La Esperanca--Manga

La Esperanca officially has one of these jobbers ç (called a cedilla). I may or may not try to remember to put it in like so: La Esperança. I'll try. And I will try...I mean it. Why? Because La Esperança  is one of my favorite manga series ever. On the surface it's typical yaoi stuff--school boys yearning over forbidden feelings in a will they/won't they sort of situation that ends all too predictably. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but La Esperança does more than just rehash the same plot as a hundred other tension-filled, angsty, boy-love manga. It actually brings up some interesting and insightful discussions of destiny, friendship, faith, kindness, fragility and vulnerability. These are heavy, literary themes for this genre of manga and author and illustrator Chigusa Kawai (this is her first, and for a long time her ONLY work) handles them with maturity, subtlety, complexity and sincerity in this seven volume series.

But first, an important confession: I read this manga as it was being released by DMP, and eagerly anticipated each new volume. I can remember counting down release dates, driving on my lunch hour to (of all places) the local Game Stop, and bringing the volumes home with twitchy fingers. La Esperança made me nervous. It still does. I often delayed reading my new volume until I had re-read all the previous ones. I was certainly anxious to know what turn the story of wealthy private school students Georges Saphir and Robert Jade might take, but I'd need to ease myself back into it. To be frank, I was nervous for the characters. I both wanted and did not want to see them break. I was nervous for me as well, La Esperança is a series I had to physically step away from on several occasions (putting the book down mid-chapter with a sigh or sharp intake of breath) to ward off the emotional heartbreak that seemed inevitable.

In short, this series is pretty powerful stuff at times, especially in terms of image, emotion, and characterization. It also has a lot of wind blown angst. Lots of wind. So much wind that Ms. Shakespeare once went on a lengthy diatribe about the amount of wind in this manga series, claiming that in order for this to be realistic each character would have to be sporting around their own wind machine at all times. Wind aside, because I don't really care either way, this is a must read. Chigusa Kawai's first work is intense, impressive and (dare I say it? ) literary. I have been looking forward to some new work from this writer/illustrator since the end of La Esperança, and Kawai has finally produced something new--a series entitled Alice the 101st, which is on my to read and to review list as we speak. I only hope the new series lives up to my expectations based on this one. I'll certainly be letting you know, Dear Readers.

WARNING ONE: Blogger may have just screwed me out of a crazy-good, long-ass essay on this manga. In fact, I know it did. I have never had this experience on blogger, and am half-furious at both it and myself at the moment. I will have to rewrite it, and I am ensaddened. I hope it is even better this time around, although I expect it will not be. Hey, blogger, what happened to the auto-save? Did you forget to do that? Because it would have been really nice in this case. SO ANGRY!

WARNING TWO: Dr. M (seriously, I have an actual PhD...don't question my ability to get all schooley) is about to wax all academic up in this mug, please bear with her, humor her and acknowledge that from time to time this sort of thing has a place.

Robert and Georges first meeting.
Georges literally falls into his arms.
Only to be dumped out unceremoniously with a
"Tsk, I thought you were a girl."

At its heart, La Esperança is a buildungsroman about the development of the inner self. The teenage boys populating St. Grollo Boy's School are coming to an awareness of the singular self at odds with the surrounding world. This awareness brings with it an acknowledgement of limitations and complications. Each character is asked to face their fears about the past and future in order to become a whole person moving in and through the world.
Thematically it deals with some very important, and sometimes heavy, topics, asking us, as readers, to consider, what we do to protect ourselves from the world as human beings.  It is very human to put up our guard against the world around us, because vulnerability leaves us exposed, but closing ourselves off keeps us from living fully in the world through connections with others. Georges, the protagonist of the novel, begins as nothing more than a pretty object--a self-effacing angel popular with all students, but close to none. Henri, the best friend, is held at arms length and longs to breach the unseen barriers Georges throws up to guard his inner self from the outside world. Robert, the antagonist and eventual love interest, hides his true self  behind the perceptions others have of him; he lets his classmates and others believe him to be cold and callous because it is easier (and safer) than having to explain or relieve past sorrows. 

Georges' Story is about acceptance:
In all of the essential ways, this is the story of Georges Saphir, orphan, half-saint, pianist, and angelic do-gooder with a tragic past he is unaware of. So, we must start with Georges.Georges has things wrong, but not on purpose. An altruist at heart Georges strives to be pure, to be kind and helpful to everyone, to live for others. But in living for others he abandons himself in many ways, and becomes less of a person as a result. The sweet-smiling barriers he constructs keep people from seeing what Georges believes is impure, or undeserving, below the surface. Robert is the first person to ever breach the barriers Georges puts up, and he does so rather cruelly in a way, telling Georges that there is a contradiction in George's actions, that Georges, who is friendly to all, but close to none, is actually cruel. He berates him, telling Georges that he spreads benevolence around, but feels none of it, that he pushes his kindness on people, and that although he seems altruistic he is in fact selfish with himself. Robert points out the "lie" in Georges' treatment of his classmates that he claims to like them, but never lets anyone know the real him. Georges, he claims, will be the one suffering in the end if he does not learn to love himself. Roberts lessons are cruelly given at first, but they belie the interest he has in Georges. Georges, over the course of the story, learns to let people in bit by bit. He also learns that to become an adult, to have real relationships, one must give of ones' self.

Robert's Story is one of rredemption:
Can I just tell you how much I love this character? Too bad, Dear Readers, I'm doing it anyway. I love Robert Jade. His cockiness covers his hidden sensitivities and insecurities, therefore he's my second favorite kind of tragic hero. My first favorite kind, incidentally is Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. He is a "pain demon," seemingly sadistic, but really masochistic. Oh, Heathcliff! Robert is the second kind, the torn prince, the knight errant crippled by his own inner workings and personal tragedies, the bad boy with a secret child's heart plagued by sorrows and desires ( on a related note, I love you, Dean Winchester!). His small gestures undo me. Scenes when we get a glimpse into Robert's past, scenes when he and Georges struggle to contain emotion, and scenes where Robert breaks, showing his kindness or his haunted soul, or his fragility, leave me breathless. Georges is a pretty blank page, but Robert....Robert is a supernova: a dying star in the throws of immolation. Robert is haunted by his own tragic past, one in which he feels responsible for the death of a loved one (whom Georges greatly resembles in looks and in personality). Neglected as a child, Robert is awkward with emotion and relationships, but it is clear that he has vast up-wellings of love that need an outlet. In the climax of the book, Robert not only redeems himself, but finds closure and forgiveness. 

Side stories are about coming into one's own self, creating the individual, navigating the distance between expectations and reality, desires and needs. Each of the characters faces their own personal quests to establish a future, to comes to terms with obstacles and to make secure connections that will last a lifetime. These boys are at a crossroads in which the must choose the directions their lives will take: each struggles with very human fears, fallabilities, and even a few neuroses.

Georges kisses Robert out of the blue,
finally taking something for himself.

The story ends, not on a saccharine sweet happily ever after, but on a sort of trembling hopefulness.  Robert and Georges actually part, but with promises. They will each other to fight, to survive whatever life may throw at them and (in the immortal words of Tim Gunn) "make it work" despite obstacles.  We see a glimpse of their possible future in their determination to take initiative, address, change, and compromise WITHOUT sacrificing one's ideals, and self.

In this way the "Ending" feels more akin to a beginning. Half of me wishes for a continuation---half of me thinks that this hopeful, "non-conclusion" is the best of all possible endings for a series concerned with accepting and facing future obstacles.

I keep coming back to this manga again and again, not because it is sweet or inspiring (although it is at times) , but because it touches on what it means to be human in all of its incarnations--positive and negative. There are certainly moments where my heart is bursting  for these characters, but there are equal number of  moments when I feel afraid for them, or question their actions and reactions. Human beings are not perfect.  There are no happy endings. In fact, there are no endings at all.


William Shakespeare said...

Dude, that was powerful.

Kisa said...

Wow, excellent write up. I marathoned this manga and thought it was brilliant.

The Moon in Autumn said...

Just got the rest of this from the recent sale, and I marathoned the whole thing for the first time since it came out. Powerful stuff and very funny at times. You touched on a lot of things that make me love it.

(Also, Alice 101st is amazing. Two volumes so far. When is 3 coming out . . . ?!)