Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Taichi is used to thinking of himself as being at the bottom of the social barrel; he hasn't had any sort of popularity since elementary school. That's also when he met Toma, who has retained his popularity into their third year of high school and still for some reason insists on being Taichi's friend. When Toma, Taichi, and a quiet girl named Futaba all end up in the same class, Taichi finds himself helping Futaba with her crush on Toma. But as the two grow closer, it turns out that here's more to Toma's friendship with Taichi than he could ever have imagined, and the three of them, along with Futaba's friend Masumi, find that figuring out life is much more difficult than they realized.
Blue Flag's first volume does something both unfortunate and surprising: it reveals the big twist right on the back copy. While it doesn't come right out and say it, canny readers can very easily put the pieces together even before cracking the cover, which feels at least a little bit like bad form, since the twist itself doesn't come until the last pages of the book. On the other hand, this is also potentially a major draw for readers; if nothing else it's worth noting that it's there, guiding your reading of the volume. By the time we hit volume four, the twist is almost ancillary to the characters' emotional journeys, because it becomes much less of a matter of who you love as one of what “love” actually entails and whether or not it's the same for everyone.
That Toma is in love with Taichi is very plainly in the subtext of book one all the way through. Taichi, our somewhat hapless protagonist, has consistently lived at the bottom of the social hierarchy at his schools from junior high onwards. Now in his third and final year of high school, he's established a comfortable enough niche for himself – he's got a small group of equally misfit friends and if he's not one of the popular set, he's also not picked on; basically people just leave him alone. The exception is Toma, a boy he's known since elementary school. They've long had what Taichi feels is an uneasy friendship, mostly because Toma's popular and athletic and he can't figure out why a guy like that would want to hang out with him. This is easily one of the best parts of the book, not because it adds LGBTQ+ content, but because it is carefully and thoughtfully done. We see it on Toma's face every time he looks at Taichi and in his body language when he's watching Taichi interact with Futaba or if Taichi makes the first move to initiate a conversation. When the two go to a movie, it's clear that Toma has spent time on his appearance – Taichi looks fine, but like he's just hanging out with a guy friend, while brand labels can clearly be seen on Toma's much more polished outfit. Perhaps most telling is a flashback to sixth grade, when Taichi asks Toma what his type is. Toma gives an answer that sounds almost too stereotypical (tall, athletic, big boobs) with the one thing he's strangely insistent on being black hair, and the look on his face when he says that to Taichi (who of course has black hair) is very telling. Toma's silence on the subject is also worth noting, because it speaks to his fear of losing the ability to be around Taichi should his true feelings be known, and he does a very credible job of treating him just like a regular friend – even if the social strictures of high school make it very clear that it's unusual for them to mingle.
Futaba is, in some ways, the catalyst for much of the symbolic under-plot. She's the class' shyest member, the sort of girl who apologizes to the guy who knocked over her lunch and accepts it when he blames her for “eating too slow” and eating her lunch where he could bump into it. Taichi, who recognizes something of himself in her social awkwardness, finds himself talking to her before he knows quite how it happened. Futaba is the only girl Taichi seems to have ever felt really comfortable with, and the same goes for her with him. On some level, Taichi is horrified that Futaba's actually seriously listening to him (such as when she cuts her hair in book one), but that swiftly turns to a real desire to help her get out of her own way, whether that's in part a chance for him to live vicariously through her or not, something he seems to be attempting to figure out.
“Figuring out” is in many ways the actual theme of the series at this point. By the time we hit volumes three and four (where the story undergoes a slight tonal change) Toma is less of the jolly fellow we've mostly been involved with in the first two books. In part this is due to his actions at the end of the second book, where he acts without thinking to stop Taichi from being hit by a car. (Taichi ended up in the car's path because he was trying to work through the trauma of not saving a cat when he was little by saving a kitten now. Likewise, Toma's saving him is in part driven by him losing his parents in a car accident when he was younger.) This act forces his feelings to the foreground, making him really think about how he feels for Taichi and whether or not that's “normal”. From interactions with his peers and Masumi (who is trying to “normalize” her own homosexuality by dating boys in hopes of falling for one of them – one of the saddest segments of the series), he believes that being in love with another boy means that he's abnormal, and his conversation about that is heart-wrenching. From being raised by his older brother and sister-in-law to his love for Taichi, Toma sees himself as somehow less than, and to a degree that means that his easygoing persona is just that – a persona he puts on when he might not be feeling it. On a different end of the scale, Futaba is struggling to decide which boy she has a crush on, Taichi or Toma, without considering the possibility that she can have male friends without wanting to date them. She may have a crush on one or both, but without realizing it, outside pressures are making her think that she must be “in love” with one of them, when her actions within the story suggests that she's simply not at that point emotionally yet. For Masumi and Toma, seeing Futaba and Taichi find heteronormative love functions as permission for them to move on. They have no idea that this might not be in Futaba or Taichi's best interests or that they could be being selfish.
While the story progresses relatively slowly (in a way that is still very interesting to read; none of the volumes drag despite the pacing), things really come to a head in the final chapter of each book. In volume one, that's when Futaba and Taichi hatch a plan to get Toma to go to the movies with them, at which point Taichi will casually excuse himself to leave them alone. Not only is this the place where it is most evident that Toma likes Taichi, but it also brings in a character we previously saw in only one major scene in the first chapter, Futaba's friend Masumi. To say that Masumi is abrasive may be to understate; what's important is that she's deliberately so. When Futaba (unexpectedly) brings Masumi with her to the movies, the other girl turns on Taichi viciously, berating him for helping Futaba with a variety of thin excuses. She's cruel and frankly scary when she does so, upsetting Taichi to the point where he simply leaves, essentially running away from the situation. Volume two ends with the traffic accident, three with Toma having an explosive fight about his future with his brother, and four with Futaba struggling to convey her feelings to Taichi. That last is the most painful to read, not just because Futaba seems to be a little more annoying as the series goes on (her character growth feels a little stagnant comparatively), but also because there's a real risk at this moment of the characters doing something because they think they should without truly considering the consequences. It's very real and very difficult, because we readers have the advantage of knowing far more about what's going on than any of the players, and we can't jump into the book to let them know.
This is setting up for a good story in the volumes ahead. While there's no guarantee that sensitive topics will be handled respectfully, these books are a good start of what could be an excellent bittersweet romance. Bolstered by Kaito's clean, expressive art, which does good things with perspective in terms of how characters are drawn (Taichi is much more detailed when seen through Toma's eyes, for example), Blue Flag looks like a good series to pick up if you're looking for something a little off the beaten path of male-oriented romance.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Expressive faces and body language, story uses subtlety well and the characters are all understandable.
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