Despite shojo manga’s reputation for romance and shonen manga being known for endless battles, both categories place a heavy weight on relationships. Shojo manga heroines pine for seemingly impossible loves while shonen manga heroes fight against unlikely odds, building a group of trustworthy teammates in the process. But whether it’s shojo or shonen, these stories often share another commonality that may not be so wonderful: the relationships, characters, and interactions between them get tangled up in formulaic, gender-stereotyped patterns. Boys have to knock heads and throw punches before they understand each other (not to mention rescue their female fellows to demonstrate their masculinity) while guy-crazy girls enter a subtle game of war as they fight to reach the apparently unobtainable guy, caught up in getting the romance of their dreams. Such posturing does happen in real life, but fiction can exaggerate relationships according to gender stereotypes. Yet among all this hyped-up relationship drama, an understated shojo manga called Natsume’s Book of Friends seems to put aside gender stereotype-heavy plots to get at a simple yet powerful human truth–our struggles to build connections with and understand others.
Takashi Natsume, the protagonist of Natsume’s Book of Friends, knows more about loneliness than a young man his age should. His parents died when he was little, resulting in him being shuffled around from one unwelcoming relative to the next. To make matters worse, ever since he can remember, Natsume has been able to see things other people can’t–strange beings akin to spirits or demons called yokai who harass him wherever he goes. Unable to see what he does, his relatives and his peers found him creepy and considered him a liar, rejecting and isolating him. Natsume has never had a place he could call “home” or people who he felt he could confide in. Now a high school student, he still has to deal with his troublesome ability, but he thinks he’s finally found the place he belongs when he’s adopted by his distant relatives, the Fujiwaras. But his troubles with yokai increase after he finds a mysterious book called “The Book of Friends” left behind by his long deceased grandmother, Reiko. Snubbed by everyone around her because of her own ability to see yokai, Reiko took out her frustrations on the supernatural creatures, beating them in duels and then binding them to her will by collecting their names in that book. Now, with help of his new bodyguard, a yokai who looks like a ceramic cat, Natsume must deal with the yokai who pester and attack him for their names and powerful The Book of Friends.
When I first came across Natsume’s Book of Friends, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. On the surface, it may sound like many other manga before it, but while this series certainly has a good dose of dangerous encounters, it uses Natsume’s ability to see yokai to jump into issues such as isolation, trust, and the joys and difficulties of having connections with others. For much of the series so far, the story works on an episodic basis, without the immediate tensions and drama of most popular series. But I quickly got used to the pace, and fell in love with Natsume’s struggles to connect, protect, and wind his way through the complexities of relationships. And perhaps because the series attempts to tackle relationships on a more fundamental level, without the extra drama of idealistic romances or out-of-this-world battles to save humanity, it feels as if the puff of accentuated gender norms has been skimmed away, leaving organic interactions between the protagonist and those he encounters.
Natsume makes the perfect protagonist to tackle these relationship struggles. He’s been rejected so many times for being honest about what he sees that he’s closed himself off, putting on a mask of normalcy to avoid problems. Now that he’s living with the Fujiwaras, their kindness has warmed him up to connecting with the people around him, but building relationships has become foreign to him. He wants to connect to others, and wants to be honest about himself, but doesn’t know how, especially when he fears his ability will either put his friends and family in danger or cause them to reject him. Yet even as he sees yokai as a threat to his life with the Fujiwaras, Natsume’s kindness leaves him unable to walk away from yokai he becomes involved with, and he begins to see the pestering and sometimes dangerous beings in a different light. Finally, one of my favorite additions to this series is the exorcists, who complicate and challenge Natsume’s thinking, namely his growing desire to help both humans and yokai. His interactions with the exorcists teach him that although he has at last found people who share his ability to see yokai, that does not mean that they fully understand each other. All three of these groups force Natsume to confront new and often difficult questions about relationships with others, from how to balance his projected image of a normal teen with his often troubled reality, how much to let people in and how much to keep them away from his secrets and problems, to confusion about who to trust and what to say. And of course, how to understand others. Although some of these troubles may seem fantastical, taken out of the supernatural context, they are all problems that everyone faces and can relate to, male or female.
That’s not to say that Yuki Modorikawa has created a gender role-free paradise in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Gender roles still seep through, albeit in a more subtle manner than some other popular shojo and shonen series; Natsume is dubious of being carried away by a female character (even as that character saves him from a dangerous situation) until he distinguishes her as a female yokai rather than a woman; at numerous points, yokai tell Natsume to “man up” or call him a “wuss”; and Natsume’s foster parents reflect an ideal traditional household with a cheery stay-at-home mother and a father who works outside the home. They’re subtle, but if you look for them, gender roles are definitely present.
Even so, these gender norms do not feel imposed on the story as the proper way to act or live as a man or woman. In fact, the protagonist himself diverges in many ways from the typical path of male characters. Natsume isn’t bolstered as a masculine superhero who saves cute damsels in his spare time nor are the girls around him flocking like maniacs to score prince charming. The series has ample chances to make Natsume into a prince charming figure, since he does assist female yokai and girls several times throughout the stories and it’s been noted in the story that Natsume is handsome, but these details never push their way to the front. Even when Natsume is repeatedly mistaken for a female relative or told to be more of a man, he does not try to reassert his manliness by exaggerating stereotypical male qualities. He is concerned with protecting those around him, a trait often seen in both shojo and shonen heroes, but Natsume’s protectiveness feels natural, the kind of protectiveness we all feel toward people we care about, no matter our gender. Notably, he doesn’t feel more protective of his female relations and acquaintances than the male ones. He wants to keep them all safe to the best of his abilities. Natsume isn’t made out to be the complete opposite of what’s considered to be masculine like Asuka from Otomen, but he’s a wonderful example of a well-rounded male character shown to have a healthy range of emotions, and a gentleness and vulnerability mixed with perseverance that sets him apart from both male and female ideals of the perfect man.
If anything, Natsume’s grandmother, Reiko, could be said to possess more stereotypical qualities of a male manga protagonist. She is long dead by the start of the series, but her legacy of taking her frustrations and loneliness out on yokai is reminiscent of many bad boy or delinquent types such as Naruto (Naruto) or Kyo (Fruits Basket), (although this behavior is seen in female characters as well). When yokai speak of the prowess of Natsume, they usually aren’t referring to the protagonist, but rather Reiko. While his grandmother dealt with her loneliness through force and violence, Natsume takes a more peaceful approach. Although his supernatural powers are strong, he’s not particularly strong physically. Instead, his true strength lies in his growing kindness and desire to protect the things he has come to care about, a double-edged sword that both makes him more susceptible to attacks and gains him loyal and powerful friends. I appreciate that these two different types of strength (physical strength and kindness) that are stereotypically applied to one gender more than the other have been switched around in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Midorikawa discusses that she considered making Natsume a girl, but I’m glad to see a nice male protagonist who neither reeks of someone’s idealized but boring prince nor has to be the super strong man to sort things out. Having a character like Natsume takes the focus away from questions of masculinity and gender norms in favor of explorations of relationships that are less gendered than we often see in fiction.
So, if you’re tired of series that lay the gender roles on thick and want one that explores the struggles and joys of relationships in a sophisticated, bittersweet manner, I recommend giving Natsume’s Book of Friends a go. A quick note before you do! For those of you who aren’t fans of episodic stories, don’t pass this series up just yet. Although the series does start solely episodic, events and characters start to connect and reappear more frequently as the story picks up. The anime is also streaming legally on Crunchyroll.