Disclaimer: This contains spoilers, so read at your own risk! Also, although Basara in general isn’t especially triggering, Ageha’s backstory, “Loquat” in volume 25, has instances of rape and child abuse.
Ah, Basara, my love, my most favored manga. You are lovely and perfect. And yet, I wish you had better queer representation.
What Basara does well, it does very well. It’s very good at making the story about characters and motivation, not about good or evil. It has a huge cast that nonetheless make you care about all of them. And it offers a nuanced look at gender and their roles in society. But it does that perspective from a binary, cisgender view. All the canon pairings (well, as canon as some of them get) are straight, with the possible exception of being able to read Muratake’s incredible loyalty to Asagi as motivated by love. Its gender commentary aside, it’s about as cisheteronomative as you get. Until you get to Ageha, anyway.
Ageha first drifts into the story like the swallowtail butterfly he is named for, just in time to save a young Sarasa from her eventual nemesis, the Red King. The cost of this is his left eye to the Red King’s blade. Undaunted, he bids Sarasa a farewell and drifts away into the night. The next time they meet, it’s under Tatara’s name, as Sarasa both struggles to keep her village safe, her identity secret, and plan revenge on the Red King. Their paths continue to intersect throughout the story, sometimes briefly, sometimes desperately. He acts as a voice of rationality, a source of information, and sometimes as a sword. He’s also undeniably bisexual and biromantic.
In the first arc of the story, as well as his prequel side story, Ageha is established as having both attraction and romantic feelings toward Shido. Shido is also depicted of being fond of Ageha, if not necessarily romantically inclined. The problem lies not with the fact that they are both men, but that Shido is the Red King’s right hand man. Shido, as Ageha is very aware, doesn’t see him as an equal, but as a subordinate. Shido is a former slave owner, and Ageha is a former slave. Although it’s a commentary in the story about Ageha’s basic worth as a person, it reminds me of the unhealthy yaoi fetish of making one man the “woman” and trying to make a queer couple conform to straight norms. Ageha’s ultimate rejection of Shido isn’t just him standing up for his humanity, but a statement from the narrative that his own gender and sexual identity as a man, who also loves men, is valid, allowing the rejection of the heterosexual standard.
It’s also interesting to note that Ageha does cross-dress as part of the stage work he does as a dancer, but he never expresses any particular fondness of it, nor does it vary his gender identity. To me, this is further affirming the creator’s intentions to show him standing up for himself. He’s confident enough in his status as a man to cross-dress without care.
Ageha’s romantic and sexual relationship with a woman is substantially different. Set when Ageha is younger and emotionally closed off, he first meets Aello when his traveling show intersects with hers, and they discover they’re from the same nomadic tribe. Unlike his relationship with Shido, which is split by their differences, his common ground with Aello allows him to form an emotional bond with her that eventually empowers him to have a sexual bond. However, there’s nothing in the narrative that suggests his relationship with her is more “right” because she is a woman. If anything, the fact that she is a woman relates more to Ageha’s destiny of meeting a woman worth dying for, a destiny that is presented without any romantic implications, and in fact, is first brought up when Ageha is lightly flirting with another man. Ultimately, they go their separate ways, not as a breakup or with any hard feelings, but as two people of the wind who were blown together and now are being blown apart. Aello’s story ends with her death, but had she lived, I imagine she and Ageha would have continued to meet on the wind, love, and then separate, but with feelings no less genuine than if they had never parted.
Although Ageha’s backstory shows two other women alongside Aello—Senju and Sarasa—as women worth dying for, his relationship with both of them is substantially less clear. We never get to see inside his head for his interactions with them, unlike his narration toward Shido and Aello. Although Ageha shelters each of them—rescuing Senju from hostile soldiers and acting as a guard and teammate many times toward Sarasa—he’s also not gentle with them, pushing and protecting in turn. Ageha forces Senju to confront her husband’s killer and make some hard decisions about how she wants to raise her child: for revenge, or with love. Sarasa, with the weight of her people, a rebellion, and history on her small shoulders, is taught by Ageha in a manner akin to a bird pushing its babies out of the nest. With Senju, I think Ageha considers the wife and child of the man he loved as family rather than in a romantic sense. But with Sarasa, his relationship could be read a number of ways: as a student, as a savior, or perhaps even as romantic.
A second man has a relationship with Ageha that is equally unclear: Asagi. Asagi compliments Ageha on his appearance, exchanging banter. But more notably, Asagi has a level of vulnerability and candor with Ageha that he never displays around any other character, not even Sarasa who he does eventually have romantic feelings toward in her masculine persona. Ageha reacts toward Asagi like he does Sarasa. He’s supportive, but not gentle. Whether it’s a romance or just a bromance, I think this, too, could be read multiple ways.
Equally important to portraying Ageha with romantic and sexual interest with both men and women is the fact that he isn’t vilified for it. Ageha’s defiance of gender and sexuality norms is never scorned, but accepted by the characters he’s closest with. Indeed, all the characters treat Ageha with respect and as an important person. One of his friends even states that he thinks Ageha is going to be the linchpin on which history rests.
Ageha is not a villain. Neither is he a tragic queer man too good for this world. Ageha’s character arc toward the end of the story skews toward antihero status, as he works to clean the streets of Kyoto with the cold blood of the king’s allies. His story does not have a happy ending. He does indeed die, but it’s not for the woman worth dying for. Ageha’s motivation is never a woman, nor a man. It’s the goal of an ideal country, the change in history that he spends his entire life fighting for. Even as his actions save Sarasa and several others, he’s unaware of the actual outcome, focused wholeheartedly on the target in front of him, that he thinks will change the world.
Basara is a series that often says a lot with a little, relying on subtext to say what the characters don’t. Others might read Ageha’s life and death as the destined fate of a bisexual man in a cishet world. As someone who identifies as bisexual, reading this series before realizing bisexual was even a thing, Ageha struck a note with me. He is someone who is both hero and imperfect, who unabashedly loves both men and women, who has unrelenting pride in himself. Even though his death is gut-wrenching, I feel like avoiding it would have been both a disservice to the story, and to him. Ageha met the story on the wind, loved, and then separated from it.