RED COLORED ELEGY reviewed by The Comics Reporter

Flipped!: David Welsh on Red Colored Elegy

The Comics Reporter    |    Tom Spurgeon    |    September 8, 2008

Drawn & Quarterly is one of those publishers you can simultaneously admire and like. Its catalog is ambitious and varied, offering handsome production values and sensible distribution to emerging cartoonists. But they've released a lot of very accessible work; you don't need to be steeped in the language of comics to enjoy books like Aya or Get a Life, or revel in the timeless charms of Moomin.

Drawn & Quarterly has dabbled in comics from Japan, starting with the seminal (and bleak) work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a pioneer in the field of gekiga. The realistic drama of gekiga stood in contrast to the escapist adventure and romance of most manga. Another seminal example of the category is Seiichi Hayashi's Red Colored Elegy, originally serialized in 1970 and 1971 and recently released in English by D&Q.

In it, Hayashi follows the relationship of Ichiro and Sachiko. The twenty-somethings are living in a time of political activism and cultural evolution, but their focus is on interpersonal turbulence. Ichiro is an artist, doing freelance in the animation industry, but he'd rather be making comics. Sachiko's ambitions are less concrete; she works, but she doesn't define herself by her career, and she seems to want security, but not in the conventional sense promoted by her parents.

If there's a gray area between the admirable and the likable, there's a similar space between a period piece and a classic. For me, Red Colored Elegy resides in both of those gray areas. It feels important that D&Q has published it in English, though there's absolutely nothing novel about the subject matter now. In terms of topic and even style, it could have debuted this year instead of almost four decades ago, and the book's vintage goes a long way towards distinguishing it from the pack of comics with similar concerns.

Some context in the form of supplementary text pieces might have helped distinguish why the book was seminal. A look at the culture of the period, the creative climate of comics in Japan, and the political forces that were driving the mood of its youth might have provided a more persuasive setting for a story that ultimately feels very contemporary.

That isn't to say that Hayashi's work isn't bracing. If Red Colored Elegy is a cusp-of-adulthood relationship drama in a very familiar vein, it's an uncommonly good one. Hayashi's approach is very restrained and conscientious, particularly in its ability to convey the unspoken. Since communication is the crux of Ichiro and Sachiko's problems, the ability to convey the inability to express is essential.

Because their greatest failing as partners in a relationship is the inability to guess what the other wants, paired with an unwillingness or inability to express their own desires. That feels real instead of just mundane, and things benefit from the fact that there's a balance to the way the characters are developed. They're joint protagonists, equally to blame for their problems but not unsympathetic because of that.

With relatively minimal dialogue and a style of illustration that could be viewed as crude, Hayashi ends up with an effect that's much more lyrical than lazy. In some sequences the lovers almost merge physically, but by and large, their body language is much more adversarial. They often appear in profile, facing off against or away from each other. And physically, they're the most real. Their facial features are more detailed and their physicality more defined.

Hayashi can give in to a tendency to overstate. The pages are sprinkled with the occasional pin-up that range from showy to grotesque. Some provide startling counterpoint and are very effective, but others cross the "t" with unnecessary vigor. There's a similar thing going on with the dialogue. Things can get awkward, even mawkish, when the characters come closest to expressing what's on their minds.

But maybe those missteps are more of a reflection of Hayashi's ability to show instead of tell. He's conditioned to readers to interpret the oblique instead of responding to the explicit.

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