Back when BL manga was first gaining traction in the US – as a genre and as a distinct fandom – there were two titles that were referred to with a kind of reverence as progenitors of the genre. Takemiya Keiko’s Kaze to Ki no Uta (Song of the Wind and the Trees) and Moto Hagio’s Touma no Shinzou (Heart of Thomas). Just as Sakura no Namiki is to Yuri, these titles are not BL as we know it now, but the stories that laid the path upon which BL was built. Now, thanks to Fantagraphics and Matt Thorn, we have an official licensed version of Heart of Thomas in English.
I was interested in Heart of Thomas a classic manga, as a historical relic and as a period on a sentence I started reading backwards with the movie Summer Vacation 1999. (I’ll come back to this in a bit.)
Heart of Thomas takes place in a German boarding school after trains but in an otherwise non-specific time. Pretty young Erich arrives at the school just after the death of Thomas, whom Erich greatly resembles, throwing the whole school into a tizzy, especially Juli – to whom Thomas had confessed before he died…and after, in a final note.
The story explores the layers of emotion and guilt the characters carry with them, peeling the layers away slowly until we can see the formative moments that created the character as we experience them in the beginning. The chronological story moves forward, but the emotional stories are told moving backward.
I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the story itself. It’s intensely, almost absurdly emotional, one of the hallmarks of BL well into the 2000s. Juli is meant to be seen as a tragic figure and Erich sort of the key that releases him, while staving off his own tragedy. By the end of the book I still didn’t much “like” Juli, but I came to admire Erich for the strength he showed. Oskar was the best character throughout and I wish, honestly that we had spent more time with him.
Having now read Heart of Thomas, I am able to better understand and appreciate Summer Vacation 1999, a live-action movie loosely based on the manga. In fact, I very much like how it was adapted. By placing it in a time during the school year when all the other boys are gone, leaving only the principles, it plays out with more intensity, everything was more tightly wound. Erich, in the movie, arrives bearing secrets and so becomes an active catalyst for what follows, in stark contrast to Erich in the book, who has no agenda at all and merely wishes to be left alone.
I can also see the direct transformation of emotional conflict in this and Kaze to Ki no Uta to stories like Bronze: Zetsuai since 1989, (which was the most popular BL story the year I started getting into manga,) in which the emotional conflict for this dynamic – a staple of both Athenian and Edo elite- gelled into tortured seme and apparently aloof uke. It still doesn’t interest me per se, but I like to see how it evolved. ^_^
Technically, Heart of Thomas looks gorgeous, as Fantagraphics books always do. There are some few glaring quality control issues, which is unusual for Fantagraphics. Matt has addressed one error on his blog. The others I hope will remain unnoticed except by those of us who cannot not edit as we read. ^_^
In the same way I believe we should be familiar with the roots of Yuri, and understand how Yaneura no Nishojo begot Sakura no Namiki, which begot Shiroi Heya no Futari and thus leads us to the apparently-similar-but-not-at-all-the-same paths of Strawberry Panic and Maria-sama ga Miteru, or how Princess Knight leads to Rose of Versailles and thence to Utena and beyond, I recommend reading Heart of Thomas to understand where tropes that are now fixed and understood as given in BL came from.
Art – 9
Story – 8
Characters – 8
Service – 4
Overall – 8
I was moved by it, and impressed by it and annoyed by it. Did I like Heart of Thomas? I don’t know yet. I’m still thinking about that. ^_^