SOTUS: a tradition passed down in Thai universities where upperclassmen impose discipline and wisdom upon incoming students: Seniority; Order; Tradition; Unity; Spirit.
It’s the start of a new university year and in the engineering faculty, the upperclassmen have summoned all the freshmen (that’s including the women). Arthit, designated the head hazer, is there to put the first years through a series of exacting ‘trials’ – and the aim? To earn the ‘gear’, a cogwheel, symbol of their faculty. But the instant Arthit asks his first question (“How many freshmen are here today?”) and no one is able to answer, he clashes with the only freshman brave (or foolish) enough to dare to respond. He is Kongpob and, as far as Arthit is concerned, he’s trouble. What’s more, Kongpob brazenly declares in front of everyone that in order to get the gear, he’d make Arthit his wife because, “They say partners share their property, after all.” Tall and good-looking, with no apparent regard for his own safety, Kongpob’s the one who stands up for his fellow freshmen and takes the punishments Arthit doesn’t hesitate to dole out. This is the first time a freshman has taken that sort of attitude with me, the head hazer of all people, thinks Arthit. It’s…like Kongpob was never scared of me in the first place. But why? There is a reason – but Arthit hasn’t remembered something that happened a while ago.
The strict hazing regime continues – and Kongpob continues to stand up for his fellow freshmen, especially when the physical training imposed on them is too harsh for some of the students to endure. This brings him into constant conflict with Arthit, an ongoing battle of wills. There’s a big contest coming up too, in which the campus Moon and Star are chosen for the year and Kongpob is determined to enter; there’s also freshmen inter-faculty sports contests and Kongpob’s in the basketball team. Oh – and there’s also Mr and Mrs Popular – everything (apart from team sports) being decided by student votes. Of course, Kongpob confronts Arthit and asks, “If we win everything, what will you give us?” and proceeds to suggest a bet. “If I lose, I’ll do whatever you say. So if I win will you do what I ask? I’m pretty sure I’m at the disadvantage here.” Arthit grudgingly accepts. But how will Kongpob and the Engineering freshmen fare? He’s set himself a pretty difficult challenge.
I have no idea how common or even accepted the practice of hazing is in Thai universities; I’ve always been under the impression that it’s more of a US tradition. But, as all readers have to go on in SOTUS is what novelist BitterSweet describes within their campus-set story, it looks as if it’s part of university life, establishing a strict pecking order of third years telling freshmen and women what to do from the moment they arrive and perpetuating a hierarchical tyranny. To a UK reader this leaves a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth and, of course, it makes the stubborn Kongpob stand out as a hero against the bullying, repressive regime being imposed by Arthit and his fellow third years. However, in spite of the initial bad impression that Arthit and the other third years make on the reader, BitterSweet drops hints that he might not be such an inflexible, hard-hearted man as he first appears to be. One of the more revealing scenes occurs in the cafeteria when the two young men end up having to share a table because it’s so busy. Arthit, in spite of his choice of spicy food – and his making fun of Kongpob’s choice of omelette (he doesn’t like spicy food) – is embarrassed when his order of pink milk (nom yen) appears, because of course Kongpob notices. My carefully constructed persona is crumbling right in front of my eyes. Nevertheless, the two are getting to know each other better… but the hints that there might be the possibility of them becoming friends, let alone lovers, are quite subtly embedded in the way their expressions are drawn when they’re together and a few enigmatic exchanges. This slow burn is so slow, you could probably miss it if you were reading at speed!
SOTUS is – I think – the first Thai Boys’ Love manga to make it to an official paperback in English (as well as digital release) and it’s based on novels by BitterSweet that debuted online in 2013-14. There’s currently something of a boom in Thai BL TV dramas and the novels have already been made into a popular TV drama (2016-17). The art for this Japanese manga adaptation – which is accomplished and attractive in a conventional art style (not a criticism, just an observation) – is by Kei who seems to be working as a BL mangaka with her own titles, as well as producing josei manga under the name Kei Shichiri; she must be really busy, seeing the number of titles she’s brought out. SOTUS the manga is ongoing at three volumes so far and Yen Press will be bringing out the second volume in June 2023. The translation is by Leighann Harvey and deals well with the different elements that come into play in the story, even the song lyrics that are sung at the Moon and the Star contest. There’s a bonus story at the end of the volume, an attractive colour illustration at the start and a 4-koma cartoon on the inside of the back cover.
The way the story unfolds in this first volume of SOTUS sometimes feels a little forced – but that might come from it being adapted to manga-form from its origins as a novel. In spite of these awkward moments, it makes for an interesting read – but I hope it will develop the nascent relationship between the two main characters because otherwise, there’s not much to hold the attention.