Moto Hagio participated in the remaking of Japanese comics for girls. Before the Year 24 group, of which Hagio was a part, girls’ manga––shoujo from now on––traded in pitifully slight fantasies about mistaken identity and had men writing them. Defeat in World War II unleashed major upheavals in all parts of Japanese society, and though the potentially revolutionary energies at work in Japan ran afoul of American and comprador repression, Japanese culture in the 1950s through the early 1970s crackled with invention. Manga and anime as we know it today, along with the classic canon of Japanese films and the countercultural New Wave after it, burst forth in these few middle decades of the century. As an artifact of that time, Heart of Thomas registers the shockwaves of liberalized sexuality and expressive freedom that existed precariously alongside growing commercialization of popular art in 1974, when a weekly magazine serialized it in its pages.
Though I made reference to sexuality, sex itself is anathema in Heart of Thomas, existing only in the painful margins of the story. That tale begins with Thomas, the title character, committing suicide by plunging off a bridge. The subject of his unrequited love, Juli, who is a student at the same German boarding school, receives Thomas’ suicide note, and along with his friend Oscar is the only one who knows that Thomas’ demise was no accident. The cryptic note reveals that Thomas intended his death to carry a powerful meaning for Juli, but this is not unraveled until near the end of this expansive book. Complicating matters is the arrival of Erich, who resembles Thomas so much in appearance that it awakens Juli’s death drive as the latter attempts to expunge Thomas’ specter from his life.
Heart of Thomas is also an origin point for shounen-ai, or “boy love,” casting the roles of the narrative almost entirely with boys who have their own complicated romantic politics. Their loves are always idealized and angelic, having an almost puritanical devotion entwined with sexual desires. The former, as mentioned, rarely figure into the story. Love in this book is internal and mystical, swirling like a torrent around the body but, because the characters are so young, not explicitly sexual at all. To illustrate, let’s take the handling of kisses in the story. Because Hagio injects elements of Christianity into the book, kisses figure as “Judas kisses” more often than genuine tokens of affection, used to spite or as currency for favors. Judas and the fallen angels form perhaps the central motif of the story, symbols of betrayal and loss of innocence. Love and hate, therefore, tend to work on an abstract plane in the story, complemented by the expressionistic use of spacing and composition in the artwork. Characters may be in proximity to one another in the panels but separated from each other by vast distances or, more often, the boundary between life and death. Hagio renders the psyches of the characters as just as literal as their physical forms, constituent parts of their presence in the story. As one might guess, the content of these worlds is often easily read in a Freudian way, a tangle of narcissism, misdirection, and repression that often boils.
Despite the complexity of the multiple subplots and character explorations, the fundamental theme of the story can be simply summarized: how people live with the scars of past torment. Some of these are literal, like Juli’s, while others signify themselves through absence and regret more than transfigured skin. Because the story takes place in what seems to be a Catholic boys’ school, characters sometimes express their troubles in religious language, whether they believe or not. Because of their class status as petty bourgeoisie, their immaturity, and their upbringing, these characters have a highly abstracted relationship to all areas of life, which includes their romantic conflicts. Theirs is a sheltered world, something like the academy in Revolutionary Girl Utena, an island where the larger themes of the story work themselves out almost as actors on a stage; we can sense the artifice of the story but also the integrity of the basic truths being expressed. Unrealistic in some ways, Heart of Thomas maintains an unflinching eye on the subject of pain and trauma, and how the people of this peculiar space deal with their mistakes and the terrible sins committed––by them or against them.
Though Heart of Thomas is unmistakably steeped in the shoujo tradition, it deploys the typical romantic phantoms one would see in those stories in far more meaningful ways than the norm. It accomplishes what all art should: forging truth out of lies, taking the concrete world and rendering it newly recognizable in a fiercer and more lucid form on the page.