Asumiko Nakamura’s Maiden Railways, newly-published in English by the recently-founded Denpa Books, tells a number of short stories, all of which revolve around girls and trains. These vignettes, which universally include romantic feelings but cannot quite be called romances, vary incredibly, from the story of a lesbian who broke up with her girlfriend, to a man who finds himself playing with model trains in a cake shop every Thursday night, to the tale of a woman who left her husband for his younger brother, or so we’re led to believe. None of these narratives go exactly as we’d expect, sometimes not even as we’d hope, and yet they’re incredibly rewarding and emotional, thanks to Nakamura’s powerful art and intense storytelling.
Without a single story tying this manga together—though there is a short epilogue of sorts which links the vignettes—it can be hard to describe exactly what this work does right; it simply tries so many things that they can’t all be discussed. That said, I can talk about some elements which stood out, either as throughlines across the volume or as powerful enough parts of single stories so as to be worth discussing.
If any one theme stands across Maiden Railways it’s that of loss. Here, loss does not necessarily mean death, though that is present; time’s movement causes people to depart, leaving much like trains do. The missing of certain trains is a key element in many of the stories, and even as the characters make their best efforts to catch certain ones, they sometimes fail. It’s much the same for the relationships; some of them simply fall apart, and that’s incredibly sad, but there’s little to do but move forward and catch the next train. A manga managing to pull the mono no aware out of train schedules and then apply it to human relationships in a successful manner marks a win in my book.
But what of the quality of these relationships? Well, the book does quite a good job of establishing them as meaningful to its characters and the reader as a result. It can be tough for one-shots to build a real sense of emotional intimacy, but Nakamura is able to do so, primarily through a heavy reliance on subtext and missing context. By implying a much greater history to the events that go on and divulging only certain important elements, she’s able to avoid the feeling that everything which happens is all that happens.
Now, if you read my blog, there’s a good chance you’re interested in the yuri at play here. On that point I have to say: it’s pretty good, if age gaps don’t bother you. The story of the lesbian and her ex-girlfriend also involves a high schooler. Now, I personally didn’t read the gap between them as very large, but one could do so, and some would likely be turned away by this even if they shared my reading, in which case, this story is not for you. If you’re interested, however, it’s a solid story of its type with the two leads improving one another’s lives and moving on, as others in the volume do, from less-than-stellar romantic situations.
Ironically, however, it was not the yuri chapter which stood out to me, but a straight one, ‘Night After Night’. It takes the themes of the manga, of loss and falling behind, and creates the best little story you could get out of them. It’s fantastic, and it caused me to cry in public, which admittedly happens more frequently than one would expect, but it’s still high praise.
Nakamura’s art plays a huge role in all of this. If you’ve seen Doukyuusei, you know how intense her designs can be, matching her writing and then some. It’s exaggerated, but in that very particular way which increases the lifelike-ness of it. You won’t find the “cutest” art here, but if this is a style that you can even tolerate, you’ll quickly come to see how much it adds to the work.
This manga seriously reminds me of one of my favorite manga, Shuuden ni wa Kaeshimasu. For another romantic anthology to even come up in the same breath as that book speaks volumes to how much I enjoyed reading it. Maiden Railways is imperfect, and elements of it could turn some readers off, but its understanding of time and relationships is second-to-none.