Manga: Natsume & Natsume

January 16, 2023 · 0 comments

By Jonathan Clements.

There’s something not quite right about Natsume Shiranui. Sometimes he stands too close to people. Sometimes he doesn’t quite read the room right. He’s troubled by social anxieties, doesn’t seem to have got a lot of the memos that many of us take for granted about what is and isn’t socially acceptable behaviour. But that’s okay, because he’s got Natsume Minazuki – the two teens are united not only by their shared unisex name, but by the fact that they are… wait for it… childhood friends.

Minazuki is totally used to Shiranui’s oddball behaviours, and vaguely aware that he idolizes her. Because Shiranui regards Minazuki as a true hero – the sort of person who really ought to be the star of her own TV drama; the kind of person the camera always turns to do the right thing, to take charge, to save the day. Shiranui wants to be as popular, and as beloved, as Minazuki at their high school, and this manga by Shunsuke Sorato, creator of The Girl with the Sanpaku Eyes, presents us with his inner monologue as he wrestles with the rules of modern life.

Natsume & Natsume is a cunning interrogation of some of the standard tropes in both manga and American comics – the sort of post-modern enquiry of boilerplate storytelling rules that we have seen elsewhere in its Azuki stablemate Turning the Tables on the Seatmate Killer. Our hero, such as he is, has the “face of a bad guy”, which in uncountable comics over the decades, is often all it takes to become one. His obsession with our heroine at first seems creepy and stalkerish – and, indeed, the manga constantly threatens to turn in that direction, adding a note of dramatic tension even to its everyday situations. But, at least so far, it seems not only pure-hearted, but actually quite adorable.

In a twist that recalls similar processes at work in the anime Sing a Bit of Harmony, Shiranui is determined to live by the rules of manga heroism. There is a mindset, a way of doing things, that Minazuki seems to embrace effortlessly in her interactions with other human beings, not in the sense of rescuing people from burning buildings, but in the simple mundane interactions that we all run into ten times a day. We see her, for example, helping an old lady across the street, because that is also what heroes do.

Shiranui’s first big test is an approach by a crying child, and we get to see him wrestle with the irritation and embarrassment this causes him. Why, oh why, has this snot-nosed kid come to him for help? Can’t he see that…. Oh, wait. This is what heroes do! And suddenly Shiranui is ready to leap into action, conspicuously and dangerously clambering up a tree to rescue a cat.

Minazuki is horrified that he didn’t just wait a moment for her to arrive with a purloined ladder. And this is where the tension begins to stir, as we realise that Shiranui is trying, really, really hard to be a good person… so hard, in fact, that he risks dragging other people into his own self-generated drama.

Natsume & Natsume is a manga that keeps the reader constantly guessing. Its short chapters tease out a story that could be ready to jump at any moment in a decisive direction – is this the origin story of a villain? Is this a tale of burgeoning young love? Is this something entirely different and unexpected? Shiranui is inviting you along for the ride, because that’s the only way you’re going to find out.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Natsume & Natsume is available to read from Azuki.

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