Anthem Magazine | Nik Mercer | August 1, 2008
RED COLORED ELEGY reviewed by Anthem
1960s Japan was a tumultuous era of revolution in which the dramatically separated left and right viciously and violently came head-to-head for a battle of political and social domination. The oft overlooked post-war time is noted as being a point in the nation's history when it could've morphed into a distinctly liberal society, but somehow failed to entirely.
Seiichi Hayashi, a manga artist, film (and commercial) director, art director, illustrator, and children's book author was a product of the turbulent time, and his 1970-1 masterpiece, Red Colored Elegy (Drawn and Quarterly) aptly depicts the frustration, confusion, and disillusionment the near-liberalization of the Nipponese yielded from the perspective of a young couple, Ichiro and Sachiko.
The two attempt to lead a healthy relationship built around their organic and natural love, but ultimately fail to overcome the traditions and inhibitors that their homeland's society places upon them (Sachiko's parents attempt to arrange her marriage, for example). In the end, Ichiro, an aspiring cartoonist, spends his days moping about, smoking cigarettes, sleeping, and fighting (often with surprisingly violent force) with Sachiko, a more diligent worker. Yet Sachiko herself is angst-ridden by the world she lives in. It's decidedly male-dominated, and she can't figure out how to carve her own path in it. At one point, she considers shaking up with a man six years her elder at the firm of her employment, but realizes the dishonesty in her thoughts.
While the underlying plot is somber, the core themes—love, growing up, individual vs. society—have no cultural, linguistic, or societal boundaries and make the read especially compelling and introspectively worthwhile. Red Colored Elegy is easy to derive unique meaning from.
Part of this is due to the fact that Hayashi's style is so incredibly sparse. In fact, his 235-page tome barely resembles the manga Westerners have become familiar with. There're no doe-eyed heroins, childish, almost girly male leads, and cartoonish villains in this post-modern work (it truly is a text and not just fluff). Hayashi omits the facial features of most supporting characters or else silhouettes them; he replaces possible backdrops with empty space, forcing the reader to make his own setting and backgrounds (literally like animation cells); he highlights motion not with action lines or speed marks, but with extra panels to divide time. (The panel technique is characteristic of manga. It slows the pace down—or speeds it up—by zooming in on a couple microseconds. Hayashi does it with incredible elegance.)
In his book, words are pictures and pictures are words. The synergy between word and line, text and drawing is what makes this read so enamoring, despite its slightly befuddling scenario (little historical context is given, although the action clearly takes place in the early-1970s).
Hayashi's genius is that he was able to essentially pare down his manga story to its bare minimum—if he removed any more, it would truly be a blank slate—without losing the raw emotive power it has. Comics in general often get a bad rep for not letting the mind wander like novels do. If anything, though, Red Colored Elegy lets you wander and fill in the blanks more than any piece of prose with it's delicate positioning of text, lines, panels, characters, and select contextual objects.