Sun. Oct 24th, 2021

Blue Flag’s second volume starts off with a reminder of the first thing that struck me about the first volume: the careful attention this story pays to the way clothes hang on the body, and project confidence, insecurity, or any manner of other emotions purely in the fit of the fabric. 

It’s fitting for a story about adolescence to be preoccupied as well with the awkward physicality of our outfits – how some of us seem to exude natural confidence at all times, while others seem perpetually uncomfortable in their own skin. It’s also fitting for a story by KAITO, who is so capable of conveying emotions through presentation, as with their masterful use of paneling. Gaining comfort with both our bodies and our feelings is a circuitous learning process, and though some of Blue Flag’s leads seem more confident in their clothes than others, they all struggle with the difficulty of presenting an authentic self.

But seriously, let’s talk about that paneling. In comic art, the way you construct and arrange panels is one of the most powerful elements of your dramatic toolkit. The arrangement of your panels can dictate the pacing of the reader’s experience, draw their eye towards specific details, create frantic energy or a sense of peace, and in general accomplish all the feats we’d in cinema attribute to cinematography, timing, and transitions. But comparing paneling to cinema’s tricks is insufficient to describe its importance; paneling isn’t just “comic cinematography,” it is one of the key elements that make comics unique as an art form. As such, the artists who have mastered effective paneling can construct dramatic effects that are categorically impossible in film or prose, embracing the unique aesthetic possibilities of the medium.

In KAITO’s hands, the dramatic and tonal possibilities of paneling are realized in full. Just look at the playful details of paneling all throughout the page below, all of which help set the tone and maintain the flow of energy throughout. In the top right corner, the phone screen’s panel extends to the very edge of the screen, as if it’s being carried here from the previous page. KAITO more often than not refuses to let their panels fill the entire screen, using the negative space to specific dramatic and pacing effect. Then there’s that set of three small panels in the center, separated from the top and bottom panels by more negative space. Because of this separation, we feel the sense of Taichi momentarily stepping back from active engagement with his phone, and considering something privately.

The hyper-deformed first two panels serve as a small joke about his indecision, and then the closer, more realistic art of the third one implies he’s made a decision, while his evasive expression implies that he’s not sure that decision is the right one. From there, a return to the slanted panels of the first sequence naturally implies a return to the phone conversation’s pace, leading into the surrender of panels altogether, as the last angled panel gives way to a clouded sky filling the rest of the page. The angle of the last panel drives us leftward into a clear, smooth scene transition, as the narrow perspective of the camera’s screen gives way to the uncaged sky. Guiding the reader’s experience one carefully selected panel at a time, this page serves as an unpretentious master class in how to exploit paneling for tonal and pacing effect.

To take another example, let’s examine the cathartic page where Masumi explodes at Taichi, a sequence whose emotional impact rests on its dynamic paneling. Masumi’s large back is centered on the top right, just as she reveals the true nature of Taichi’s feelings. Her “accusation” emanates outward from the right side of the screen, shattering the next two panels into angular strips, with the rays of the panels and intensity of her question feeling like they’re pushing Taichi off the screen. The page maintains this visual separation from top to bottom, with Masumi consistently reasserting her point from the right edge, and leaving Taichi overwhelmed. The overall effect creates the sense of a visual bombshell to match this emotional bombshell, like a punch that shatters the glass on the right side of the page, sending cracks emanating outwards to the left, with the brief spat of rapid panels in the center creating a sense of panicked motion before the settling of the finale.

For one last example, let’s jump back to Futaba’s first attempts to rally the cheer squad, where she instead clams up and gets lost in her own head. For as well as KAITO knows the value of complex paneling, they’re equally appreciative of visual restraint. They make fantastic use of negative space across this pair of pages, dispensing with paneling altogether to better convey Futaba’s isolated terror. We get the sense of sinking into darkness at first, and then that blinding white page, as if her insufficiency in this duty is being broadcast for all to see. There is Futaba alone, unguarded and unsupported, cast in the blinding light. There is Futaba alone, all the certainty and comforting mantras absent, scrabbling to pull a single thought together. I’ve rarely seen such a clear, harrowing articulation of performance anxiety.

The follow-up to this sequence is just as impressive in its own way, pointing to another of KAITO’s visual talents. After a moment of attempting to remember what her task was, Futaba is suddenly confronted by an old memory, of a time when she let a plant die at school. While Blue Flag generally embraces a simplified aesthetic model for its character art, this shattered flower pot and its sad occupant are rendered in almost photorealistic detail.

The effect is palpable; this was an actual life she destroyed, its guts now scattered and captured with such detail that it almost feels like a murder scene. In the sad detail of this lonely flower, we see the fullness of Futaba’s self-doubt and self-hatred, her well-earned certainty that she can’t do anything but screw up. This page embodies the fear that drives Blue Flag – the fear of becoming a passenger in life, a bystander who lets the good and the bad pass them by, because they are too afraid of failure. And of course, this page also embodies another of KAITO’s strengths as an artist: their ability to transition from photorealism to comic exaggeration at a moment’s notice, and their clear understanding of how to apply these skills dramatically.

The field day events offer a natural opportunity for KAITO to demonstrate their capacity for draftsman-like realism, through their portrayal of human bodies in motion. This strength naturally aligns with their focus on the fit of clothing; after all, how can you capture how an outfit sits on the body without a clear understanding of the body beneath? KAITO’s grasp of human anatomy, and ability to convey dramatic human movement, is strong enough that they could just as easily be drawing a sports manga; and in fact, KAITO previously did create a manga about a manager of a sports team. But here, that mastery of anatomy results in all sorts of unusual benefits for a romantic drama, where such precision of form is an unusual specialty, rather than a genre necessity.

The dramatic benefits of KAITO’s aesthetic flexibility crop up again and again in this volume, emphatically demonstrating the fundamental connections between aesthetic design, pacing, and dramatic impact. Take the sequence where Taichi catches Masumi at the train station, where her tearful separation is presented through one of the most beautiful panels yet. As with their mastery of anatomy, KAITO’s understanding of how to employ differing levels of realism in character art is exceptional, and demonstrates a keen understanding of aesthetic as a tool for drama.

Being able to craft portraits like this doesn’t mean you should use them for every panel. Every panel is supposed to have a specific emotional and intellectual effect, and much of the time, it’s actually better to use simplified physical forms. Fully taking in a beautifully rendered image takes far more time than a lightly scribbled figure, and might not provide the intended tonal effect. Frequently, you just want the character art to be an emotional stand-in for their presence, rather than a fully composed image – or to express one single idea, like their nervous eyes or goofy posture. Additionally, because it takes longer to take in a fully rendered image, using them erratically messes with the pacing of your comic.

But just as KAITO knows how to draw the eye across a dizzying array of panels, they also know when to focus on one image, realizing it in such gorgeous detail that the audience is forced to stop and take it all in. When it comes to these big emotional climaxes, when you want a character’s expression to utterly dazzle, KAITO is more than capable of rendering beautiful, distinctive versions of all their characters. Whether the sequence calls for photorealistic establishing shots, mood-setting tricks of paneling, or a clever interpretation of the relationship between panels and characters, KAITO is ready. However the mood shifts, KAITO’s mastery of both detailed and simplified character art allows the panels to perfectly match the intended emotional tone, and draw us directly into the experience of the focus characters. 

And oh, what a tortured experience that is! As I mentioned, Blue Flag is intensely preoccupied with the fear of missing out on life, and the desire to make the “correct” choices for yourself and others. Early on, Touma urges Taichi to “do it for the memories,” making explicit the characters’ own understanding of their temporal moment. Like many of the best high school dramas, Blue Flag understands that high school is a brief moment in time, and more specifically that even as they experience it, high schoolers are aware that everything they are participating in will soon be gone.

There’s an odd tension that emerges when you’re attempting to create lasting memories on a clock like this – there’s an artificiality to your performance that seems, well, unlike how it tends to go in stories. We are all our own critics and editors, assessing our life story as it plays out, offering suggestions and lamenting arcs that go nowhere. We process the world as stories, so of course we’re going to process our own life as a story, with all the consequences this implies.

For Taichi, the maturing attitudes of both his friends are forcing his own darkest anxieties to the surface. His understanding of the world around him is upset early and often in this volume, as Futaba continues to grow beyond his expectations, and Touma announces he won’t be continuing with baseball into college. Taichi is tormented by uncertain dreams, his own subconscious challenging him to decide his own destiny. At times, his only comfort is that Futaba is also unsure about college, yet somehow carries on in spite of this.

Taichi’s anxieties are understandable, particular in the context of Touma announcing his intentions to quit baseball. High school is often a time when childish preconceptions about life get stress-tested by the oncoming realities of the larger world. Where we’re going to be, who we’re going to associate with, what our day-to-day jobs or experiences might be like – for the first time, these become real and urgent concerns, rather than idle thoughts for a lazy day. Up until this point, Taichi had been given no reason to reassess Touma’s childhood dream, his “I wanna be an astronaut”-style vision of being a professional baseball player. But now, with Touma saying he’s not going to college, Taichi is forced to engage with the encroaching reality of graduating and finding a job.

This process is also forcing Taichi to realize he doesn’t actually know Touma as well as he thought he did, and that Touma is quite likely going through a lot of things he has no awareness of. Why would Touma have chosen this high school if he wanted to play baseball professionally? When our whole futures are on the line, the artificial positivity of socializing subsides, and the true substance of desire emerges from the murk. In KAITO’s careful hands, the growing disconnect of their feelings is conveyed through paneling alone: figures sliding apart from each other, the palpable empty space to the side of each other. You can feel the space of the things they’re not able to say, filling all these empty panels, overwhelming with their feelings.

Confronted by Masumi about his long-term intentions, Taichi can only confess that he wants to become the kind of person who can save others, having failed to do so in the past. Of course, as all he’s done for Futaba demonstrates, he’s already become this kind of person – something Masumi can acknowledge, even if Taichi cannot. This leads us to the harsher, more fundamental issue: Taichi simply does not value his own life, and thus is willing to toss it away for any charitable advantage. His self-abasement culminates in a desperate rush to save a cat from a passing car, a scene that disintegrates into flashing lights and his mom’s old, unheeded words: “as your mother, I’m happy you didn’t get yourself hurt.”

But of course, we’re not the only people who get to decide the value of our lives. Even if we cannot see our own worth, there are people out there who value us, and would hate to see us hurt. So it goes for Touma, who actually takes the fall for Taichi’s recklessness, earning an injury that immediately puts him out of baseball form. Their confrontation is the volume’s climax, with Touma’s declaration of his friend’s value roaring off the page, and Taichi wilting in response. Ultimately, Taichi’s process of helping Futaba reflects the things he himself cannot reach for. From a position of mostly reminding him of himself, Futaba has already risen to become an inspiration for him – in contrast, he can see no such growth potential in himself, and no hope for salvation for his “uncharitable” feelings.

Fortunately, Blue Flag’s leads are not trapped in a world of their own design. They exist in our world, which is much larger, and frequently kinder, than they’ve been led to expect.

Blue Flag’s second volume ends on a gesture of solidarity and hope, as Taichi is “confronted” by Touma’s big brother Seiya. Though the preceding chapter introduces Seiya as if we’re in for some fiery battle of wills, their actual exchange is close to the opposite. Seiya is out of high school already, and knows Taichi almost as well as he knows Touma; in the wake of his brother’s injury, he doesn’t condemn Taichi, but buys him a drink and tells him it’ll all be okay. Given Blue Flag’s refreshingly mature perspective, a character like Seiya can serve as a mentor rather than an irritant, telling people like Taichi their feelings are perfectly normal. “That’s enough atonement for a kid,” he announces, stepping both off the bench and out of KAITO’s carefully arranged panels. Though they confine themselves to delicate boxes, a whole world awaits them beyond the frame.

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By admin