, and while his circumstances are different, the core values of respect, understanding, kindness, and love are ones we can all apply to our daily lives.
The main twosome of Natsume and Madara make up a fair chunk of the character interaction, but numerous humans and youkai add to the supporting cast. Exorcists such as Natori and Matoba with their rationality and coldness towards youkai, provide as excellent foils towards Natsume's idealistic optimism that the two worlds can coexist, and then there of course is his mysterious yet incredibly strong grandmother Reiko, shown in her youkai wrangling youth through flashback. Youkai such as Hiiragi and Chobi-Hige provide a nice insight to kinder more rational youkai, showing that though they are different from humans they are not all monsters. They all add splendidly to the story with their own viewpoints and tales to be told.
The art of Natsume Yuujinchou is pleasing yet simple. Human characters are drawn quite realistically, devoid of huge eyes and anime hair. The youkai, as is true in every good supernatural story with spirits and demons, are completely unique in their designs. From a tiny spider youkai to the great beast dragon Madara they are all quite a treat to look at. Madara in his lucky cat form is the most cartoonish aspect of the art, and he's quite adorable and very funny. Backgrounds are drawn simply yet effectively. The usual forest scenery is done in nice yet sparing detail.
Natsume Yuujinchou as a manga has fallen prey to what I've recently dubbed "The Aria Effect" in which an anime adaptation is done so splendidly that the equally wonderful manga tends to be overlooked. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as lord knows we could use more quality adaptations such as those of the Aria series, and Natsume Yuujinchou. But there is something to be said about the source material and the even more soothing feeling it brings to your heart.
Natsume Yuujinchou is a spectacular manga that shouldn't be missed whether you've seen the anime or not.