This being Valentine's Day, I could only talk about manga with a focus on relationships. Specifically, I'm looking at one volume that's a bit twisted, one that's bittersweet, and one that's just all kinds of awesome. All of them are single-volume works, so there's a little anti-Valentine's Day lack of commitment wrapped up in here, too.
Ohikkoshi - Hiroaki Samura (1 volume)
By the writer/artist of Blade of the Immortal, Ohikkoshi is a volume of somewhat romantic short stories. I mention it here because it's a strange volume, and won't bore those that aren't actually looking for a love story. The first story takes up the majority of the volume, and is a fairly straightforward social/romance thing about a group of young people. It's worth reading because the outcomes are completely unexpected, which is unusual in a manga story like this. None of the right people end up together, and the story doesn't really have a strong resolution, which makes it feel a bit more rooted in reality. It also has a bizarre sense of humor. There's a subplot that involves the Italian lovechild of a Ramen company executive coming to Japan to comically re-enact his mother's frustrations with Japanese women, which is less heinous than it sounds and ridiculous in context. The reason this has stuck in my mind for years after I read it, though, was a short story in the back about a female manga artist. Her editor criticizes her work and tells her that her "lack of life experience" really shows in her stories, and that's why she's failing. So the artist goes out for years to gather all sorts of seedy life experiences, then returns to the manga profession to write the ultimate romance manga. It's a pretty messed up story, and I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be comedic or not. But I've read lots of manga short stories, and most of them are completely forgettable. This one stuck with me.
5 cm/s - Makoto Shinkai & Yukiko Seike (1 volume)
I picked this up without realizing that it was adapted from a movie. Most of the time, manga adapted from elsewhere tends to ring hollow story-wise, but in this case it works. The story is mostly about a boy named Tohno and a childhood friend named Akari. The two are transfer students at the same school, and thus outsiders. They hit it off together, and spend the next year or so growing closer and closer. Just around the time Tohno realizes he is in love with Akari, the two are separated by a move, and though it's clear that they love each other, neither tells the other. They never speak to or see each other again. The story is told in segments, with the first section about Tohno and Akari in middle school, the next about Tohno in high school and the way his "relationship" with Akari affects how he deals with others, the next is about Tohno in adulthood struggling with whether to marry another woman. Akari doesn't really enter the story again after the first segment, but we do get a female perspective from a girl named Kanae that has a crush on Tohno in high school that carries over into adulthood. It's a sweet love story, and I was fond of the narrative structure. The second segment is told from Kanae's perspective, so it took me a minute to realize Tohno was the same person from the first story (which it shouldn't have, but the shift in narration and a break from reading the volume threw me off). I also appreciated the shift in time, and the way the narration shifted again to Tohno, then back to Kanae. On the other hand, it's extremely frustrating to see Tohno so caught up with Akari his entire life and never doing or saying anything about it. It's supposed to be conveyed as a beautiful thing that can't be touched and must be cherished, but that it so completely handicaps him socially is aggravating. In that way, it's difficult to appreciate the romance involved. But still, it's a nice and very quiet love story, and leans towards the slice-of-life side of storytelling, since there's no fantastic confession or feats of heroism involved.
A Drunken Dream and Other Stories - Moto Hagio (1 volume)
It would be hard for me not to mention Moto Hagio on Valentine's Day, especially since she's one of the roots of modern romance manga in Japan. We haven't had the pleasure of reading much of her work in English, but Fantagraphics has been setting that right lately, with this collection of short stories released in 2010 and the single-volume Heart of Thomas released earlier this year. Heart of Thomas is an amazing story, and probably one that's more appropriate for this particular column, but A Drunken Dream is still quite good. There are ten short stories of various themes, and all are quite touching in some way. The two that stuck with me were ones that dealt with body image. "Hanshin" is the story of conjoined twins, one who is beautiful but mentally handicapped, and the other, who is unsightly but the one who protects both of them since her sister is unable. Her sister is the one that gets the most attention, and the brainy twin is left feeling bitter and resentful towards her sister. It leans pretty hard on sentimentality, but the end of the story is still a tear-jerker. The other, "Iguana Girl," is more lighthearted, and about a girl who sees herself as "different" from others, portrayed literally in the story as an iguana girl among humans. It's also touching, but in a more triumphant way. Others deal with various topics... a wordless story about a deceased parent, the title story that's a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, fantastic stories about complex family relationships, et cetera. They're all very sentimental and romantic, and all stunningly illustrated. "A Drunken Dream" is in color, and the thing that stuck in my mind most was an amazing illustration of Jupiter that simply appears in the background of one panel. But Hagio definitely has some of the best manga art you're likely to find, and she's an amazing storyteller as well.