Page 45 Review by Stephen
I entered with an arched eyebrow, and left with a lump in my throat. Which, under other circumstances, might form the basis of a lacerating restaurant review. But no, the sceptic in me has been vanquished.
This is an astonishingly accurate portrait of young, unrequited love which ticked so many recognition boxes for me, albeit at a slightly older age and evidenced in different combinations of those around me. Nor is it a single, simple relationship but a complicated cats cradle of loudly declared intentions, tentatively voiced affections, barely comprehended yearnings and closely guarded secrets, all of which, by the time this kicks off, have already lead to misunderstanding and tragedy.
It begins, you see, with a suicide.
A young boy called Thomas, his boarding school affections rejected as publicly as you could imagine, throws himself off a bridge. He leaves behind him two notes: one hidden in a book, the other addressed directly to prefect he doted on:
To Juli, one last time.
This is my love.
This is the sound of my heart. Surely you must understand.
Can you imagine? Can you imagine the weight of being left a legacy like that? The burden of guilt than comes with a letter directed specifically at yourself as the reason for suicide? That Moto Hagio successfully manages to explore that weight with rounded consideration is astonishing.
Additionally, the circumstances were far more involved than most of the protagonists realise. The affections when voiced were misconstrued by almost all as but part of a mischievous bet instigated by another lad, Ante, to see which of them could seduce Juli first. Ante had his own agenda which, if not exactly innocent, was at least motivated not by malevolence but by a crush elsewhere, while Thomas was perfectly sincere in his adoration.
As for Juli, who has now retreated into a shell of quiet yet obdurate propriety, his reasons for rejecting Thomas were far more complicated that a simple lack of reciprocation. To understand Juli, you must wait to understand his mother, his grandmother, the blood of his errant father, and the scars on his back which to him represent the mutilation of wings. Whatever they represent, they are the concrete evidence of predatory abuse. As is the cigarette burn he hides just below his throat. He was damaged goods long before Thomas declaration, let alone his jump.
Into this suffocatingly obsessive, drowning mix of privately guarded grief and guilt as well as the chattery gossip of a communal boys boarding school comes junior transfer student Erich. Erich has never been to any school, let alone boarding school, and all he wants is to return to the arms of his mother who is now casting her eyes towards suitors. Erich is terrified of being abandoned back home, while at school he is bewildered by the boys boisterous banter, the more lascivious machinations of the slightly older lechers, and the overt hostility of Juli whom others regard as a saint. Too bad, then, that Erich is the spitting image of young, dead Thomas, his mere presence constantly dredging up emotional detritus that would be better off buried, and too bad that he too becomes infatuated with Juli.
As for Oskar, Julis dashing but level-headed best friend and peer, throughout the entire book he demonstrates the most extraordinary and affecting degree of self-control and self-sacrifice. The headmasters ward, Oskar has been assigned as Julis room-mate to watch over him in the wake of assault. While everyone else it oblivious, it is Oskar who knows Julis secrets, so considers himself closer and, yes, he too is in love. But first he lost Juli to Thomas (oh, but he did), then to the memory of Thomas (and you cannot compete with a memory) and now to young Erich. Am I not good enough? he wonders to himself. In his weaker moments he does feel slightly proprietorial but he never once acts on those instincts or its attendant jealousy: everything he does is to facilitate Julis happiness often at his own expense. Hes possibly the only person in the book who doesnt declare his hand or self-interest.
And thats where this graphic novel most resoundingly parts company both with my own experience and, surely, reality itself: everyone at the school seems gay! And out! And gossiping about it. Which is a healthy kind of message to send to young people but, as one customer researching queer content in comics remarked, What did they put in the water?!
Whats also healthy and perhaps I should have emphasised this earlier is that none of this has anything to do with sex. Some of the cast are way too young to have even considered sex in their lives; instead the various degrees of affection ranging from young love to mere infatuation (always difficult to tell at the time, dont you think?), all of this reaching out is a response to feeling lonely. Its a desire to share: experiences, confidences, and, well, time together. And the word they all use is like.
Here Erich tentatively reaches out to Juli as Juli takes him on a tour of dormitory inspection, and Juli
evades, battens down the hatches, and then comes out with something quite profound:
Have you ever had anyone tell you he likes you?
Your question has nothing to do with inspection. Now we turn off the main switch and were done.
what would you do if someone really liked you?
I mean really! Enough to die!
If he wants to die, thats his business. What about you? If someone loves you, do you have to love him back?
Exactly. If it was someone I hated, I wouldnt have any obligation to requite it, would I?
How about me? Do you hate me?
do you like me? Even a little?
Does he? Or has it all proved too much?
Coming in at 500 pages, theres a lot to be digested in this revolutionary manga from 1972 far more than I can go into during these attention-span-sapping few paragraphs. But its worth noting why I was so sceptical in case youre experiencing those same minor aversions.
Its billed as a boys romance whose manifestation in the hot-boy-on-boy-action sub-genre usually has me rummaging around in my booze-addled brain for as many puns as I can in one long, light-hearted mock-athalon. So fucked up are its preening protagonists that they dont give gay a good name.
It also looked fey and I dont do fey. Im positively allergic to pink, and the art initially struck me as so flowery that I shuddered. It reminded me rather queasily of Death In Venice, complete with antiquated costume, overly luscious locks and even more kiss curls. Theres an early scene in a dining room full of school boys talking around and about our main protagonist while he, young Juli, stares off into the distance, a galaxy of stars sparkling in his eyes as if hes in secret and silent communication with the entire cast of My Little Pony.
But it wasnt long before I realised that this prettiness also contributed to the purity of the piece, helping to render it sexless. Most of the main cast look too ethereal to be capable of anything more corporeal than a kiss.
So yes, my bad.
Also, I do recall now that I reviewed Moto Hagios A DRUNKEN DREAM AND OTHER STORIES and found that quite brilliant too.