Blue Flag Vol. 2

Blue Flag Volume 2 by KAITO

This second volume continues to be strong entry in slice of life high school stories, as everybody gears up for an unexpected performance at a school sports day. They’re doing all the typical things teenagers do in spring, hanging out, getting gelato, and discussing everyone’s love life. Apparently Masumi is dealing with a string of short-lived boyfriends, which Toma finds quite startling. Toma gets peer-pressured into being cheer team captain in addition to being anchor on the relay team, and he agrees on the condition that Taichi and Futuba be on the cheer team too as vice-captains. Taichi is characteristically reluctant, but agrees to go along with Toma’s plan. Toma’s charm is key in winning his friends over. Taichi and Futuba diligently practice together while Toma is busy.

Taichi finds out from Futuba that Toma isn’t planning on going to college, and he’s startled because when he and Toma were childhood friends, this was the type of thing that they’d talk about. Friendships shift and develop in new ways, even though Taichi still has feelings for Futuba. There’s a general air of wistfulness throughout this volume as Taichi wonders what’s going to happen as his friends transition away from high school. KAITO’s illustrations set Toma apart from everyone around him, and while this emphasis on his hulking size shows how athletic he is, it also serves as a way of visually distancing him from everyone else. Taichi and Masami also get some one-on-one time, where he shows he’s not very capable at picking up what she’s talking about when she asks him what it is like to experience being attracted to the opposite sex. Taichi’s pondering about Toma’s future also cause him to question his own aimless nature.

It is a pleasure to see this new friend group come together in Blue Flag. While there is certainly drama to be had, it is also somewhat uncomplicated so far which makes it a relaxing read. This volume ends on a big cliffhanger though, so I expect much more drama ahead.

Ao Haru Ride, Vol 11

Ao Haru Ride Volume 11 by Io Sakisaka

Throughout this series, nostalgia and feelings of being haunted by the past have come up in a variety of ways, and this volume shows a bit of movement forward on Kou’s part as he goes to visit various sites from his past. He ditches during a school trip where he used to live and induces Futuba to come along with him “as friends.” She comes along, knowing in the back of her mind that she’s lying to herself.

Together they visit Kou’s old apartment, middle school, and his mother’s grave. Kou seems much more emotionally resilient, coming out of this nostalgic trip with a greater sense of certainty about what he wants to do and who he wants to spend time with (spoiler alert, it is Futuba!). There are also some nice side stories with the larger friend group interspersed as Futuba and Kou wander around with each other. Futuba ends up being stricken with guilt that she was hanging out with Kou without telling Toma what was going on, and ends up going to angsty extremes in dealing with her emotions. Toma’s on the cover of this volume, and he definitely deserves it, as his steadfast approach to romance with a girl who is fairly honest about her wavering feelings makes him a stabilizing presence. While Kou might finally know what he wants, and I’m team Kou all the way, Sakisaka infuses scenes of Futuba and Toma talking to each other with so much joy that I felt myself wavering a bit! There’s always plenty of drama in each volume of Ao Haru Ride, but it never seems to be over-the-top or unearned, because so much of it is drawn from the characters’ internal motivations and the changes to their personalities as they are gradually growing up. This was yet another solid volume in a very good shoujo series.

Yona of the Dawn, Vol 24

Yona of the Dawn Volume 24 by Mizuho Kusanagi

This was yet another excellent volume of Yona of the Dawn, this time featuring high-stakes diplomacy, surprising smooches, feline nicknames, and strategic partying. One of the nice things about long-running series is when characters from the past suddenly pop up, prompting some moments of reflection about just how far everyone has come as the story has progressed. In this volume, in response to Yona’s political overtures Su-Won sends Min-Su, the young man who allowed Yona and Hak to escape from the castle right after Su-Won murdered King Il. Min-Su brings a letter that states that Su-Won will not delay going to war and Yona quickly develops an alternate strategy that involves delaying the involvement of the Wind Tribe and spreading rumors in an attempt to get Su-Won to divide his forces. She uses her treasured hairpin to bribe Su-Won’s old informer and sends Hak off to meet with the Wind Tribe.

While the stakes of averting war makes this volume fairly serious, the Wind Tribe can always be relied on for some humor, in particular the way all the young people glom on to Hak. This has a physical manifestation as his people literally drape themselves over him because they are so delighted that he’s returned. Hak tells them to get along with the people of Xing, and in true Wind Tribe fashion they decide to start throwing a party along the battle lines. Min-Su tags along as Yona goes to visit Kang Tae-June for another favor, and he reflects on Yona’s influence. Min-Su reflects that Yona’s attitude of doing her best to help others ends up being so influential to those around her that it inspires everyone to want to act like her, which is “…a terrifying ability.” Yona’s captured friends have to fend off Mizari who is both evil and insane, and his behavior begins to reflect badly on Xing in general, further destabilizing the region. Kusanagi continues to pack so much story and character development into each volume of Yona of the Dawn, I feel like she manages to accomplish in one volume what would take other authors a minimum of two to three volumes to accomplish. Yet another thoroughly satisfying volume and I’m already impatiently waiting to see if Yona actually does manage to avert war in volume 25.

Blue Flag, Vol 1

Blue Flag Volume 1 by KAITO

It is fair to say that I read plenty of manga, but now and then I read a series that is just so well executed that it feels incredibly refreshing. I knew Blue Flag had plenty of fans, and I was excited to read it when I heard that it was licensed, but my high expectations were surpassed by the first volume.

The volume opens with some character introductions that remind most readers of standard characters, but the insightful look into Taichi’s inner thoughts as he starts a new school year plays against readers expecting something more stereotypical. Taichi has a small friend group, who all look like they came out of a shonen playbook of nerd 101. He’s fairly content with remaining under the radar at school, but something quickly breaks him out of his usual routine. Taichi’s elementary school friend Toma is going to be in Taichi’s class for the first time in several years. Taichi and Toma are opposites in many ways. Taichi is short and has hair that seems to defy any grooming attempt. Toma is tall, athletic, and extremely popular, but his effortless way of making friends is the result of him being genuinely nice rather than anything overly calculated. Taichi’s friends consider Toma to be a different species than them, and are mystified that Toma keeps popping up to keep randomly talk to Taichi even though Taichi claims that they aren’t close anymore.

Taichi seems to have a special kind of antipathy to Futuba Kuze, a girl in his class who is painfully shy and clumsy. He starts to realize that he’s reminded of his own failings when he looks at her, because she’s similar to him. After an incredibly awkward chance encounter in the library, Futuba asks Taichi for advice because she has a crush on Toma. He thinks that any help he would provide would be useless, but she’s incredibly determined, following up with any random reference that Taichi tosses out. Eventually Taichi agrees to serve as Futuba’s spectacularly uninformed tutor in the ways of teen romance. Taichi is brutally realistic with Futuba about her chances of attracting Toma, but she’s not fazed by the idea that she isn’t his type. Eventually Taichi and Futuba strike up an odd friendship as he keeps trying to draw her in to his usual interactions with Toma. Blue Flag is invested with a ton of emotional resonance as the characters investigate childhood games, deal with homework, and share memories. Futuba explains to Taichi that one of the reasons she’s been nursing a crush towards Toma is that when he accidentally knocked down her plant in the school garden with a stray baseball, he returned every day until it was healthy again.

Towards the end of the volume, the reader gets a sense of what is actually happening in Toma’s head and the realization that the love story that’s unfolding is going to be much more complex and surprising than one would think. Blue Flag rewards the re-reader, who will be able to go back and detect hints in the body language and attitudes of the characters. This is by far one of the most promising shonen series I’ve read in a long time, and the focus on the emotional complexity of teenage live reminded me a bit of Cross Game. I highly recommend Blue Flag, and I’m impatiently waiting for the next volume.

Love Me, Love Me Not, Vol. 2

Love Me, Love Me Not, Volume 2 by Io Sakisaka

At two volumes in, I’m not feeling quite as connected to the characters in Love Me, Love Me Not as compared to Strobe Edge, but Sakisaka is still doing a great job setting up a complicated and thoughtful teen romance drama. Yuna is still processing her feelings about the complex relationship between step-siblings Akari and Rio as she also deals with her own attraction to Rio. Yuna’s hesitation and introspection is prompted by the fact that she’s never experienced love outside of books. Rio also seems more attuned to Yuna than he is for girls who he has a more superficial relationship. He notices her being less shy around him, and figures out a way to set up their study group so she doesn’t feel hesitation about asking him questions. All along, Rio has encouraged Yuna to pursue a relationship with the boy she has a crush on, not knowing that she’s talking about him. Yuna’s love confession is unconventional, as she tells Rio about her feelings and says “Now, reject me.”

Rio reacts with a lot more compassion than he usually does with the girls who are attracted to him only for his looks, and Yuna deals with the aftermath. Both Akari and Kazu are impressed with Yuna’s emotional growth and general levelheadedness. While it is fairly easy for the reader to understand Rio, Akari, and Yuna, Kazu remains a perpetually cool enigma. Akari is fascinated by him, but he’s still a bit of a blank slate, defined only by his occasional blunt and insightful statements. I’m hoping that in the next few volumes his character becomes as well defined as the other series leads. This was a strong second volume, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the series develops. Sakisaka is great at capturing all the subtleties of emotion in her drawings, and even though much of this manga is people simply talking to each other in a variety of settings, her paneling and the emotional stakes involve keeps everything dynamic.