It’s an almost undeniable fact that most romance manga are aimed at women. I mean, sure, there’s the occasional “harem” manga with a male protagonist, but I don’t really consider most of those to be serious romance manga. Their popularity stems from being a type of wish fulfillment for hormonal male teens. I’m not saying that as slight towards people reading those manga, I still read them myself, but I read them as a sort guilty pleasure, knowing that the plots and characters are not meant to be taking seriously.

I’m also very biased against most “shojo” manga that follow the same rehashed plot of an unlikely girl being chased around by many handsome guys for some reason or another. Even though the females in a lot of these manga are usually more fleshed out, most of the males follow a cookie-cutter formula. The guy is always handsome, sometimes very smart, and either is super popular and is liked by everybody or is a delinquent that everyone is afraid , but in both cases they don’t really allow anyone to get close to them till the main character somehow lets him open his heart to her. This is the story for 90% of shojo. Of course, with good writing, I am willing to forgive some of the more trite, overused plots, but those are the rare exceptions. It is also important to note that as a male, most romance manga artists do not have me in mind when thinking of their primary audience, so I am probably missing out on some of the appeal of these comics. That being said, most of the manga that I enjoy in this genre have some sort of focus outside of romance that I may find interesting.

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1. Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso

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I may have been taken in by the flavor of the month, but when reading this manga the first time and through many subsequent rereads, there were countless times where I, as a male, was on the verge of shedding tears. The story follows Kousei Arima, a very quiet, reserved boy who was considered the best piano prodigy of his generation. Because of various circumstances, he eventually quit playing the piano professionally until he meets a girl named Kaori Miyazono, an outgoing, passionate violinist, who convinces him to play at a concert with her. I’m purposefully leaving the plot of this story as vague as possible, because much of the pay off comes from the unexpected story progression and relationships between the characters.

This manga is definitely very introspective as much of the major plot points happen in the main character’s head. It relies a lot on the inner monologues of Arima to develop his character as he struggle through his demons, and the author really uses the piano as a great plot tool since way that he plays a particular song reflects his inner turmoil. Because of this manga’s great writing, all of the key themes like forgiveness and moving on after loss, are given some incredibly moving moments through great dialogue and beautiful imagery. This is also one of the few manga where the ending of the book gives you a completely new perspective of everything else that happened earlier in the story. That is half the reason I read this manga so often. Every single interaction between the main characters can be taken completely differently given the right context. Even though this may not be my favorite manga of all time since I generally prefer action-adventures, there has never been a manga that I have read as frequently as this one. The characters, the themes, the moments, and the ending are all memorable and because of that, this is my favorite romance manga of all time.

2. Koe no Kitachi

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When this manga first came out with it’s “one-shot”, a chapter released prior to the actually series to gauge its potential popularity, it was very controversial over the way it depicts the Japanese school system and its culture of bullying. The author really had to fight with his publishers into getting this manga serialized, but he felt that this was topic that needed to be covered. The story follows Shouya Ishida, a middle school student whose class is getting a new student, Nishimiya Shouko, who happens to be deaf. She gets mercilessly bullied by the whole entire class, especially by Shouya, because her disability is becoming a burden to the class since the teacher and students have to make special accommodations for her. They eventually push the bullying too far, and Nishimiya’s parents get involved. Even though the whole class was bullying Nishimiya, including the teacher, they all dump the blame on Shouya for instigating it. Because of this, the whole class also starts to bully Shouya, and eventually he finds out that Nishimiya has been helping erase all the mean graffiti that the other students have been writing on his desk. She eventually moves away and after 5 years, Shouya and Nishimiya meet again. This story is essentially a redemption tale for Shouya as he eventually falls in love Nishimiya.

The role that romance plays in this manga is markedly smaller than most of the other manga on this list. In my opinion, this manga has much more to do with bullying and the way we treat people with physical disabilities. It looks at the family and school dynamics of someone who is deaf, and also the inner turmoil and burden that they must feel they are to the people close to them. When I read the first couple of chapters I wouldn’t believe that by the end of manga I would be sympathizing and connecting with so many of the characters that I absolutely despised at the beginning, but the author has the remarkable ability of fleshing out and transforming the characters into people that you understand, if not actually like. This manga feels incredibly heavy and depressing to read at times, and at other times it feels uplifting and you can’t help but smile at the interactions between the main characters. There is a certain innocence and selflessness in their relationship, as both characters are constantly thinking about the other ones feelings. It was one the aspects that I enjoyed most about this manga and it felt like one of the more genuine relationships that I have read in manga, given the scenario.

3. NANA

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In NANA, the two main characters Nana Osaki and Nana Komatsu, move to Tokyo and randomly end up being roommates. Their motivations for coming to the city couldn’t be more different as one of the Nana’s came to be with her boyfriend while the other Nana wants to become a successful musician. This whole manga is about the relationship between the two main characters and essentially their journey to follow their dreams and, of course, there are some men that come into the picture

This is the first romance manga on this list that is blatantly marketed toward women. Though I would consider this manga “josei”, meaning that it is marketed toward an older female demographic, it was actually published in a Shōjo mangazine, so I am not quite sure how to classify this manga. That being said, this manga doesn’t really touch on social issues as much as Koe no Kitachi, nor is the writing as poignant and emotional as Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very sad moments, but they didn’t resonate with me as much as the ones in Shigatsu wa Kimo no Uso. The biggest reason that I enjoy this so much is because it feels real. The relationships that the characters builf, their motivations, they way they view the world, each character is written so differently that you can’t help but feel that these characters actually exist. And that is really the biggest responsibility that any author has. Convince the audience that this world, the people, the events, all actually existed and happened. In that regard, I would say that she succeeded. Sure, a lot of the stuff that happens in this manga is unlikely and you can somewhat predict the direction the plot is going because it tends to be very dramatic, but that is what you expect out of all romantic fiction. Both of the Nanas are very well realized characters, and which is apropo, because outside of them I can honestly that I only liked 2 or 3 other characters. All of these characters have imperfections, but some of the things that I was see as completely unforgivable seem to be just pushed under the rug and forgotten. The biggest disappointment of this manga is that after the author got very sick in 2009, this series has been put on indefinite hiatus and never actually ended.

4. Ichigo 100%

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This might be just blatant nostalgia on my part, but some of my fondest memories of reading manga come from Ichigo 100%. This is a Shōnen, meaning that primary demographic is younger males, so there isn’t any real serious themes or issues being discussed, and the content is relatively innocent. There is a lot of fan service, as with all Shōnen manga, and this story uses the classic trope of a normal looking guy attracting some of the most beautiful women at his school. It follows Junpei Manaka, a high school student who has dreams of being a film director. Unlike most “harem” manga, where the main character can never really muster up the courage to confess to the person he is attracted to, Manaka starts a relationship right at the beginning of this manga with Tsukasa Nishino, the most popular girl at his school. He also becomes good friends with Aya Toujou, who wants to become a novelist.

The plot itself is not very complex, as it just follows Junpei go through high school and manage his way through relationships and follow his dreams, but the execution is where this manga really shines. All the characters are so likeable, and watching them go through their adolescence whilst being in a relationship makes for some very light hearted and funny moments. The way that the artist draws the characters is absolutely beautiful. The faces alone are so expressive that you are almost immediately infatuated with them. A good chunk of this manga relies heavily on “gag” scenes and they are absolutely hilarious. There is, of course, a lot drama and pain that the main characters have to go through in their lives and relationships, but it is as if your looking at through rose colored glasses. Regardless of what happens, you just feel that everything will work out eventually and I love that about this manga.

5. BECK

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The focus of BECK is not romance, but since it is definitely a vital part of the development of the main character, I thought it would be appropriate to have this on my list. The story focuses more on music and how the main character, Koyuki, helps create a new band called Mongolian Chop Squad. Koyuki is very shy and introverted, so there is some major character change from the beginning of the manga to the end. There are a lot of random things that happen like Koyuki getting in a lot of trouble with gangs, but that isn’t the biggest strength of this manga, it is following Koyuki in learning how to use the guitar and becoming a lyricist.

The reason why romance is such an important part of the manga is that the main heroine, Maho Minami, is probably the biggest agent of change for the main character. She is also a singer and does some modeling, and she is the one of the people who encourage him into playing the guitar. Since, she is so beautiful and Koyuki is just normal looking guy, he has a hard time forming a relationship with her at the beginning, but eventually their different personalities mesh so well, that by the end of the manga it feels as though they were made for each other. Both Beck and Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso are music orientated manga, so I would definitely encourage people to watch the anime, as the soundtracks for both of them are absolutely amazing.

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