We start with the death of Thomas. A suicide, most likely, triggered by the harsh words of Juli, his unrequited love. Devastation grabs the student body, and not a single corner of the boarding school remains silent. Their little “fräulein” was the friendliest, most charming boy one could hope to meet.
Juli, a prefect of most upstanding character, however, has no time to dwell on the past. That is until Erich, a boy the spit, but utter opposite, of Thomas, arrives at the school.
To find an LGBT work that never addresses homophobia is a rarity; to find one amongst that rarity of any artistic merit is even rarer. Where most writers who forgo bigotry do so to create non-confrontational trash, Hagio forgoes it because she is not exploring homosexuality. Male homosexuality is one, among many, aesthetic flourishes employed to add weight to her central theme: 'When does a person learn love? When does one awake to love?'*
Indeed, the individual flourishes are exceedingly well crafted and combined. They layer upon each other, building up until they blossom into a bursting, Bildungsroman melodrama. The extreme emotions, exaggerated expressions and the sheer decadence of the setting create a world larger than life. Dripping from each page is a world both streamlined and full, concentrated through rose-and-thorn-tinted glasses into something hyper-real.
Such a romanticised view of the west could only have come from a non-European. Any modern western writer setting a story in a lavishly opulent boarding school would feel obligated to mention the inequality propping up such institutions. But separated as she is from the matter she does not concern herself, indeed, she need not. Like with homophobia, she throws it out, allowing no half-hearted branches to obscure her primary concern.
Hagio’s art does superbly to this end. Divorced from the story each individual panel is a work of art. The characters are slick, if a touch too uniformly feminine (but this is Shoujo manga), and the backgrounds are suitably detailed. Even when flowers and sparkles appear in volumes which would be gratuitous in any other work, they seem here justified. Taken in sequence, however, the images give a sense of motion and vibrancy which forty years on is rarely matched by comic artists. This is a work one can open to any page, and just be absorbed by the craftsmanship.
But it is the fully formed characters, ultimately, that give the work its lasting freshness. A lesser writer would have resorted to copious and escalating sensualities to lend Erich and Juli’s relationship weight; in the end objectifying the two, stripping them of their living, breathing status for the sake of shallow entertainment. Within this near-600-page tome one can count the public displays of affection on one hand. Their three-dimensional interactions maintain the momentum of their relationship.
The years have done little to mar Hagio’s masterpiece. It is a must read for any fan of Japanese comics, LGBT literature and/or literature in general, both as a piece of history and as a genuinely good read.
The comic is available in English from Fantagraphics. http://www.bookdepository.com/Heart-Thomas-Moto-Hagio/9781606995518
*Thorn, Matt (2005) The Moto Hagio Interview The Comics Journal 269