It was almost too easy to hate Mami when she first came into the story. She was the perfect stereotype of the pushy pretty girl who rules over her high school with a flawlessly manicured claw. Her anger at always finding Taichi with Toma and not thinking he was “worthy” of being Toma’s friend, her toadying cronies, and her entire attitude and appearance simply screamed “mean girl.” She came off less as a character and more as a trope given legs and a voice.

But now in the fifth volume Kaito shows us that if we did hate her, we were just falling into the same old traps that girls like Mami, pretty girls who get along well with guys, have been subjected to forever, both in real life and in the fiction that built their template and stereotype in the first place. The story picks up from the finale of the fireworks festival and Taichi telling Toma that he and Futaba are now dating before quickly moving us back to the start of the new trimester. Mami immediately shows up with a new, shorter hairdo and swiftly strides over to where Taichi and his nerd friends are playing a game. When Mami asks Taichi and his gamer friends to help her start playing, having become interested when Taichi and Toma were playing at the hospital, everyone gets all up in arms about her trying to “steal” Taichi from Futaba or “using” Taichi to get to Toma. Later, when one of her male friends asks her out, revealing that he’s broken up with his girlfriend to date her, Mami is furious, because this is just the same damn thing she’s had to deal with ever since the world decided that she was “pretty”, which meant that she had to be a man-stealing she-whore.

It’s a major blow, not just within the context of the story, but to the readers themselves. Flashbacks to Mami’s elementary and middle school days, as well as her first two years in high school, show us that she’s never been that girl. People have always just assumed that she was because of her looks and her general friendliness. Nothing she does seems able to shake off the expectations others have of her: if she’s too friendly when a friend gets a boyfriend, she’s trying to steal him. If she’s not friendly enough, she’s being a snob. If she cuts off her hair in a desperate attempt to be less pretty, she must have had her heart broken. Mami is as trapped by the suppositions people make based on her gender and appearance as Toma and Masumi are by people’s assumptions of their heteronormativity, but in her case she’s actively fighting back – it’s just that no one is willing to listen.

And you know what? That’s as true as it is unfair. Mami shouldn’t have to dress down to avoid negative attention, she shouldn’t have to avoid people she wants to be friends with because of the assumptions others make about her, and the scenes where she gets that all out, right there on the page where so many other similar stories have played out is one of the best things I’ve read. It’s a scream that’s been building up for a long time, and it shows that Blue Flag isn’t just another try-hard high school manga about growing up. It’s a story that’s paying attention to not just one aspect of what people go through in the struggle to become themselves, pointing out that we’re all put in boxes by the stereotypes of society. We’ve seen Masumi do it to herself when she tries to date boys in order to “fix” her homosexuality and we see Futaba do it all the time as she struggles with her anxiety and tries to overcome it to just be herself. (That’s particularly on quiet display in this volume when she and Taichi talk about colleges.) But Mami is the first character we’ve seen actively rebel against it. When she decides that if she has to be pretty she’ll just please herself with her looks, she’s making a declaration about the inanity of people’s assumptions about her – and that includes us as readers. Mami’s outburst at the restaurant with Taichi, Futaba, and Masumi shouldn’t surprise us, but it still comes as a hit. We should have been better about questioning the story’s portrayal of her. That we might not have been is on us just as much as it is on the girls who warn her away from Taichi because it’s “not fair to Futaba” if Mami and Taichi are friends.

That the volume mostly belongs to Mami is made clear by the near-total absence of Toma in the book, and while that is a little frustrating, it’s also okay. Mostly that’s due to the fact that Mami’s greater presence forces Taichi to think a bit harder about his relationship with Futaba, although that mostly comes in the form of him looking surprised or confused for the greater part of the volume. Taichi’s not someone who has really ever given relationships much thought, preferring to coast by comfortably, so his feelings for Futaba almost seem to have come as a surprise to him. There’s a definite sense that he may be more into her than she is into him, because as awkward at life as Taichi is, Futaba seems even more so. When they realize that they’re thinking of applying to the same college, Taichi is thrilled, but Futaba seems to see it as just one more thing she has to worry about: should she go to the big-name school her boyfriend is also aiming for because he’s going there? Or should she apply to the smaller college she seems to really want to go to instead? She may have a scream of her own inside that she’s unaware of, and whatever happens with Taichi may be the catalyst for letting it out.

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