We’ve come to accept the idea of a love triangle in pop culture as something more of just an “angle” instead of an actual three-sided shape. There’s a vertex where the typically female main character sits, torn between two potential love interests. Ao no Flag takes this overused plot device and transforms it in a way that’s altogether unusual for Japanese manga, especially one marketed as a shonen. This high school romance is messy and complicated and has our main character falling in love with a girl he is trying to set up with his childhood friend, unaware all the while that his friend has actually been in love with him for years. Ao no Flag neither tiptoes around nor fetishizes same-sex relationships in the many ways an unfortunate number of less tactful stories have done. And I genuinely applaud the author and artist Kaito for that.
Japanese Name: 青のフラッグ
Genre: Shonen, Slice-of-Life, Romance, Coming-of-Age
Current Number of Chapters: 43 chapters
Recommended For: Anyone looking for a story that explores sexuality and gender roles thoughtfully, in a school setting
NOT Recommended For: Someone looking for a plot-heavy, action-packed storyline or a very classically shonen manga
Taichi Ichinose is an average high school student who often fades to the background next to his other classmates, especially his childhood friend Touma Mita. Touma, popular without being arrogant and captain of the school’s baseball team, is beloved by his classmates and has received more than a few love confessions throughout high school. One day, Taichi is approached by his soft-spoken and painfully shy classmate Futuba Kuze — one of Touma’s many admirers. Reluctantly, Taichi agrees to help Futuba approach Touma. However, as the three classmates grow closer, Taichi realizes his feelings for Futuba may not be that of just a friend, and Futuba’s own fondness for Touma may be something other than a crush entirely. The seemingly carefree and outgoing Touma, meanwhile, is hiding a much bigger secret in a world that does not want to accept him. In their final year of high school, at the crossroads of their future as adults, this trio of classmates will be forced to confront their identity as young men and women.
Given that Ao no Flag is still an ongoing manga, this isn’t going to be a comprehensive review of the story in its entirety as most of my reviews are. But I feel like I don’t see enough people talking about this manga; I mean, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page in English. And that lack of conversation heightens my urge to talk about it because, at first glance, it looks like a very cut-and-dry high school drama. I can see why someone might read the summary and go “Eh,” and move along with their day. But that does Kaito’s writing, and art, a huge disservice. Moreover, it does the potential reader a disservice because they’re missing out on something truly special.
I’m not typically drawn to slice-of-life (or coming-of-age) stories without some semblance of magical realism thrown into the mix. Which is why I’m surprised how immediately I became invested in Ao no Flag and its charming cast of characters. But it’s the way Kaito addresses concepts like sexuality and gender issues that makes this story so compelling — and so important.
I love that Touma’s attraction to men wasn’t played as this subtle side-plot dangling on the edge of the manga. Kaito puts it right out in the open, right away, along with Futuba’s friend Masumi’s attraction to women and her best friend. And while initially, only the audience is aware of these facts, it’s very clear how sexuality and Japanese society’s outlook on same-sex relationships is at the core of the conflict in the story. Similarly, Ao no Flag doesn’t tiptoe around the antiquated expectations placed on women and uses strong, outspoken female characters to raise questions about why men and women are often treated differently.
But while the manga is very clear in the presentation of its themes, the direction of where any of the relationships in the story are heading is a lot more hazy. There are some scenes between Touma and Taichi that come across as distinctly romantically coded (i.e. the crammed together on the metro scene, or their haunted house walkthrough). But then Taichi will progress further in his relationship with Futuba and I find myself questioning the author’s use of potential foreshadowing entirely. I can see this story ending a hundred different ways, with too many of them being unhappy or bittersweet. Kaito choosing to include a very classically masculine, canonically gay main character is already a big step for a shonen manga so I’d be very surprised — pleased, but surprised — if Kaito took that extra step to make Taichi reciprocate Touma’s feelings.
And as much as I want that to happen, a part of me then has to ask: “But what about Futuba?” It’s an impossible task, trying to pick a side to root for. And really, that’s not the point of it all. Ao no Flag is not about the ships, it’s about the characters. The manga is currently at a major turning point, the kind that makes waiting for each chapter acutely painful and each update even more heartbreaking. I honestly don’t know what our endgame will be. And I’m not even sure what I want the endgame to be — other than Touma’s everlasting happiness. Kaito makes it so easy to fall in love with all these characters and consequently root for them, even when one character’s happiness will inevitably hurt one of their friends. Such is the nature of the complicated dynamic of dating and pining that sends this friend circle spinning. But let’s talk a little more about that.
Ao no Flag really is a character-driven story. It’s the growing cast of characters that made me so invested in this manga and the fascinating way they interact with each other — moving together like magnets and then ricocheting apart. And even though Taichi is our main character, I feel that more things happen to him than he really makes happen himself. That’s why the supporting cast of Ao no Flag is so important, as they truly make the story move.
Taichi gets some heat for being a “dumb straight goblin” among fans of the manga, and while I can’t say he’s my favorite character, I find him endearing nonetheless. The dumb part may be somewhat true, given how often he misinterprets the intentions of those around him, like assuming for years Touma was in love with his brother’s wife. Taichi lacks a lot of self-awareness, as evidenced by him telling Touma he’s lucky for not needing to worry about his own future and never having to struggle. Which is so untrue I could smack myself and him in the forehead, but there’s hope for Taichi yet. As for the “straight” part of the nickname – that’s somewhat uncertain. I feel like Taichi’s feelings for Touma have toed an ambiguous line, but it’s not something he seems to be consciously aware of. As recent chapters have shown, however, Taichi clearly has some issues to sort through with regards to same-sex relationships and I hope his ultimate development leaves him with a much more open mind than he started with — regardless of his preferences. I really just want him to accept and welcome the fact that Touma is gay. Not for the ship, but because I want Taichi to be a decent person in the end.
Touma is a fascinating character, mostly in the way he presents himself as a cheerful, unapologetic open book to his friends despite being anything but that. His romantic feelings for Taichi aside, one of the biggest unknowns in the manga is Touma’s decision to not attend university, despite his long-standing dream of becoming a professional baseball player. We as the audience don’t even know Touma’s thought process behind this, though it’s not hard to guess it may be linked to him coming to terms with his sexuality and his search for personal freedom.
Touma isn’t without his own flaws, however, as I think the most recent chapter shows. But there’s nothing less interesting to me than a perfect character. Touma’s most debilitating characteristic is his tendency to lash out when he feels that he has been deeply wronged, which is a rare occurrence. I think there’s a certain sense of buried anger there waiting to come to surface, and it’s concerning as it is understandable. It’s also the complete opposite of Taichi, who withdraws into himself and seems to be stuck in a stage of denial and pointed ignorance when faced with a major change in his life. They are both somewhat childish reactions, and yet a very realistic reminder that these are in fact children. High schoolers, really. But for many, high school is a notable stage of emotional turmoil and uncertainty, and the beginning of realizing the responsibilities of an adult.
Futuba, who makes the next vertex of this messy and heart-wrenching triangle is the least interesting protagonist of the bunch. That’s not to say I don’t like her, because she’s honestly an angel. But she just doesn’t have as much emotional conflict surrounding her character. I do think her story of being the quiet, unassuming, often ignored classmate is something that is good to showcase in this type of slice-of-life story. Because it paints Futuba’s transformation into a more confident young woman with ambitions and voice in such a positive light. We need to see stories like Futuba’s, and the reassurance that as scary as change is, it is also rewarding.
It’s not a change that’s easy for her to face, but when she does it truly leaves an impact. There is this absolutely heart-wrenching scene where Futuba comes to terms with the fact that she doesn’t actually like Touma in a romantic sense, but instead wants to be like him — to mimic his compassion and strength. When she tells him as much, Touma returns the compliment, telling her that there are moments he wants to be like her even though he never can. While Futuba doesn’t make the connection, we as the audience are aware that Touma knows Taichi likes Futuba and is longing to be in her position. And that just really hurts to watch play out.
I also adore Masumi — both as a character and just a person in general. I think the depiction of lesbians in manga can sometimes come across as very heavy with the male gaze. But Masumi isn’t overly sexualized, and I consider her one of the characters that raises the most thought-provoking questions in the entire manga. She’s worldly beyond her years, perhaps necessitated by her living in a world that is so reluctant to accept her truest self. I appreciate that she’s flawed too, in that she is sometimes too cynical of others and ends up misjudging them and their intentions. She forces herself into unhappy relationships with men, knowing she will never be physically attracted to them, only to break up with them shortly after. But she is sincere in her defense of her friends, especially regarding Futuba, and seems to reluctantly open her friend circle to include Taichi and Touma as the four students grow closer.
I find Masumi’s interactions with the other characters to be so fascinating because she can be both apologetically honest and withhold her most private thoughts. She has her walls up around her high, with Futuba being her closest friend and still entirely unaware of her feelings. In fact, Touma seems to be the first person she really opens up to, followed by Touma’s sister-in-law. Touma and Masumi have some of the most poignant, quiet conversations in the entire manga, given their mutual connection over both of them hiding their sexuality. When Masumi asks, “Why do I have to be afraid of people seeing me for who I am?” it’s clear that she feels trapped by the world around her, something Touma can unfortunately understand. So I love Touma and Masumi’s solidarity, even if it comes from such a sad place of mutual hardship. But every one of their interactions was just so meaningful and prompted some of the best conversations in the entire manga. Barring those that include Mami.
Mami is the queen of character development. She’s introduced as a clingy, superficial side character that is infatuated with Touma. So, basically the very one-note mean girl stereotype seemingly in place just to act as a rival for Futuba to win Touma’s affections. By Chapter 30, she’s an outright feminist icon.
After Mami suddenly changes her attitude and becomes very friendly with Taichi when he begins dating Futuba, her classmates are immediately suspicious of her intentions. Futuba’s friends especially believe she is trying to break up Futuba and Taichi by creating a wedge of jealousy between them to ruin their relationship. When this ultimately forces Taichi to confront Mami and ask her to stop hanging around him so much, she smacks him with the cold hard truth that the only reason her suddenly being friends with him is an issue is because he’s a boy and she’s a girl. Had they both been the same gender, their friendship would never have been interpreted as problematic by those around them. This is something Mami had to face growing up, as the attention she drew for her good looks often made her a target for girls who thought she was trying to steal their boyfriends, and boys who only wanted to date her. Mami resolutely rejects the horribly antiquated idea that “A man and a woman can never be just friends.” More power to her.
There’s also this fantastic scene where she points out the double standard of when a woman says that she wishes she was born as a man, it’s often construed as wanting to be free of some of the hardships and prejudice women face. But if a man were to say he wished he was born as a woman, people immediately question, “Is it because you want to date men?” Her resolute demand for gender equality isn’t limited to women’s rights, however, and she also casually drops lines like “Makeup isn’t just for girls.” Honestly, I just love her.
Also, Kengo deserves a special mention for being a genuinely great human being and an interesting character to boot. As Masumi’s oldest friend, he is one of the only men in her life that has never tried to breach the platonic boundary of their friendship or pull away from her out of fear of their relationship being construed as a romantic one. Kengo is laidback but deceptively keen-eyed and seems to observe his classmates in a clinical way that makes it hard to tell what he’s really thinking. He also shuts down Kensuke’s whiny temper tantrums about Mami not wanting to date him. We all need a Kengo in our lives.
Kaito’s art is beautiful — neither too elaborate nor too simplistic for the scope of the story. Certain panels were so detailed they were striking, and actually had me pausing as I was reading through each chapter to just soak in the artwork. Sometimes we get full-page panels like this:
And other times characters have been reduced to laughably simple caricatures of themselves. And it really works. In any case, it breaks up some of the heavier tones of the story.
Characters actually look distinctive as well. It’s not a simple copy-paste of a different face on the same body type or a different hairstyle on the same face. There’s an odd combination of more realistic depictions of characters like the main friend group consisting of Touma and Futuba and a more surrealist, clearly cartoonish style that Taichi’s friends Omega and Yorkie are drawn in.
I’ll admit, it was a little off-putting to me at first. But I think now that I’ve gotten used to the somewhat grotesque group of characters, this dynamic actually really works in creating a varied cast. It’s something Ao no Flag does exceptionally as a work in general that simple way it confounds the mundane and unassuming and presents it in such an interesting light.
"Ao no Flag" is a manga I want to recommend to everyone — regardless of your preference for slice-of-life coming of age stories. It takes the uncertainty of those last few years of high school on the cusp of adulthood and transforms it into something thoughtful and heartwarming. And that's something really special.