There's a lot of school-themed boys' love out there, especially those set in that most obvious hotbeds of teenaged homoeroticism: the boarding school. Today's selections is one of the better known examples in English, but its age can't save it from the fact that it's kind of terrible.
LA ESPERANCA (Esuperansa), by Chigusa Kawai. First published in 2000, and first published in North America in 2005.
Georges Saphir is a very good boy. Ever since his father died, he has always strived to be kind and helpful to everyone he meets. One day, a new boy named Robert enters Georges' class, and from the moment they meet Robert is determined to lash out at Georges at every opportunity. To Robert, Georges is disingenuous; no one could be so pure and good in all seriousness, so he'll just do his best to tear down Georges emotionally to prove his point. Things only get more complicated when Frederick enters their class. Frederick is a young prince who is used to the world bowing down to his every whim but hates the distance this creates between himself and others. Thus, he chooses to take out on the boy assigned to be his friend: poor little Georges. As for Georges, though, he's determined to find a way to reach out to both of them, even as he struggles to find some sense of self-acceptance.
I was kind of surprised to learn that La Esperanca was supposedly a big-name title in American BL fandom. Why? Well, it's because the story isn't so much a romance as it is a bunch of melodramatic teenaged nonsense and every plot twist made me want to roll my eyes and sigh in annoyance.
Every character here is some ridiculous extreme. They're either perfect saints or perfect assholes, and the latter lash out at the former because UGH I'M SUCH A REBEL AND YOU CAN'T UNDERSTAND MY PAIN. NOTHING IS GOOD IN LIFE SO I'M JUST GOING TO RUIN EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE BECAUSE AAAAAAAAAAAANGST. The only time it changes is when these same characters are raging about OH NO ONE UNDERSTANDS THE REAL ME, I DON'T WANT TO BE SPECIAL SO I'LL PROJECT ALL MY FRUSTRATIONS ON OTHERS WAAAAAAAAAH. It's just the worst sort of shallow, stereotypical teenage drama and each of our three leading men is guilty of it to one degree or another. The only relief from all the angst comes when Robert has something of a breakthrough before the end if simply because Frederick starts taking out his issues on Robert's favorite punching bag. Thus he starts filling his time with lots of pointless BL fanservice. He's pretty much the only reason this could be considered shonen-ai, as he spends an awful lot of time hovering over Georges, pinning him to walls, and even forcing a kiss or two on the poor kid. I wouldn't have a problem with this except for the fact that it absolutely doesn't fit with his I WILL DESTROY EVERYTHING attitude and fits far more with the author forcing Robert to play the role of the seme for the fangirls. Not content to be left behind, Frederick starts to take a turn for the tsundere as the story goes on. He bullies Georges at every opportunity, but then gets jealous when literally anyone else has a conversation with him.
I will grant those two one point: Georges really is too saintly to be believed. No saint in the history of the Catholic church could ever hope to be as perfect as Georges; he's less of a character than he is a construct, a personification of martyrdom itself. Not even he can escape from this story's fetish for angst, as Georges' father was a greedy bastard who literally stole from the poor. Thus Georges sees his father's sins as his own and is determined to make up for them by being Mr. Perfect. Even after Georges reaches a point where he can start letting go of that baggage, it's done in a manner that's completely cheesy and that rings complete false. In other words, it's just like every other emotional turning point in the story.
Reading La Esperanca is an exhausting experience. Any emotional truths it has to offer are completely drowned out by all the lazy, theatrical drama that the story dishes out. All these heightened emotions and heavy-handed morals make the story as a whole feel claustrophobic and suffocating. I can't imagine anyone out of their teens enjoying this unless they were utterly desperate for cheap, homoerotic drama.
La Esperanca's art is rather old-fashioned for BL, and because of that I could see some modern readers getting turned off by the art style in general. The character designs are pretty standard for BL, with their narrow, cramped faces, pointed chins, and floppy, overdrawn hair. What's truly horrifying is what happens when Kawai tries to make them express something other than dull surprise, as it tends to come out as 'rapeface' regardless of what she was intending to pull off. Worse, they all tend to look alike save for their heights and hair colors. This can make some story points more confusing as intended, as Frederick looks so much like Robert that often you can only distinguish him by the fact that he's shorter and isn't quite so shitty towards Georges. The panels are also just as claustrophobic as the story. Almost every panel zooms in uncomfortable close as the boys brood in a sea of shoujo sparkles. Because of this the artwork as a whole comes off as dark and messy as the story itself.
La Esperanca is a tedious bit of shonen-ai melodrama with bad art, pointless BL fanservice, and terrible characters all around. Its reputation is in no way earned and it's best forgotten along with the majority of DMP's manga library.
This series was published by Digital Manga Publishing. This series is complete in Japan with 7 volumes available. All 7 were published and all are currently out of print.