Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga The Heart of Thomas
by Jason Thompson, Nov 22nd 2012
Episode CXXIX: The Heart of Thomas
"They say a person dies twice. First comes the death of the self. Then, later, comes the death of being forgotten by friends. If that is so, I shall never know that second death. In this way, I shall always be alive in his eyes."
"To Juli, one last time. This is my love."
Oh, those boys in their boys' schools, doing their boy things. Most readers of shojo or Boys Love manga know the stereotypes: smoldering same-sex attraction, uniforms and formality, repressed love that expresses itself in bullying and teasing, and the voyeuristic experience of peeping in on what Hana-Kimi called "a flower garden of beautiful men." Deep down, it has a small core of reality, for gay relationships at boys' schools have always existed, even (perhaps especially) in the days when the forbidden was part of the allure. Even C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books, wrote an almost sympathetic description of senpai-kohai love among the boys at his school, Malvern College, in the Downton Abbey days of the 1910s. ("(It was)…the one oasis (though green only with weeds and moist only with fetid water) in the burning desert of competitive ambition. A perversion was the only thing left through which something spontaneous and uncalculated could creep.") The French author Roger Peyrefitte, a little younger than Lewis, wrote about his own school experiences in the novel Les amitiés particulièries ("Particular Friendships"), which was adapted into a 1964 French film.
When the film came to Japan in the early '70s, mangaka Keiko Takemiya saw it and got obsessed. She was inspired to draw The Song of the Wind and Trees, one of two manga which invented the Boy's Love genre. The other one was The Heart of Thomas, drawn by Takemiya's friend Moto Hagio, who Takemiya dragged in to see the movie. It's a classic manga that every comics reader, Boy's Love fan or not, should read.
Les amitiés particulièries, like many early, pessimistic stories about gay people, ends with a suicide; Heart of Thomas begins with one. Thomas Werner, a beautiful young boy at a German boarding school, throws himself off a railway bridge to his death. He leaves behind a suicide note to one of his classmates, Juli, a final confession of his love. News spreads quickly through the school, and they mourn the loss of their beloved classmate. When Juli finds out, he is shocked, but also angry. Like all their classmates, he knew Thomas had a crush on him, but he treated it as an annoying joke. "I didn't like him. And I'm sorry, but I still don't like him," he tells them. "I put an end to that little farce!"
But Oskar, Juli's roommate, knows there is more to it than that. When Juli wakes up with nightmares in the middle of the night, dreaming of Thomas' body breaking apart into flowers, Oskar is the one who listens to his cries and calms him down. Beneath his facade of indifference, Juli can't stop thinking about Thomas' death, by the knowledge that the other boy killed himself for him. Thomas' death was a message for him, and he can't unhear it. ("Since you died and left me, I think of nothing but you.") Finally, unable to take it any longer, he goes to Thomas' grave and tears up the suicide note in defiance. "Here's my answer! I will not be ruled by you!" And then he steps out of the graveyard and sees Thomas, alive, walking across the road.
But it's not Thomas. It's Erich, a new transfer student, who happens to have Thomas' face. When a shocked Juli comes up to him, mistaking him for some boy he doesn't know, Erich tells him to get lost. When he walks into school for the first time and all the boys call him "Thomas," Erich is even angrier. ("This school is infuriating! My face isn't an exhibition piece!") Eventually the students accept that the two boys are not the same, because their personalities are totally different; Thomas was a sweet, perfect angel, and Erich is a feisty brat who starts fights in the cafeteria and challenges his classmates to fencing matches to prove he's tough. Still, he is very pretty, and the flirty upperclassmen call him bébé, "princess" and fraülein ("little girl"). They also call him "shadow," because he is so much like Thomas.
Erich doesn't enjoy all this attention. The story switches to his perspective, and we see his troubles fitting in at the new school and his irritation at the other boys. He especially hates that "stuffy upperclassman," Juli. After that first afternoon when Juli mistook him for Thomas (who died in "an accident", the other boys say), Juli is strangely distant. But there's something more terrible than guilt in Juli's dark eyes. One day, when they are alone, Juli tells Erich "One of these days, I will kill you. And remove you from my sight once and for all."
Although it was directly influenced by an actual gay film—unlike most Boys Love manga today that's only influenced by other Boys Love manga—The Heart of Thomas never uses words like "homosexual" or "gay." But that's fine, because this story isn't about same-sex attraction and social prejudice as much as it's about love itself; at heart, this is a manga about spiritual love between two souls. (To loosely paraphrase translator Matt Thorn, among early Boys Love manga, The Song of the Wind and Trees is the slutty one, and The Heart of Thomas is the romantic, Platonic-ideal one.) Fear of your own feelings, the loneliness of being an individual vs. the fear of the "other", the hate and the joy of love…this story seethes and burns with irrational passions barely contained within the skins of boys.
They didn't even have to be boys. As Hagio explained to Matt Thorn (who knows Hagio personally), she first wrote the manga as a girls-school story, making all the main characters girls. (The idea of boys as shojo manga heroes was unthinkable in 1974.) But according to Hagio, it didn't feel right; the girls were too "giggly"; "Something that would be cool when a boy said it, wasn't cool when a girl said it." Maybe, for Hagio, turning them into boys added the necessary distance to the story (from a shojo perspective); the German setting and ambiguous time period make it even more of a fantasy, and due to the influence of Thomas and Song, for years most BL manga had exotic European settings. Hagio knows European history; The Heart of Thomas touches skillfully on issues of religion and race, like a subplot about Juli's family background. (His father was Greek, he stands out among all the boys because he's the only one with dark hair.) To the other characters, his 'southern' ancestry carries associations of passion and decadence, and the very word 'Greece' smells of humanism and paganism and other unspeakable things.
But deep down Hagio knows, to paraphrase Edgar Allen Poe, "BL is not of Germany, but of the soul." Unlike in, say, a You Higuri manga, the European trappings aren't really the point. To Erich, and to the reader, the whole setting seems unreal, a sort of world in a bottle: "We're like identical single-celled organisms under a microscope, all wearing the same uniform. The long hallways, the staircases, window after window after window…it's like a world inside a single drop of water." The Art Nouveau artwork and the prose-poetry that accompanies it, the dream sequences, the images of ghosts and doubles, all add to a feeling of unreality. Hagio's work often approaches surrealism, like in her famous short story "Iguana Girl", a shojo manga narrated by an iguana, or maybe by a shy girl who thinks of herself as an iguana. When a rape occurs—or does it?—the assault is more emotional than physical, not a sexual act as much as a satanic, nightmarish experience of being dominated by another human being. (Of course, this could also be because directly depicting sex would have been forbidden for a 1974 shojo manga.) At one point Juli reveals that he sees the world differently than others do: "On the backs of all the students, I have always seen faint, rainbow-colored angel's wings." With that one image, The Heart of Thomas becomes the forerunner of Yun Kôga's Loveless, in which cat ears on the characters means…but if you don't know already, google it yourself. In Hagio's manga you feel that there is more to reality than meets the eye, that everything is loaded with meaning. The Heart of Thomas has the feel of a dream.
For the four or five main characters, it's a dream of love and fear. Erich has been his mother's closest companion ever since his father died; he loves his mother more than anyone, and he hates the man she is planning to remarry. His mother's unconditional love is what makes Erich happy, and also what makes him so arrogant and thoughtless of others. Erich is like the androgynous alien in Hagio's They Were Eleven, a person who is beautiful but wants to be strong too; he's full of insecurity and defensiveness, afraid of being weak, afraid of being loved. Oskar, Juli's charismatic and cavalier roommate, also has family issues; his father left him at the boarding school five years ago, after the tragic accident that took his mother's life. The Heart of Thomas is not just about romantic love, but also about the love of family, the love of parents and children. Androgynously beautiful they may be, but the characters don't come from nowhere; they all have family. The parents and teachers, the old men and women who are no longer beautiful, also have their roles in this manga (and not skeevy roles, either). They are the precious human connections that make us weak, and also make us human.
And beneath his strong, perfect, cold-blooded exterior, Juli's scars are the deepest of all. Sharing his life with someone else, Thomas or Erich or anyone, is like tearing open an old scar: "A long as no one knows who I truly am, I can go on with life, hiding it!" It's a theme of manga—perhaps even of all Japanese culture—that nothing is really more frightening, more humiliating, than letting someone else see your true self. (BTW, I've been told that this is the only explanation for the seemingly ridiculous ending of the Old Boy manga.) His only choice is to hide his secrets from others by pushing them away, but you can't hide forever. ("Can you really go on like that? For the rest of your life? All alone?") But wasn't Thomas' sacrifice also selfish, killing himself so Juli would never forget him, as if to torture Juli for eternity? On a personal note, I used to think I wasn't interested in the "fear of loneliness" theme that pervades manga (i.e. Fruits Basket),but it recently occurred to me that maybe I was fooling myself; like most people, I always wanted friends & maybe-more, but I didn't think of it in terms of "loneliness", I thought of it in terms of worthiness, of being good enough to have friends/girlfriends, of achieving friends & girlfriends. Which maybe means I thought about the same things but through a shonen-manga prism. Or maybe everyone, to some extent, gets their sense of worthiness from others, and has times when they hate themselves. As Juli thinks:
"Take that hand away, Juli Bauernfeind! Just what do you think you're doing, stroking his hair so gently like that? Take that abominable hand of yours away, Juli! Do you imagine that you are capable of loving someone?"
Is Erich just an aspect of Thomas? Maybe everyone is the same and everyone is an aspect of everybody else? I've already overanalyzed The Heart of Thomas; I don't want to over-summarize it too. Suffice to say there is pain and many types of love and late-night kisses in boys' dorms. There's beautiful '70s shojo artwork, with jewel-eyed, gazelle-like, androgynous characters and Decadent imagery. And there's Hagio's great dialogue, her dreamlike sense of unreality and her willingness to get deep into her themes. According to Matt Thorn, Heart of Thomas rated dead-last in the readers' polls when it ran in Shôjo Comic, and only Hagio's persistence and the editor's kindness allowed it to keep going 'till the end. Gradually, readers came to like it; a few years later, it became a hit; and today, it's remembered as a classic. It was a breakthrough when it came out. I wish more editors and artists today had the same guts.
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