Content Warning: Queerphobia, transphobia, forced outing
Spoilers for all of Our Dreams at Dusk and Blue Flag
In recent years, manga with good LGBT+ representation have been on the rise and challenging problematic aspects previously depicted in BL and yuri manga. Our Dreams at Dusk and Blue Flag are two such series, but it’s clear that each is aimed at a different target audience. Our Dreams at Dusk was created by an openly aro-ace and x-gender creator and ran in Hibana, the successor to a magazine known predominantly for running “alternative” series.
Blue Flag ran in Shonen Jump+, an online manga magazine created by Shueisha that features titles geared toward female and adult audiences as well as its typical young, male audience. Our Dreams at Dusk features predominately LGBT+ characters across the spectrum and Blue Flag is a rare series featuring positive depictions of queer characters in Shonen Jump. Blue Flag’s earnest efforts to be a conversation starter about LGBTQ+ issues fails with its superficial treatment of the issues it tries to address, especially in comparison to Our Dreams at Dusk, which focuses more on the importance of community to LGBTQ+ people.
Our Dreams at Dusk: By and For Us
Our Dreams at Dusk begins with Tasuku, a young gay man contemplating suicide after being forcibly outed at school. While he is wandering around and dealing with his negative thoughts, he meets Someone-san, a mysterious asexual and genderqueer person who runs a drop-in center for LGBT+ people. After meeting the rest of the members, he’s comforted by the fact that there are other people who have similar experiences to him.
Tasuku starts volunteering for their Housing Revitalization program and gradually feels like he has found a community that understands him. Even though Tasuku has a crush on a boy at school, it’s not the focus of the story. Instead, the manga emphasizes Tasuku’s journey to confront his trauma and the harmful messages he’d internalized over the years. It isn’t about getting a “happy ending,” but accepting that he is entitled to one, just like anyone else.
Our Dreams at Dusk does a good job exploring multiple identities across the LGBTQ+ spectrum and depicting queer folks in different stages of their lives. For example, gay elders like Tchaiko and his partner are from an older generation who had to be discreet about their love, because they faced more danger from being openly together. Young adults like Haruko and Saki can be more open to an extent, and even have options like the partnership certificates that some cities offer, but still face painful microaggressions every day. The older members of the Center give Tasuku much-needed guidance, and through their support he is able to come to terms with his own sexuality. He learns to overcome his own ignorance about issues faced by the Center’s trans members.
The manga also makes an effort to explore LGBTQ+ folks who are questioning their identity. While more BL manga have begun to include characters questioning their sexuality and dealing with social prejudice, the genre historically either didn’t address the subject or maintained that the protagonist was straight but “gay for [love interest],” handwaving the difficulties of coming out in favor of maintaining a fantasy for its audience.
In reality, coming out even to oneself is often one of the most difficult processes to go through, since it can be hard to understand your own sexuality and gender identity when the world is constantly trying to decide for you. In Our Dreams at Dusk, Misora is the primary example of how LGBT+ people question themselves when they are still unsure of who they are or how they want to identify. When Tasuku befriends Misora, he initially assumes Misora is a cis gay boy exploring their gender expression.
Misora, like many young questioning trans people, is afraid of the changes puberty will bring onto their body. Puberty can often bring a broader understanding of one’s gender identity and while Misora is afraid of the changes, they don’t know for certain if those changes are something they would hate. Growing up in a house full of cisgender women made it hard for Misora to talk to anyone about these changes until they met Tasuku. Though they are part of the same community they manage to hurt each other, with Tasuku thoughtlessly defining Misora’s gender for them and Misora throwing a slur at Tasuku in hurt retaliation. It emphasizes that coming out does not automatically grant understanding. Misora and Tasuku eventually become good friends and end up supporting each other in both of their coming out journeys.
Tasuku’s crush, Touma Tsubaki, is questioning his own identity, but must unpack his internalized homophobia first. When he is with his classmates, he mirrors their homophobia and he openly admits he is nervous being around other LGBTQ+ people in addition to other bigoted comments. Tasuku, naturally, cannot stand this, and it’s by confronting Tsubaki that they’re both able to grow.
Despite these internal conflicts, the members of the Center still band together to protect one another. When Tsubaki’s dad outs one of the Center’s members to her own father, taking away her right to come out when she felt ready, Tasuku confronts him about why coming out is so important to him and to everyone at the Center. Our Dreams at Dusk is, at heart, a powerful story that speaks to LGBTQ+ readers with its understanding of nuances of a queer communities triumphs and struggles.
Blue Flag: A Primer for Allies
Blue Flag is a romance manga about Taichi Ichinose, who discovers that his classmate Futaba, has a crush on his childhood friend Touma, and decides to help her pursue her crush. The story’s main themes examine how the toxic and rigid gender roles of Japanese society influence the lives of straight and queer people. While the central focus is romance, the story does explore other issues the LGBTQ+ characters face, such as coming out. Though the manga is not perfect in its examination of such issues, it still uses its platform in Shonen Jump to shine a spotlight on the main characters’ sexualities and struggles.
This is why Blue Flag is a great conversation starter, especially since LGBTQ+ issues aren’t easy to talk about in Japan. As the story progresses, it begins to explore issues such as sexism and gender roles through side characters, such as Mami, who starts out as a hyper-feminine mean girl antagonist and develops complexity and depth in a way that perfectly encapsulates Blue Flag’s message: that platonic relationships are just as, if not more, important than romantic ones. Through Mami’s friendship with her male classmate Shingo, the series also explores how strict gender roles in Japanese society make it difficult for men and women to form platonic relationships. Their resolution carries the implication that Taichi and Touma can maintain their friendship, even after Touma’s love confession. However, while the story sets up the expectation that Touma and Taichi will remain friends in the future, Kaito does not follow through on that promise, which ends up undermining many of the story’s messages and themes.
While Blue Flag starts a conversation on gender roles and relationships, it doesn’t sufficiently explore queer issues in depth. Once Taichi and Futaba figure out their relationship, not much page time is dedicated to exploring the main characters further, especially when it comes to Touma Mita, which only makes the main characters seem half-baked in comparison to side characters like Mami. When Touma is outed to the whole school, a moment that should have had a profound impact, none of the lead characters—not Taichi, Futaba, or even Touma himself—express their thoughts or feelings on the event or its fallout. The way Blue Flag leaves so much left unsaid shows that this manga was not ready to fully explore LGBT+ issues in a nuanced way. This surface-level exploration of LGBT+ issues becomes even more apparent when we look at how Touma’s coming out story is handled overall.
Touma is depicted as a somewhat opaque character who prefers to keep his true thoughts and feelings to himself. While this isn’t inherently a bad trait, since it could have been used to explore how scared Touma is to come out to the people closest to him, in practice what this means is that he is mostly silent during crucial moments in the story. Unfortunately, Touma is outed in the worst possible way. While speaking privately with Mami, he tells her about his crush on Taichi, and then out of nowhere, Taichi’s friend Kensuke rushes into the room and punches Touma in the face. Rumors spread like wildfire the next day and although Kensuke vehemently denies it, it’s clear that he was involved in the information getting out.
In the aftermath, Touma is bullied by his peers, but thankfully he also has people who support him. However, Touma and Taichi are mostly spectators to everything happening around them, and they never get a chance to talk about the situation with each other. When the final chapter reveals that Touma and Taichi are married and living together, it’s extremely jarring, since the story offers no insight into how their relationship developed romantically. Blue Flag prioritizes the secondary characters and treats being outed like it’s only a plot point, rather than a profound personal violation. While this might be an attempt at educating a presumed-straight audience, the resulting unintended message is that Touma’s sexuality is only important because of how it affects the straight people in his life.
When we look at another character like Masumi, Futaba’s best friend who is bisexual, and how her coming out story is handled, it becomes clear that Kaito doesn’t have a firm grasp on what coming out means to LGBT+ people. Similar to Touma, Masumi is treated like this opaque character in the third act of the story who doesn’t voice her personal feelings. When she sort of comes out to Touma’s sister-in-law, Akiko, she barely speaks at all. Instead, Akiko, who has no direct relation to Masumi, preaches to her about how she should handle the issue of having a crush on a girl without understanding how Masumi really feels. The apparent takeaway from this scene is that Masumi feels guilty about hiding her sexuality and that she should come out without worry because “everybody’s at least a little different.”
While the idea that we should all be treated as equals no matter what is great, the reality is that coming out is often emotionally fraught and involves risking relationship fallout if not physical harm. Akiko’s comments to Masumi downplay how personal and important a person’s coming out journey is, and reflect the attitude of many well-meaning but clueless straight people. Even though Touma is written with limited interiority, the fact remains he faced immediate violence from his fellow classmate after he was outed. The series not only neglects to show his reaction but Masumi’s as well — despite the fact that this event is a confirmation of all her worst fears. Touma and Masumi’s choice not to come out is framed as a problem to everyone around them, and coming out as an inevitable step that LGBT+ people ought to take rather than the deeply personal choice that it actually is.
In the aftermath of Touma’s coming out, there is a scene between Touma and his brother, Seiya, who gives him a roundabout lecture saying that anyone who isn’t breaking the law should be allowed to do what they want, ending on a promise that Seiya won’t disown Touma, no matter what. Akiko says something similar to Masumi as well in their scene together. While well-intentioned, these scenes send a mixed and ultimately insensitive message, overlooking the reality that while Japan doesn’t criminalize homosexuality, same-sex marriage is still illegal in most prefectures and there are no federal anti-discrimination laws in areas such as employment, housing, and health care. Even if there isn’t a specific law against being gay, multiple laws are still set up to discriminate against Touma as an adult. By framing the conversation around queerness “not being illegal,” it fails to recognize that existing laws are still discriminatory. For all the good that Blue Flag tries to do in starting a conversation around romantic and platonic relationships and strict gender roles, it largely ignores the real world issues LGBT+ people face. At worst, it actively sends the message that those issues don’t matter.
Our Dreams at Dusk and Blue Flag are both important manga for LGBT+ representation. One has an array of well-written LGBT+ characters and the other is a flawed story that tries to present some truly progressive ideas about the importance of platonic relationships and treating people equally despite our differences. While I would recommend Our Dreams at Dusk to every LGBT+ manga fan out there, it would be hard for me to say the same for Blue Flag. While it has earnest intentions as a conversation starter to force cishetero folks to think about their privilege and figure out ways to be better allies for LGBT+ people, Blue Flag is still a flawed manga that undermines its own LGBT+ characters and doesn’t present real world LGBT+ issues in a nuanced and informed matter. Ultimately, the stories of Blue Flag and Our Dreams at Dusk speak to the importance of uplifting writers who can write the nuanced joys and struggles of their own communities.