MICHELLE: Thanks for joining us for the first BL Bookrack column of the new year. This time we’re doing something a bit different and devoting this month’s column to Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas, which is one of the most historically significant works influencing the boys’ love genre in Japan, and the most historically significant one currently available in print in English.
But, y’know, I feel like bestowing this weighty mantle upon the work could overshadow the fact that it’s very dramatic, emotional, and romantic. It seems best to me to take it on its own terms.
MJ: I agree, Michelle—which isn’t to say that The Heart of Thomas doesn’t earn its historical weightiness! Its influence is significant for good reason. But perhaps what I found most striking about it is just how much it has to offer without any knowledge of its significance at all. And though understanding its context is important and worthy discussion, there are plenty of critics on hand to do just that. Here in our column, I’m personally more interested in discussing it… well, as itself. If that makes sense.
MICHELLE: My thoughts exactly!
I suppose we ought to start with a summary, which is gonna be a toughie, but here goes…
The Heart of Thomas begins with the suicide of thirteen-year-old Thomas Werner. In love with his classmate, Juli, Thomas sees this act as a way to “bring him back to life.” The two had been classmates at a German boarding school called Schlotterbach, and we meet Juli on the morning the students have reconvened after Easter vacation, where news of Thomas’ death spreads quickly. After a letter from Thomas lets Juli know the death was not an accident, he’s plunged into turmoil, which only worsens when a transfer student named Erich—who bears a strong physical resemblance to Thomas, though with a much pricklier personality—arrives on the scene.
The three primary characters—in addition to Juli and Erich, there’s also Oskar, Juli’s roommate—have all been broken in some way, and the story revolves around their intertwining relationships and the secrets each keeps hidden. Each one is complex, and each one becomes completely beloved to the reader by the end.
MJ: I think for a story like this, that’s a perfectly good summary! And by “a story like this,” I mean a story that is almost entirely focused on its characters’ feelings and their relationships to each other—and themselves—with very little investment in plot, outside of a few significant events. That these few events are almost entirely deaths (including Thomas’ opening suicide) and other tragedies might make the book sound rather melodramatic, and I suppose on the surface it is. But in the story’s boarding school setting, this is somehow completely appropriate. In this highly structured environment, largely removed from their families and the rest of the outside world, the boys at Schlotterbach thrive on those big moments—the few sensational events that make their way in from the world—and without enough of those, they must create whatever else they can on their own.
MICHELLE: In his introduction, translator Matt Thorn writes that Hagio at one point had attempted to remake the series with female characters (to appeal to female readers), but found pressure to make things more realistic and plausible and it just didn’t work. There had to be a feeling of “other” about the characters and the setting in order for her to be able to tell the story she wanted. And once I read the manga, I had to agree that it would not have worked otherwise.
Too, while on the surface it might seem/be melodramatic, when you get down to it… it’s really all about Juli’s ability to accept forgiveness and forgive himself. And that’s not melodramatic at all.
MJ: Also, the idea that the story’s emphasis on dramatic events makes it unrealistic I think deliberately ignores what it is to be an adolescent. Even teens and pre-teens who go to regular, modern public schools essentially live in their own society that is very much separate from the rest of the world, and it’s a society that is, frankly, terrifying. I think adults often willfully forget this (and who can blame them?) but it’s true. The public tragedies are real (one of my high school teachers killed himself in the middle of our senior year—and doesn’t everyone have some kind of tragic story like this that affected their entire school?) and the private ones are even more so. Regardless of the precise circumstances, is Juli’s struggle to accept himself as a whole person really alien to any teen?
MICHELLE: Now you’re making me remember the public tragedies of my youth, some of which I’d forgotten about!
This seems like a good time to focus on Juli for a bit, since he’s really quite interesting. We don’t get all the details, but Juli’s German mother seems to have married a German citizen of Greek heritage. Juli looks a lot like his father and his unusual black hair generates a lot of commentary, from admiring classmates to his hateful grandmother, who still clings to ideals about German purity. (I did wonder what year this was supposed to be, but I believe West Germany is referenced at one point, so it’s got to be after 1949 and, thus, World War II.)
Grandma also bears a grudge because she had to take on the debts left behind when Juli’s father passed away. This fills Juli with the desire to change her attitude by becoming as successful as possible and paying her back. To this end, he attempts to become the perfect student. And for a while, he does quite well. He’s admired, he’s loved by Thomas, he loves Thomas in return, but there’s a darkness in him that leads him to accept the invitation of a creepy older student to meet him in a certain room on campus. The secret of what went on there is the last to be revealed in the story, so I won’t divulge it here, but the end result is that he’s utterly filled with self-loathing and cannot accept that Thomas really means it when he says that he loves him and coldly rejects him in public.
Oskar alone among the students knows what has happened, and has been assigned to share a room with Juli and watch over him. He’s therefore privy to the facade Juli struggles so hard to maintain and the cracks that form when Juli learns that Thomas sacrificed his angelic self for him. It takes a long time before Erich’s emotional frankness and Oskar’s example of forgiveness combine to allow him to finally admit the truth of his love for Thomas and to understand that Thomas would forgive him anything. Now he can forgive himself.
MJ: Related to this, I have to just make a comment here regarding Thomas vs. Erich, because while Erich’s ability to express his feelings openly is part of what ultimately saves Juli from his own self-loathing, Thomas was just as open about his feelings with Juli—yet his way of trying to save Juli I think only broke him more. In the end, I think it’s Erich’s rebellious, combative nature that makes the difference. After Juli’s horrible experience, he can’t believe that Thomas would love him, and he feels the same disbelief about Erich’s open confessions of love. But where Thomas’ solution was to sacrifice himself, Erich’s is to fight (and fight hard), and it’s this that finally gets through to Juli.
I bring this up specifically because this is a column about BL, and there’s a (much-deserved) stigma around older works involving same-sex relationships that end in suicide. But (aside from the fact that this story actually begins with the suicide) where The Heart of Thomas really stands out here is that, from my perspective, it views that kind of sacrifice as… well, ultimately pointless. Throughout the story, even to the end when Oskar persuades Erich to remain at school rather than retreating to his stepfather’s house, Hagio makes it clear that running away is not the answer. We’re given the romantic option of viewing Thomas’ sacrifice as beautiful and selfless, but we’re clearly shown that Erich’s instinct to fight against that sacrifice is the way to really bring Juli back to life.
MICHELLE: Very well said! I also wonder if part of it is that Erich, playing the part of Thomas surrogate (a role which he tries hard to escape, but which might actually help Juli in the end) represents someone who can love Juli and not be hurt by the sins and darkness Juli is burdened by. Erich is strong, smart, and feisty. He believes in love and in God, and despite his pretty looks, he’s not fragile but instead resilient. That’s why, in the end, Juli can confess what happened to Erich and yet feel absolved, in a way, by Thomas.
MJ: Speaking of that connection, there’s a fairly creepy scene late in the manga where Erich has been invited to visit Thomas’ family whom he discovers wish to adopt him. Erich wisely declines the Werners’ offer to become a stand-in for their dead son, but afterwards he regrets turning down the opportunity to see Thomas’ old room as he discovers more and more the feelings and philosophies they shared in common. It’s an important realization, because it’s this that allows Erich to put aside his resentment towards Thomas for looking so much like him and dragging him into so much drama, in order to be able to help Juli, and also himself. Understanding that the emotional honesty that made fitting in at Schlotterbach so difficult could actually be an asset I think is pretty huge for Erich.
MICHELLE: Definitely. In general, it’s a treat watching Erich mature over the course of the series. Another important moment comes when his mother passes away and he suddenly and viciously regrets his own selfishness in opposing her marriage. It would’ve made her happy, but he clung to her and held her back. Later, when he’s able to finally see the good in his stepfather and accept a home with him, it’s a very touching moment. Knowing he has this secure future (where he’s wanted for himself, not for any resemblance to Thomas) gives him the strength to not only commit more fully to studying at school, but to be forthcoming with his feelings for Juli.
MJ: I agree, it’s a real treat watching him grow up, especially as early on he seems the least likely character to be helping anyone else heal.
So, let’s talk about Oskar a bit. He’s actually my favorite character in the book, probably because he’s the least like me. Heh. Oskar is a terrible student who smokes, skips class, and is generally considered to be a screw-up, but he’s also utterly confident, incredibly insightful and fantastic in a crisis. He’s the guy you want in your corner because you know he can handle anything life throws at him with elegant competence, up to and including things like discovering that his father murdered his mother (or that he’s not actually his father at all). If I wrote Heart of Thomas fanfiction, it would all be about Oskar.
MICHELLE: Oskar is my favorite too, and became so pretty much immediately. He’s just got this air of… languid sorrow about him. He reminds me of someone from Fruits Basket, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s Momiji. He’s popular and has charisma to spare, but he’s also known tremendous family grief. When he came to the school (around age ten, I think), he’s described as having grown-up eyes and speaking with grown-up words. He’d seen and experienced so much that he was really no longer on the same level as his classmates. Recognizing the “difference” in Juli was something that drew them together.
Did you know that Hagio actually wrote a one-shot about Oskar’s life prior to entering school? It’s called “Houmonsha.” Hope we get that in English at some point!
MJ: I did not! Oh, how I want to read that!
I can see the Momiji comparison (especially older Momiji—Oskar is by no means cuddly), though I’d also suggest that I think Oskar is the most overtly sexualized of the main characters in the story. Hagio writes him and (especially) draws him as a sexual being, with an attractive swagger and abundant bangs, and I’m pretty sure he even gets the most action of anyone in the story (which has, overall, not much action by modern BL standards). While both Thomas’ and Erich’s love for Juli is portrayed in a very pure, innocent light, Oskar’s feelings are allowed to display a bit more ambiguity, and though nothing actually sexual ever happens between them (despite a rumor spread at one point by a jealous younger student), he’s the only one of all Juli’s admirers with whom one could imagine that it might.
MICHELLE: I hadn’t thought about that before in those terms, but maybe some of that sensuality is what I was picking up on with the term “languid.” It also probably has something to do with being a year older than the others; he’s also interested in girls (well, at least enough to flirt with the ones in town) where some of the others aren’t yet.
Talking about the action or lack thereof… are there really any honest-to-goodness on-the-lips kisses in this series that are not brought on by anger or extortion? Ante witnesses Oskar performing mouth-to-mouth and names a kiss as the price for his silence, Erich wrangles a kiss from Juli later, too, and comments upon its bitterness. The only real kiss Juli ever bestows is one on Erich’s cheek right at the very end of the series.
MJ: The closest I can remember to anything like that is actually not on the lips. There’s a really interesting moment on the day that Oskar takes Erich in to town to learn about girls. The two get into some heated discussion about Thomas that ends with Oskar warmly embracing Erich, kissing him, and holding him in a way that really does not feel platonic while comparing Thomas to Amor, the god of love. It’s a strangely intimate little moment.
Modern BL, of course, tends to include much, much more sexual content than can be found in The Heart of Thomas, but very little of it can hold a candle to Hagio’s work when it comes to musing on the value of love.
MICHELLE: Oh yes, I’d forgotten about that moment. If you were to write an epilogue starring Oskar, what do you think the chances are of he and Erich ultimately ending up together? For Erich, it’d mean another important relationship in his life that began on the basis of a shared love for someone else, but it seems at least possible to me.
MJ: Yeah, actually, that’s the likeliest actual couple in the story as far as I’m concerned, though I’d see it as something a ways in the future, for sure. I might write some sort of awkward future meeting between Oskar and Juli, after Juli has left seminary, but for romance? I’d go Oskar/Erich all the way. In a way, I think the relationship you describe is the one they already sort of have, and what’s kind of surprising about it, is that it feels healthier than one might expect. During that final scene where Oskar is convincing Erich to stay with him (and all of them) at school, there’s an unexpected sense of joy on the page—unexpected by me, anyway. Juli’s leaving, but it’s not the end of the world for anyone, including Oskar and Erich, and that sort of real optimism about their futures without him just took me by surprise. It was kind of awesome, really.
MICHELLE: I felt that, too. It is a new beginning, for everyone involved. You know, it was probably very wise of Hagio to never write a sequel wherein Oskar and Erich do get together—I mean, there must have been some sort of fan demand for this!—because she might’ve had to address the “what happens when school ends?” question. Now we can simply imagine them together instead of knowing they ended up moving on and marrying, et cetera, however poignant that may be.
MJ: Yes, given the time and place, Oskar and Erich’s story as a couple probably ends much less romantically than we’d like. We’re better off with fanfiction, I’m guessing. Which I now want to write. Oops?
Speaking of joy, I feel like we need to spend at least a few minutes here just talking about Hagio’s artwork because… oh, the glory of her artwork! You know I’m a sucker for classic shoujo in general, but Heart of Thomas is just exquisite in every way.
MICHELLE: It really is, and I definitely kept thinking throughout, “Oh, I bet MJlikes this page!”
There were quite a few pages I liked and made note of along the way. Page 157, with that top panel of the memory of Thomas haunting Juli and then in panel three morphing into Erich. Page 201, a color page wherein Juli looks dapper and elegant and Erich looks a little Bohemian or something with his interesting cross-legged pose. Page 241, where Thomas’ outline dominates the page while Juli narrates about how loving Thomas filled him with terror…. I could go on and on.
MJ: Yes, yes! What’s hardest here is trying to choose! I have particular love for a sequence early on—which I almost hate to bring up, because I know the panels leading into it are a source of pain for Matt Thorn, who surely loves this book more than anyone—but there’s an incredible scene on pages 29-31, in which Juli is dreaming about Thomas throwing himself off the bridge into his arms, that is just spectacularly eerie and expressive. Hagio’s emotional imagery is so clear throughout—she truly shows us her characters’ hearts through the artwork.
MICHELLE: I also really admired that, even though you’ve got all these kids in identical uniforms, some of whom have similar hairstyles, I was still never confused as to who I was looking at. (This also goes for Erich and Thomas, who share the same face!) And she didn’t achieve this distinction through wild appearances—though a couple of the older boys do look very unique—but just sheer drawing technique.
MJ: Yes, she pours so much characterization into body language and facial expression! It’s exactly the sort of work I long to point out to manga detractors who complain about big-eyed generic illustrations, in part because the characters indeed do have big eyes, which Hagio uses to great advantage. I could look at this book forever, and it’s possible I might.
In case it isn’t obvious to anyone reading this, I loved this manga with my whole heart. And I’ll admit that’s not exactly what I expected. I expected to find it visually beautiful and worthy as a classic, but I also expected it to be very dated and I thought the story might not appeal to my tastes as a modern fan. Instead, I found it to be both beautiful and emotionally resonant to an extent I’ve rarely experienced—especially in BL manga. This is a book I’d wholeheartedly recommend to any comics fan, without reservation. It’s an absolute treasure.
MICHELLE: After experiencing some disappointment with the story of Princess Knight, another historically significant work whose English release I had long desired, I was a little worried myself, but I needn’t have been. The Heart of Thomas was even better than I’d hoped. I hope it does well for Fantagraphics!
MJ: I hope so, too! Thank you, Moto Hagio, Matt Thorn, and Fantagraphics, for giving us the opportunity to read this gorgeous work.
All images copyright 2007 Moto Hagio, new edition copyright 2012 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.
More full-series discussions with MJ & Michelle:
The “Color of…” Trilogy | One Thousand and One Nights | Please Save My Earth
Princess Knight | Fruits Basket | Wild Adapter (with guest David Welsh) | Chocolat