This first ran in the Comics Journal.
I haven’t read a ton of manga, but it seems lately that every one I do read involves someone who is able to see ghosts and spirits. Dokebi Bride; xxxholic, and now this. I have to say, it somewhat undercuts the pathos that Midorikawa wants me to feel. She keeps insisting that her main character, Natsume, has led a life of loneliness because he can see Yokai and no one else can. But, come on. Everyone can see them. They probably have endorsement deals. “Do you know me? I died and now roam the earth in disembodied agony. But I still get turned away at inns for some reason. That’s why I carry….”
It’s not hard to imagine these particular ghosts in advertisements, actually, because they, and the manga they inhabit, are so thematically generic. Dokebi Bride uses its ghosts as a metaphor for grief and loss; xxxholic uses its ghosts as a metaphor for karma. The first is one of the most beautiful comics narratives I’ve ever read; the second is not especially good, but at least has the virtue of being somewhat ruthless.
Book of Friends, though, is ghost story as after-school special. Natsume is gentle and kind and good, and also gentle and kind. He finds a book that allows him to control spirits, and instead of using it to control spirits he decides to seek out all the ghosts and free them, because he is pure of heart and has the blandness of ten. Presumably his niceness is supposed to be endearing, but its achieved with so little effort that it just makes him vague. His moony sad memories float by in the requisite shojo drifting-panels-of-white-space-with-petals-falling and you say to yourself, yep, there are those petals, I am supposed to feel sad now. But who can give a crap about this nonentity and his drearily unfocused self-pity? Occasionally a ghost threatens to eat him or pull his tongue out, and you almost wish one of them would do it just to see if that might infuse him with some spunk. I mean, hideous trauma — it gave Batman character, right? But alas; no one ever really hurts Natsume, and if they did, you’d figure he’d go along just the same, turning every encounter into a parable about the meaning of friendship. Awww…the poor ghost was sad, and I helped her, and now the world is just a little bit brighter. I am shojo Michael Landon!
Not that it’s all bad. Though, as I already mentioned, the art is largely by-the-numbers, the Yokai themselves look great. Based visually on ghosts and demons from Japanese prints, they’re all one-eyed with gaping maws, or horned and neckless, with weird skinny limbs that don’t bend quite right.
The inevitable cat familiar is lovely too — cute and majestic and ominous all at once.
Those two images are uncanny and weird; they use the distortion of scale to suggest Natsume’s powerlessness before a malleable world that he is prepared to casually devour him. If that was what the story was about, I’d want to keep following this series. But it isn’t, and I don’t.