Time for a little detour from shōnen action. Let’s read some shōjo for a change.
I picked this book up for a few reasons. I try to support as many classic manga releases as I can; I fell in love with manga through Tezuka Osamu’s works, so I have a soft spot for series from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. I’d also heard that Hagio Moto was a highly influential artist, the Heart of Thomas particularly so for its art, subject matter, and legacy, so I thought it’d be good to read some of her stuff for a change.
And what a work this was! I went in with very little idea of what the plot was about, but I walked away feeling like I happened upon something special.
The Heart of Thomas opens with the titular Thomas, a student at a German boarding school, committing suicide. The tragedy rocks the school, with students all across mourning the loss of their classmate. Because Thomas left no indication of his intent to commit suicide, the school believes he died in an accident. One student, Juli, receives a letter from Thomas written before his death that indicates his true feelings. Juli and Oskar, his roommate, start to wonder if Thomas’ death was truly an accident. Matters are complicated when a new student named Erich, bearing a remarkable resemblance to Thomas, transfers to the school.
My impression of the Heart of Thomas is that the plot is relatively simple – after Juli receives a letter from Thomas and Erich transfers in, the rest of the story is these characters bouncing off of each other. They talk, they brood, they scheme, they have internal monologues – they run the whole gamut of emotions.
The sentiment is absolutely heightened by the artwork of this book. Hagio is a truly expressive artist, one who’s better at communicating emotion through drawings than any single comic artist I’ve encountered in my life. The characters feel things within an inch of their lives. When a character is stricken by grief, they literally burst into flower pedals. When a character is trying to avoid someone and runs into them by chance, the air literally gets sucked out of the room. When a character confronts another with a weapon, the background goes completely black and the weapon is bathed in white light, highlighting the intensity and gruesomeness of the action. If a character is shocked, lightning bolts crack behind them while the scenery fades into something akin to a hypnosis circle. These are just a few examples – there are so many I could pull from the text. Clearly, this is part of Hagio’s style, and it is a true asset for her. It heightens her storytelling prowess and makes for something unique.
The back cover of the book describes the story as enigmatic, and I’d have to agree. It was a very dreamlike story. Though Thomas is gone, his likeness appears constantly throughout the story, and it (not necessarily he himself) has a profound effect on the cast. Juli struggles with his feelings for Thomas in death in contrast to the indifference he felt while Thomas was alive. Erich has difficulty assimilating into boarding school life because his defining trait is looking like someone he has never met and is apparently not otherwise similar to. Certain aspects of the plot make it seem like the events in the story do not reflect reality. Same-sex romance is a major theme of this story, as many of the characters share and act on romantic feelings for one another. But at the same time, there is a whole chapter where Oskar and Erich go to town and woo local girls, after which their classmates express an envy of not getting to tag along. It seemed a little strange, and it made me feel like the homoromantic feelings as expressed in most other parts of the text were perhaps fleeting. Another story thread, where Erich visits Thomas’ family and is suddenly asked to move in with them, seemed outside of reality somehow.
These are not marks against the story, however – the way it switched modes between the more grounded and the more expressive made the story a compelling read. Had the art been more bland, these sequences would read like a more humdrum melodrama, but with Hagio’s talented hand at the helm, you start to feel along with the characters. The dreamy components of the narrative kept me on my toes and really made me think about the plot long after I reached the final page.
The Heart of Thomas made me a fan of Hagio Moto’s work. Through her entrancing art, she made this tale of boarding school students a compelling, dreamlike romp. Your enjoyment may be limited if you need a more concrete plot – we just see characters interact with each other once the news of Thomas rocks the school – but if you’re interested in getting to know these characters, Hagio helps you dive deep into their psyches. I greatly enjoyed the ride here and can’t wait to read more of her stories.
The Heart of Thomas was written and illustrated by Hagio Moto and serialized in Shogakukan’s Shōjo Comic from 1973-1974. It was later released in three volumes. The English version from Fantagraphics is a three-in-one omnibus. Check out Fantagraphics’ page on the manga here