Japan, 1960. Only fifteen years after the end of a brutal war that ended only when Japan faced near annihilation, the ANPO treaty with America reduces Japan to a pacifist state within the very first line. A decade and a half after the treaty was signed, its repercussions are still felt, shaking the country to its core. Social revolution is in full swing: political activists clash with military police in waves of rioting against American occupation, corruption, perceived degradation of morals and racial discrimination. Worsening matters still, in 1970 Japan suffers its first post-war economic decline due to the world oil crisis. The same year, celebrated novelist, play-write, poet and fascist/gay icon Yukio Mishima commits ritual suicide by disembowelment after a failed coup d'état. It is this politically-charged landscape of trembling paradigms that is the backdrop to Seiichi Hayashi's "Red Colored Elegy".
On the microscopic scale, Red Colored Elegy tells the story of Ichiro and Sachiko. Ichiro is a university graduate. He alternates between the torturous doubts that he will never become a manga artist and the highs of creating his own work. A prominent theme of the story is how becoming an adult can tarnish a person, and this is none so evident in Ichiro's struggle to make ends meet by working on the bottom-rung of a foreign animation company, drawing in-between animation cells, a low-paying and increasingly scarce job. Sachiko appears to work in the same industry, as a tracer. She too is feeling the constraints of responsibility, though less so in her work than in the arranged marriage her family are pressuring her into. Just as Ichiro channels his desires into his unfulfilled work and is apathetic to seemingly all else, Sachiko is blinkered into yearning infatuation with Ichiro. However, she often finds he frustrates her as well as fascinates (the first words she says in the manga are "I just don't understand him"). The two disparate personalities are trapped within their small, single-futon apartment. They are both wishing for something more, something better, which never truly materialises.
Archetypal of the artistic formalism movement, Hayashi's drawing style is the most prominent feature of his work. Undeniably unique, it is distorted and defiant against the constraints of the medium. This was drawn before manga art became delineated, before the modern trend for identicality and over-expression. As such, Hayashi's art style is a unique niche within the evolution of the manga.
A hallmark of his art is that Ichiro and Sachiko are drawn without heed for restrictions of anatomy or aesthetics. Their bodies and expressions are symbolic to the state of their emotions. In one of my favourite panels, Ichiro lies warped with despair over his future, while still recognisably - desperately - human. Hayashi's style, though distinct, is full of varied influences: contemporary 70s pop culture, noir films, German expressionism, the French New Wave, Disney, and most definitely by the seditious art-house films being made at the time.
While Hayashi's art style may be both dense and lucid, the underpinnings of character interaction and development are more subtle. Within the 236 pages if this book, there are 87 panels that don't contain a human being. Together, Ichiro and Sachiko communicate in naturalistic snippets of everyday conversation, showing more in what is left unsaid than in any outright dialogue. Body language is used strikingly to convey mood: such as Ichiro's poor posture from hunching over his drawings all night or the way Sachiko bends to check the bottom of her high heel. Backgrounds are drawn sparsely. The urban minutiae of endless pavements and power cables are composed (to borrow a phrase from animation) as if rotoscoped, giving the impression of detachment and industrialisation, despite being drawn by hand.
Sequence is everything in Red Colored Elegy. Hayashi's paneling is dislocated, disjunctive. The narrative is not diced up into chapters: panels are erratic and art sometimes spills onto the next page. The way the story flows, it would be all too easy to rush through A Red Colored Elegy, but something is lost that way. Red Colored Elegy has a distinct, if peculiar, rhythm. Isolated panels don't properly convey the exquisiteness of the art seriatim, just as a poem unspoken loses something from the lack of intonation.
Perceptions are distorted as the story and art slip into the surreal, where thoughts and feelings are externalised; the realm of visual metaphor, pun, repetition and fugue. This is where Red Colored Elegy is most avant-garde and experimental, in its anti-narrative and non-sequitur transitions, as if carried by fury and passion. However slippery the art may seem at times, Hayashi is never sloppy or thoughtless: nothing proves this more than the careful construction of an elliptical narrative, where motifs appearing early on reoccur later with an added layer of meaning. Every line and brush-stroke is deliberate, down to the ambiguity between blood and ink, between tears of happiness and of sorrow.
Red Colored Elegy also inspired a love song of the same name. Whether intimidating or perplexing, I believe that for this book to be understood it should be thought of as a love poem - a love song - for the eyes instead of the ears.
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly (1 Aug 2008)