Gay themes–or, at least, same-sex romantic themes, a distinction that is more important than it might seem at first–are so ubiquitous in manga that it might seem that Japan is more welcoming of sexual minorities than it actually is. In particular, it might seem odd for the legendary artist Gengoroh Tagame, who has been crafting yaoi, gay erotica, and outright pornography for 40 years, to tell the story of a young man in contemporary Japan struggling with his sexuality and his ability to live life as a gay person in an honest and open way. But looks, as his latest work emphasizes, can be deceiving.
Despite many strides in dealing with gay rights in recent decades and an outsized representation of queer issues in its cultural production, Japan is still a conservative country that draws a hard line between the amorphousness of sexual roles in its past and what is considered acceptable sexual behavior today. Gay marriage is still outlawed, gender roles are often strongly enforced, and coming out can be a trial for young people, particularly of high school age. That’s where Sora Itoda, the 16-year old protagonist of Our Colors, comes in.
Sora is a sensitive, artistic young man who sees the world in gradations of colors that reflect his moods. Cool blues and angry reds reflect his emotional state (the book itself is b&w, a missed opportunity that sadly comes with the magazine serial territory), which, though intensely personal and inward-facing, are so often simply the mirrors of every other kid his age, queer or straight: he worries about fitting in, he wants to be taken seriously despite his youth, he is both drawn to and bored by school. His romantic feelings are starting to develop, but his inability to deal with them truthfully lead to near-panic attacks as he navigates his everyday life.
Many of Sora’s agonies are simply those of every other teenager, put through the mirror of homosexuality. He loves a jocular, goofball jock named Yoshioka but dares not confess his longings lest he ruin their friendship; he freaks out when a girl asks to go out with him, not because he dislikes her but because he’s terrified to tell her the truth; and he brutally suppresses his emotions (portrayed in the artwork as a stone mask dropping over his real face) when his thoughtless, callow schoolmates get grossed out by gay erotica. But most of all, he finds himself frozen with anxiety at the seeming impossibility of finding a way to say three little words–“Are you gay?”–that would make his life immeasurably better.
Enter Mr. Amamiya, the owner of a local café who is openly gay (and bears a not-so-surprising resemblance to one Gengoroh Tagame). He becomes a sort of mentor to Sora, and the relief the boy feels at hearing a seemingly comfortable and well-adjusted adult proudly declare his homosexuality–not to mention at finding someone with whom he can declare his own, without judgment or shame–provides Our Colors with some of its more powerful emotional moments. It is through Amamiya that Sora reveals his sexuality to his childhood friend Nao (who is effectively portrayed as someone who treats the first gay person she knows somewhat awkwardly and with difficulty, but with the best of intentions to learn how to deal with it), and it is through him that he gets the opportunity to integrate his own feelings about both his art and his queerness by painting a mural on the café wall.
The complications that arise are the stuff of so many coming-out stories: denying reality to avoid offending others, as Nao does to her friend who likes Sora; wondering whether a reluctance to come out is because of what others think or because of your own self-hatred; dealing with well-meaning people trying to have honest conversations but assume straightness as a default (as Sora must with his parents). Through it all, Amamiya puts up a brave front and encourages Sora to interrogate his feelings and live without regret, but it is clear from the beginning that he hasn’t always done the same. Tagame has been open about this being his own coming-out story in many ways, but the manner in which he projects it into a contemporary setting while retaining its personal character is excellent storytelling.
There are, of course, dramatic revelations and roadblocks along the way in Our Colors (its episodic format comes from its initial serialization, 2018-20, in Monthly Action magazine). But the revelations are never as dramatic as they first seem, nor are the roadblocks ever so high. Despite the extreme peaks and valleys of the characters’ emotional state, life goes on for them more or less as usual; Nao’s and Sora’s friendship persists, Mr. Amamiya deals with the realities of adult life in a realistic way, and Sora realizes that coming out is never a singular event, but rather a series of doors that must be opened at the right time. It’s a surprisingly quiet and assured story, low on melodrama but high on genuine and relatable relationships.
Our Colors suffers from some visual malaise. Tagame is an assured and practiced artist, but he provides little beyond the accepted framework of popular manga. Again, it’s unfair to criticize the book for its traditional b&w presentation, but if there was ever a story that called for the hand of a simpatico colorist, it’s this one. And, although it’s a minor quibble, the serialized nature of the original work leads to the collected book catching you up on parts of the story you’ve already seen in a slightly clunky way.
But these are all minor-league criticisms of what is otherwise a terrific story, adeptly told. Despite its occasional flatness, the art is sometimes very expressive, particularly when Tagame depicts food and drink, and its visual metaphors are effective. The ending doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat package, and how Sora will deal with his uncertainty about the future remains as ambiguous and murky as life itself. It’s also a handsome book, with a higher-end price tag but a generous page count and some nice bonus material. With Our Colors, Tagame has delivered a relevant, even-handed, and emotionally grounded coming-out story that is truly for all ages, but the product of a wise and informed adult sensibility.