Moto Hagio helped define the Boys’ Love genre back in the 1970s as one of the “Showa 24,” female mangaka who told the kinds of stories they wanted to read and, in doing so, jump-started shojo publishing. This epic tale, in which the hidden lives of German boarding school students are revealed in the wake of a classmate’s suicide, goes to graphic and emotional lengths that were rare in manga when it first appeared in serialized form. While its story and plot revolve around homosexual relationships, there is no sexual content in the book, and affections are expressed via kisses and close embraces. However, readers may suspect the intellectual theft of this book by the television series How I Met Your Mother—particularly its in-joke holiday, Slapsgiving—as this manga delivers boy-on-boy face-slapping as you have never seen it before.
The eponymous Thomas’s suicide may have been an accident or murder, and everyone in the school has a pet theory. Thomas was particularly affectionate toward his classmate Juli, who seems resolutely cold on the topic. With the arrival of Erich, a new student who looks exactly like Thomas, there are now more whispers than ever. Erich becomes the reader’s entry point into the complex social lives of the school’s boys, learning they are all subject to rumors that tend to lead to slapping.
In the context of the book, slapping is one of the most satisfying ways for two characters to reach a dramatic climax. One begins to suspect that the reason the boys are so taken with slapping is that they are all a little nuts. Whether Hagio gives everyone an elevated personality for kicks, or because she’s appealing to a side of boyhood that her target audience wishes to explore, her characters fluctuate between regimented students and crazed lunatics at the drop of a hat. It is miraculous, then, that during the brief time they spend with girls, the boys treat them like platonic playmates, curious amusements for a day’s entertainment, and nothing more. All the teasing, fencing challenges, and hysterics are reserved for the school’s courtyard and hallways. The school must have an excellent theater department, given all of the dramatic entrances and stairway declarations that occur therein.
Hagio masterfully converts what lesser artists would portray as a staid, classical academic building into a well-produced stage play. At once striking and delicate, the art never settles into plain compositions of talking heads. Characters are regularly framed by long vines of flowers, rooms bursting with light or draped in shadow, and angelic imagery is regularly deployed to draw semi-religious comparisons between characters. The author does excellent work in profiling her leads, including Thomas himself; in particular, the book provides a detailed examination of Juli, a grieving and scarred individual for whom the truth is too painful to face, even with the support of his friends. Hagio reveals her characters through subtle reflections that are often lost on the surrounding cast but grow into a complete picture for the reader. However, it is debatable whether that picture makes perfect sense across a range of flashbacks and characters’ correspondence.
As school dramas go, The Heart of Thomas is a historically significant slap in the face that woke up shojo manga and stings as keenly to this day.
The Heart of Thomas
by Moto Hagio