A story about two classmates who become friends, Sahoko and Rio. Rio is depressed and self-abusive and isn't loved by her "family" (which consists of her father, stepmother, and stepbrother), but Sahoko seems to be the bright spot in her life. Sahoko also seems to have a mysterious past and doesn't seem to have a good relationship with her parents; she lives with her aunt. It's also hinted at that Sahoko and Rio have met once before, when they were much younger...
Pietà is a good example of what one could call a "psychological romance", most commonly found in josei manga: much like titles such as Houkago Hokenshitsu, the focus is on the characters' inner demons, how they relate to and influence each other, and general psychological development, rather than dealing mainly with relationships and their own conflicts. In that sense, the relationship is understood merely as an extension of the characters' intentions. While there's no inherent problem in regular, more romantic-oriented and idealized titles, an alternative take on the genre is always welcome.
The plot is quite simple and its progression straightforward. It doesn't need obstacles usually
found in romance stories such as rivals, society's or parent's disapproval, and convenient coincidences/misunderstandings. As previously stated, the relationship is not the problem here, it's mostly about Rio and Sahoko as individuals trying to heal each other and get healed. If you hate dragged out romances which don't seem to go anywhere or keeps running in circles, then you're in luck, but if you think this is necessary and want to see how the relationship progresses gradually, then... well, you're not in luck.
One of the characters' speeches is pretty interesting to notice. When asked about what exactly she is to Rio, Sahoko simply states that she doesn't care. Whether they are friends, lovers or engaged in a sort of mother and daughter relationship, it doesn't matter the least, as long as they remain together. Contrast this to the usual problem in romances of going from friends to lovers or the problems in maintaining the lovers status.
While the relationship between Rio and Sahoko is simple, it's also a very fascinating one due to the characters' traits. Sahoko is revealed to be distant to others, despite putting a cheerful facade in her daily life, and only reveals any sort of authentic negative reaction towards Rio's initially narcissistic behavior. Interestingly, that's what ends up attracting Sahoko to Rio, especially as she sees how Rio must deal with issues similar to those she herself faced some years before. And Rio, an apparently cold, egotistical "bad girl", is clinging at any chance for love and human contact, but is at the same time afraid of commitment, as she does not want to be hurt.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the manga's plot revolves pretty much around Rio, who has a complicated story and situation with her family, but that doesn't diminish Sahoko's role. She doesn't become a clueless girl madly in love who can't see anything else; rather, she finds in Rio the chance to meaningfully relate to another person as her emotional support. Granted, it would be more interesting if Sahoko's past was told in detail, but it's not vital.
So how about the rest of the characters, are they left as background filler? You can't do much in 5 chapters, right? Certainly, they don't have the same level of complexity and are not fleshed out enough so that the reader is empathetic to them, but they feel like real people, not walking stereotypes. For instance, Rio's father seems like the usual spineless father who doesn't care about his daughter, but he comes from a relationship with a manipulative woman and is completely clueless about what to do without someone to guide or order him around. Additionally, it's likely that he associates Rio to his previous wife and failed marriage. He just wants to forget it all and move forward... with another manipulative woman.
The art is simple, rough and with few background details. There are nearly no dramatic effects such as shining eyes and hatching, it's really just lines and curves in their brute form, pretty much like sketches. Such style is very appropriate for the down-to-earth storytelling with few idealizations, presenting the characters exactly how they are, and it works fantastically well in setting the somber atmosphere. While this may seem easy and simplistic, there's a lot of work and artistic vision in cutting off unnecessary details so that only the bare essence is left to be exposed. It achieves a balanced middle term between the exaggerated and the inexpressive.
Pietà is a very solid title, with a mature and straightforward approach to romance, but complex characters who provide fascinating interactions and psychological depth. Ultimately, whether you really enjoy it or not depends on how well you react to its concise storytelling. This approach has strengths and weaknesses, such as greater focus on the individuals at the cost of emotional investment on the relationship itself, so it's up to the reader's preferences. This is not one of those romance stories in which you go "Oh, how romantic!" and makes you cry when all ends well with the couple living happily ever after, but nevertheless it's worth giving it a shot.
(Reviewed for the club "Reviews for the unreviewed")