Ao no Flag is a monthly manga by KAITO serialized in Jump+ and simulpublished in English on Mangaplus, a high school slice of life romance comic that goes above and beyond the boundaries that classification may imply. Blue Flag’s premise is simple: two boys, popular baseball star Touma and average nobody Taichi, are best friends. Their shy classmate Futaba has a crush on Touma, and enlists Taichi’s help in getting Touma to notice her. The problem: Taichi is starting to fall for Futaba as he’s helping her, while Touma has been secretly in love with Taichi for years. On top of that, Futaba’s female best friend Masumi is also secretly in love with Futaba. Messy feelings ensue! In a story that is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking.
VIZ Media LLC
April 21, 2020
This relationship quadrangle evolves and develops with depth and delicacy on the part of KAITO, the author. All four friends genuinely care for and admire each other, and it is truly painful knowing that no matter what ends up happening someone will end up hurt. Taichi and Touma were best friends in elementary school, but drifted apart as they grew older and found themselves at opposite ends of the social totem pole. Futaba is sweet but timid, and her insecurities keep her from pursuing what she truly wants until she’s pushed into it by her friends. Masumi seems cool and mysterious from the outside, but in reality she’s closed off and afraid to trust others.
Masumi and Touma are both complex, multifaceted gay characters. Their attraction to the same gender is neither glossed over nor their defining personality traits, but instead a part of who they are. The way their friends and family react to that information, whether supportive or not, are realistically varied. In a recent chapter, Touma is outed, and it’s as messy and complicated and heart-wrenching as it is in real life. The way everyone has an opinion on how Taichi should respond to Touma’s confession without asking either of the people involved for their input feels painful, uncomfortable, and true.
Even apparently incidental side characters outside the main four are given depth and development in Blue Flag. The story arc that really got my attention revolved around Mami, the pretty girl who always seems to be flirting with Touma and Taichi despite their disinterest. When a classmate tells Mami to stop talking to Taichi because he’s taken, Mami flips out, angrily explaining that because of her looks, guys always assume she wants to date them while girls assume she’s stealing their boyfriends, and everyone assumes she’s promiscuous because she likes to be friends with boys. Girls feel threatened and intimidated around her, so she avoids them, but her male friends end up falling for her, and she doesn’t like that either. Mami ends up befriending Masumi and Futaba through this, and over the course of the story she discovers how differently all three of them are perceived because of their attitudes and appearance. Finally being open with her feelings also strengthens Mami’s other friendships.
KAITO goes deep into what it means to be in love and what it means to be a good friend to someone, and whether a romantic relationship should be valued over a friendship. The series opens with Taichi, the viewpoint character, pondering whether one should prioritize a girlfriend over their friendships, and the rest of the series continues to return to this question with a focus and intent rarely found in longrunning serialized stories.
As a coming of age manga, the romantic developments are in the foreground, but the characters are also worried about college entrance exams and planning for their future, particularly when an accident forces some of them to reevaluate their priorities and goals for life after high school. That kind of uncertainty and anxiety, compounded with how romantic love can seem like the most important thing in high school, feels realistic and believable. The world they inhabit feels larger than the main cast.
Reading this comic I was strongly reminded of both Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me and Our Dreams At Dusk. Blue Flag is published in monthly chapters of thirty to forty pages, longer than most weekly manga installments, and this allows for very decompressed, emotionally evocative storytelling. Small gestures and shifts of expression slow down time and create poignant beats of silence. The characters are drawn beautifully and expressively, shifting into a cute cartoony style for moments of comedy, and the artist really makes good use of the visual medium that is comics by using a variety of panel layouts, angles and environments to enhance the emotions of a scene. The intensely emotional and dramatic imagery is balanced out by funny jokes and small visual gags that add levity to a heavy story without being too distracting.
This decompressed style of pacing doesn’t always land perfectly. The characters frequently have long, intensely emotional and philosophical conversations that can feel stilted or forced, and the slow moment-to-moment transitions sometimes make scenes feel dragged out, however.
Overall, Blue Flag is a poignant, emotionally resonant manga that deserves a larger audience. It can be read digitally in English on Mangaplus now, and the first print volume in English will be released in April 2020.