As winter draws to a close, German boarding school student Thomas Werner dies one morning. He leaves behind a single letter addressed to his fellow student Juli that reads "Here is my love. Here is the sound of my heart."
With his faith shaken to the core by the words, the scholarly Juli sinks to the depths of despair. His cynical roommate Oscar finds himself watching over Juli's fragile mental state while keeping his own feelings for Juli under wraps. Then new student Eric enters the school - and he has an uncanny resemblance to the deceased Thomas...
Love so strong that it drives someone to death. Guilt that tears the wings of innocence away. Forgiveness that redeems a life. The Heart of Thomas is based on such emotions all mixed up into a beautiful, intense whirlwind of feelings that are more tragic than any of ours, yet resonate with each of us.
While it is, in fact, a boy's love classic, The Heart of Thomas has very little in common with almost any other BL title out there. Set in a 20th century German boarding school, it begins with the arrival of Eric, a sweet-faced yet strong-willed transfer student. He quickly discovers that
he's almost identical in appearance to Thomas, a boy who has recently died, much to the dismay and confusion of the cold prefect Julusmole. The story is irremediably linked to the characters: most of the conflict is internal, as these boys are overwhelmed and confused by both the people around them and their own tumultuous emotions. It's a tale of romance, injury, death, family, and friendship, to be sure, but it's also a tale of what it means to love, to hurt, and to forgive. It may be a boy's love series, but there is no sex and very little in the way of physical affection. Instead, it shows us that love isn't about kissing or dating; love just is.
The Heart of Thomas is one of the most emotionally intense manga I have ever encountered. It takes place in a world that is a distinct, existing part of our history as human beings, but at the same time it's so beautiful, so fragile that we know it's merely a fantasy. In this world, nothing matters more than people discovering themselves, and discovering each other. In a way, it's just like growing up, as the characters stumble through learning to think and care and feel. That is where this fantasy and our own reality meet, and where we realize that although we've never hurled ourselves off of a bridge to show our love, we have all felt the things that these characters have felt.
Moto Hagio tells this story with her usual gorgeous art. While the first chapter or two features somewhat dull character designs, things improve very quickly, and by a third of the way into the series, everything has gone from average to gorgeous. Characters are drawn in the doe-eyed, androgynous, and anorexic style that was so prevalent in shoujo of the 70s, but Hagio makes the style her own. Each page is superb, with an endless variety of panel layouts used and gorgeous and dynamic angles. It's distinctly shoujo -- full of flowers and sparkles -- without being unbearably girly; Hagio clearly knew how to set limits for herself. Don't let the promise of classic shoujo drawings cause you to pass The Heart of Thomas up: it's a great choice for people who are unfamiliar with this particular niche, as the art is both clearly 70s and completely timeless.
Every element blends together seamlessly to create something close to perfection. The Heart of Thomas is a masterpiece not only of early boy's love but of all manga, thanks to the way it so wonderfully portrays emotions, pain, and most importantly, a love that transcends labels.
In the 1970s, shojo manga was flooding the nation of Japan. Not only that, a new genre began springing up: shounen-ai, or boys' love. This is arguably one of the first and most well known shounen-ai manga, published in 1974, but it didn't reach this side of the Atlantic until 2013, more than forty whole years after it sprung forth into this world. It was inspired by a French film the author, Moto Hagio, saw, and found it to be the inspiration she needed to create this manga. Publishing it was quite a hurdle, but she managed to get it done, even though shojo manga
back then were mostly aimed at elementary school girls. However, according to the introduction at the end of the English edition, an audience outside of the target demographic--namely, older men--began devouring the story (sound familiar, bronies?) and telling people about it, passing it down from generation to generation. I finally found it in a library and decided to see what it was like. Unfortunately, however, I don't have the same nostalgia or fondness for it as other people do, and there are things about the manga that really confuse me, but this definitely doesn't mean I don't like it.
The story starts with a boy committing suicide by throwing himself off a bridge. The boy is Thomas Werner, a popular student at a well known all-boys school in Germany. News gets around, and the only one who seemingly isn't bothered by the news is Juli, a boy who is also popular in school for his intelligence and calm demeanor, even though he's not well liked among his family for having dark hair from his Greek father. However, there's more to Thomas and Juli than meets the eye: Thomas was in love with Juli, but Juli rejected him quite harshly. Thinking his suicide is a means to get back at him, Juli doesn't want to be controlled by his death and wants to forget the whole thing...but then he meets a transfer student, Erich, who is nearly the spitting image of Thomas, but unlike Thomas, who was gentle, sweet, and kind, Erich is loud, audacious, and has a short temper. Erich is sick of everybody thinking he's Thomas, and Juli really wants Erich out of his life forever. But love isn't something that can be tamed.
The art is extremely lush and very old school and shojo-y, so it might turn some people off. I thought the old school style looked nice and charming, and I normally don't discriminate when it comes to the era in which something is from, but I found the character designs for the child characters to be a little too thin and spindly, kind of like what CLAMP has been doing with Kobato and Tsubasa Chronicle. But the manga itself uses a lot of religious and angel imagery relating to the issues at hand in the story, and I thought they fit really well, especially considering the subject matter and the overall themes of the story.
The characters are a bit meh. Juli is the cold, stone faced kid who has a dark past and learns to trust people, Erich is the hot blooded, loud kid, Thomas is the completely perfect mary sue character who is liked by everyone even after death, etc. There's only three volumes to this series, so we only get to learn about four main characters and their relations to various people. I do like that their flaws move the story forward and round the characters a bit more, but I really didn't feel much for them. Not only that, I thought Thomas was pretty much a big Mary Sue. Everybody worships the kid like he's God, he's beautiful, smart, quiet, friendly, is in love with the most unapproachable guy in school, and even after death, nobody stops talking about him. But then again, I think this might be intentional in regards to all the religious imagery in the manga. But even with that in mind, they could have made Thomas a bit more flawed. Well, the good thing is, at least the characters were interesting and actually developed somewhat. But one thing I found really odd was that at first, Juli and Erich absolutely hate each other, then out of bloody nowhere they suddenly like each other. I won't say much for the sake of spoilers, but I thought this transition was way too sudden. Plus, I didn't understand Juli's back story regarding a man he hates. But I definitely liked it when Erich boldly and publicly yelled at Juli's grandmother for talking bad about Juli to his mother.
The story is relatively simple, but has a lot of complex layers underneath it, like Oskar's past, Erich's unhealthy love for his mother (which seriously turned me off), Juli's past, Ante's machinations, and the impact Thomas's death has on everyone around him. Everyone has secrets to hide, and eventually all of those secrets are revealed. I will admit, some parts of the story were a bit forced and melodramatic to me, like the whole fiasco of Erich resembling Thomas even though it's been explicitly stated that his hair and eyes are different from Thomas. The romances between some boys didn't bother me too much. I just wish they were a bit more gradual and subtle, and more built on mutual interest than hate turns into love in an instant. I definitely respect the manga as a historical piece and a groundbreaking work of its time, and I like it, but some parts of the manga could be improved upon.
Not the best seventies manga in the world, but it definitely deserves a read if you're into shounen-ai, seventies shoujo art style, (No, there's NO X-rated stuff in it! Don't worry!) and a relatively decent story.