Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Sequential Art Review: Le pacte des yokai (Natsume Yuujinchou) V. 1 by Yuki Midorikawa
Title: Le pacte des yokai V. 1 – trans. The Pact of Yokai  (Original title : 夏目友人帳 Natsume Yuujinchou – trans. Natsume’s Book of Friends.)
Creator: Yuki Midorikawa trans. by Yuki Kakiichi
Genre: Shoujo, drama, supernatural, episodic, slice-of-life
Serialized magazine: Lala
Publisher: Hakusensha (Japanese publisher), Édition Delacourt (French publisher)
Summary: Orphaned teenager Takashi Natsume has always been able to see the yokai since he was a child. His life becomes complicated when a notebook, inherited from his deceased grandmother Reiko, falls into his hands. This notebook contains all the names of the yokai his grandmother has defeated in battle, names which allows Natsume to control the yokai and determine their life or death. This powerful inherited notebook brings Natsume new friends and foes as other yokai seek the notebook either to free themselves or to possess the notebook and all the power it contains.
TL;DR: A fantastic debut to a great series, with evocative art, a sweet protagonist to root for, and heartfelt stories that with grab readers by the heart, this is a manga series no one should miss out on.
The Review: Let me indulge in some basic manga perimetres, as this is my first attempt at a manga review and I want to make this clear. In these story mediums using sequential art, the art ITSELF is essential to the story. Art can either make or break a story – and not simply in the sense that ‘oh the art is ugly thus it sucks’ or ‘oh the art is pretty thus it’s good’. Good art in manga is not simply art that looks appealing to your eyes, though of course, like Cover Art in Novels, pretty, appealing art styles of the manga creator can be a drawing factor to get a new audience member to pick up the manga volume. But in all forms of sequential art, THE ART IS THE STORY. The story is told through art. Thus, if the art cannot convey or carry the story, then the story has no substance. The ability of the creator to correctly and smoothly transition the art through action or character contemplation or what you will is far more important than say, how detailed the outfits are, or how lovely the background is.
The art of Natsume Yuujinchou is not one that’s immediately appealing to a new audience. Midorikawa does not use strong bold outlines or fills her manga with lush details. Rather, the art has a ‘soft’ quality, kind of like light sketches in a sketchbook that captures enough of the essence of the image the artist wants to convey, but is absent of a sharply penciled outline of the sketch to make it look more ‘finished’. I have seen accusations of this art being deemed ugly because of this ‘unfinished’ look, but if you look closer you’ll realize that Midorikawa always draws enough to convey all that is necessary to tell the story, and she never slacks on background details when they’re needed, and her art is always spaced out in a way to lend for easy art flow. Midorikawa’s art is by no means flashy, but it has substance, and great thought put into it, and I appreciate this style of art very much. Also, this sketch look in her art lends a whimsical, unassuming quality to her story, and thoroughly charmed me from page one.
Midorikawa favours a three-way vertical split in her page outlines, and it works rather well for her. Transitions within scenes are usually done exceptionally well, and Midorikawa excels at portraying emotional moments of character insight with her minimal, deft artistic hand. She is weaker with the action scenes, but they are serviceable, and this is mostly just nitpicking on my part. Besides, you don’t read Natsume Yuujinchou for the action, lol.
From the premise of boy getting his hands on a powerful notebook, this sounds like your typical shounen adventure fare. What is key to keep in mind is that this is Yuki Midorikawa, and that this is essentially a shoujo story, manga targeted towards teenage girls. She takes a premise normally found in manga for teenage boys, and breathes heart and soul into the story rarely found in the shounen scene. Midorikawa’s true strength in her storytelling abilities is her way of breathing human qualities and thoughtful insights into her characters, not necessarily through an indulgent soliloquy, but moreso through the glimpses of character interactions and things said/unsaid, and her way of making the art slow down or speed up at key moments for maximum effect. In short, Midorikawa is best at reeling in and evoking character sympathy, and then breaking the audience’s hearts. Reading a work by Midorikawa is heartfelt not because of melodrama, but because it is quiet and so dearly sincere.
Instead of taking the powering/leveling up motif that is common in for this type of premise in the shounen market, Midorikawa instead focuses on the human level of what these abilities means to our main protagonist. How does it feel to be able to see things that others can’t? How does it feel to be accused of being a liar for it? Sent away from foster home to foster home because each foster parent thought you were either lying or creepy or sullen in his solitude and loneliness? How does it feel to inherit something from a family relations and discovering that maybe you aren’t so alone after all, that someone besides you had these abilities and gave you an everlasting vestige of her legacy? How is it like, despite all these obstacles, having the desire to want to belong? How do you relate to others when you know that other humans cannot see what you were born able to do? All these questions Midorikawa addresses attentively, the connection between human and yokai, Some of the most compelling sustained character relationships in this series is that between Natsume and Reiko, his deceased grandmother, how he slowly gains insight of her thoughts and feelings in this notebook of hers. This is one of the defining things that make this typical shounen sounding premise morph into an atypical shoujo story: Midorikawa does not choose to develop a story of Natsume rising up to be the king of yokai or even a top notch yokai slayer. Instead, Natsume sees this notebook as something important of his grandma’s, the only woman he knows of who might have understood his feelings and emotions. Natsume chooses to instead give back the names taken by his grandma back to the yokai in question, and through this learns more about his grandma, and the yokai that come to see and meet him. This is not a story of the underdog becoming the best. This is a story about the every day things, the desire for connection as characters interact and grow. (Also I find the compare contrast between our protag and his grandma fascinating because they have the same abilities but it shaped them very differently.)
Midorikawa shapes this story in an episodic fashion, each chapter an equivalent of one episode wherein he would typically help out or get involved with a different yokai each chapter. In these episodic type narratives, a compelling main character is key, because why else would we continue to read an episodic series if we didn’t care about the protagonist? I’ll be upfront and say that Natsume is one of the most sincere and sweetest protagonists I’ve ever encountered in all stories across all sorts of mediums, and he charmed my heart. I understood this fictional character like he was a real person next to me, a living, breathing friend. How he keeps aloof from humans in fear of being rejected, how he has trust issues and how he wants to be kind and good to those he cares about but isn’t very good with his words, how he recklessly acts in order to help those who come to him and how he’s one of the most unselfish and kind protagonists I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. I could literally spend all day being like this, rambling on and on about how much I love this protagonist, but let me finish off by saying that Midorikawa has created a protagonist that will make a follower out of the readers and you’ll be willing to read his adventures anywhere and wherever the author chooses to take you.
As for the episodic stories themselves, what can I even say? Words cannot describe how beautiful these stories were. Chapter 2 and 4 especially made me teary-eyed. I found the theme of (missing) communication between yokai and human and a futile desire to connect very evocative and compelling amidst the heartbreak. The heart of these stories has an underlying message of friendship, not in the typical shounen sense of FRIENDS STICK TOGETHER kind of thing, but a desire to form ties with others that has nothing to do with romance and everything to do with wanting to be close to another being who means something to you.
This thoughtfulness in the stories are by no means accidental, as reading the notes written into the sides and endnotes at the end reveal. One of the cool things about (re)reading these serialized manga works (fyi, usually manga is serialized in magazines wherein there is either weekly or monthly chapter updates, kind of like how Charles Dickens wrote a chapter in newspapers if we are looking for an English novelization equivalent…) in Volume form is that they usually come with commentary. I really like reading Midorikawa’s commentaries because they always make it clear how thoughtful she is when she plans out her stories, that she really thinks carefully about her craft and what ways shall she use to bring her story to life, her thoughts on how to carefully position her characters in the best manner, and her worries on using an episodic-type narrative to tell her story (fyi it’s her first time, not that anyone could tell since she mastered it so completely on her first shot.) I also liked the detail on how Nyanko-sensei/Madara/Maitre Griffou (if you read the French version) came to be, and her acknowledgments and praises towards her editor and assistants.
As for the translations itself, I read the French version, and it was passable. They decided not to keep any of the original Japanese syntax and even completely changed the name of Nyanko-sensei, which saddens me, but I almost forgive them because this French edition gives us a lot of brilliant endnotes at the end on the folklore Midorikawa referenced and the yokai lore as well. They even had an interesting yokai overview at the back of the volume. I didn’t care for the yokai-are-the-same-as-demons, but I suppose it’s better than a sublimal message on Othering Yokai and Japanese folklore, etc. *shrugs* I have yet to read the English editions that are out, but you know, the nice thing about manga is that the art tells 80% of the story, so even if the translation was subpar, the art will convey most of the message through, so I say to all the English-speakers to get their copy ASAP!
Quick note on the title: I can see why the French publisher changed the title because Natsume’s Book of Friends does kind of sound boring and cheesy, but I’m weirdly fond of it all the same? *shrugs* Oh well, at least it’s actually related to what’s going on within the story as well.
Yokai is an umbrella term for supernatural creatures of Japanese folklore, demons being a rough equivalent if we want to think of a European folk creature counterpart.
 In this context, Shoujo means manga geared towards teenage girls. For manga, there are two markets for teenagers, shoujo manga for girls and shounen manga for boys. Of course, boys can read shoujo and girls can read shounen, but the general rule is that these mangas are geared towards the specific target audience they have in mind. Shounen and Shoujo thus have very different troupes and conventions.
You may be wondering why I am rating these two separately, since I spent forever trying to explain that there is no story without the art, aka ART = STORY. But what I mean by rating them separately is that, for the Art, I’m rating it based on how effective was the creator in telling the story (which is always predominantly through the art, the positioning of the art, etc) and the rating for story is for the actual story events in the volume, if there was a proper beginning/middle/end, etc. I guess a novel equivalent would be that Art => Writing Style and Story => Plot?! I hope this isn’t confusing.