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Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi

Hayashi, Seiichi. Red Colored Elegy. Trans. by Taro Nettleton. Drawn & Quarterly, 2008. Hardcover. 236 p. $24.95. 9781897299401.

By nature comics are elliptical, an art of omission: from iconic art styles to the gaps in time and space created by the panel breakdowns. For the majority of comics, the reader’s work at filling in the gaps, both visually and narratively, is relatively light. You don’t have to put much thought into connecting two panels of a Peanuts strip or moving between the panels of a fight scene in a Kirby comic. This clarity of connections is often used as a criterion of quality, though the converse is not necessarily true. Some comics require the reader to work harder at filling in the gaps, at making the mental leap from one image to the next, one page to the next. I like comics that make me work at them, not because of lack in the creator’s skill, but because of an attempt to tell a story in a novel way.

In reading Red Colored Elegy, I get the idea that Seiichi Hayashi was working at something different. He does not spell out all the plot points nor does he tell us every last thought and feeling of the characters, rather he uses allusion and metaphor to let the reader draw out conclusions (what conclusions there are to be had) and to create emotional and narrative effects. The elliptical construction of this manga forms a narrative that is more loose and insubstantial than any plot summary I’ve seen would have you believe.

Summarizing the plot of the manga seems almost beside the point, but… The story shows us Ichiro and Sachiko, a young Japanese couple struggling in their jobs and personal lives during the end of sixties. They are isolated and isolating, pushing themselves away from their families and, often, each other. Ichiro works at home as a freelance animator (I think he would be an “inbetweener” drawing the repetitious minor images between the key images) while Sachiko seems to be a “tracer” at an animation studio. Ichiro wants to make comics (he says that a lot); Sachiko is less clear in her wishes. Both seem distraught, depressed, and almost aimless. There really isn’t much of a plot, and that’s fine. Red Colored Elegy is about mood and feeling and a time in young lives when everything can seem oppressive and depressive.

What makes Red Colored Elegy worth reading are the breakdowns and the imagery. Hayashi makes many innovative choices throughout the book, offering glimpses of alternative ways of making comics that are still rarely used almost forty years later.

The first few pages of the manga are worth spending some time on, as they offer a group of jarring transitions and address the themes that will take up the rest of the story. The first page is a single image, a high contrast drawing that looks like it is a copied photograph of a man. He has a star in his eye and another that seems to be shooting out of him. A poetic text is attached that is either translated poorly or excellently, because it reads like juvenilia (it is highly possible in this context that it is purposefully so), and which acts like an epigraph (“My life is an open book, I live it page by page. For what, I don’t know…”). Does this clue us in to pay attention to the page as a unit of narrative in the manga? Certainly, it does point at the existential void in the protagonist’s lives.

This page is followed by a scene were Ichiro (we find out his name later) is walking along with a headless cartoon character who is telling him to quick his animation job. Ichiro seems to stab the character (blood/ink spurts out of him), and we see a barbed wire fence with the character’s white glove hanging on it. At this point in the story, it is not decisive whether this is a real or imagined event, though after a full reading, we can tell that this is some kind of mental projection of Ichiro’s. This imagined violence bubbles beneath the surface of his life like many youths.

The single page that follows contains what looks like two film strips side-by-side (eight frames of which we can see) showing more copied photographic images of a young woman’s head. We see her words; she appears to be talking to someone (“I thought you were going to draw comics,” “I should quit my tracing job,” “maybe I’ll get married”). All of these fragments are clear indicators of the story to come, and that first quote, would lead me to believe that this is Ichiro and Sachiko renewing a formerly casual acquaintance, starting the relationship that we see in the rest of the book.

The four panels that take up equal portions of the next two pages are of elliptical connection. The first panel shows Ichiro and Sachiko walking along, the former with his shoulders hunched, the latter with her head lowered. On a distant horizon we see the silhouette of a person riding a bicycle. A line from the bicycle into the black that makes up the background below the horizon leads to a white star situated between the two characters. The second panel shows Sachiko kneeling and bent forward in front of a small mirror. A word balloon shows her words “I don’t understand him.” The third panel shows another seemingly photographic face, this time inset into the moon surrounded by a night sky. Black tears stream down the face and the mouth is open as if in an anguished cry. The last panel shows Ichiro standing under hanging laundry, speaking out the words “Am I drunk?” (I should add here, that Hayashi’s compositions are often quite excellent, and this page is a good example of that.)

These six pages are, to the first time reader, exceedingly opaque. What is going on? Who are these people? How does one page relate to the next? The reader is left to create their own connections or to just read on through without forming any. The characters, drawn in an very simple outline with few details, can be difficulty to differentiate (and how does the photographic imagery relate to the simple drawings). The panel of Sachiko kneeling in front of the mirror is primarily identifiable as her because of a single line that crosses over her leg above the knee, delineating the hem of her skirt. These simple and subtle differentiations are found throughout the book. The reader must pay close attention.

The image of a star is repeated a number of times in these early pages, as it is in the rest of the book. I see the star as a symbol for the characters dreams. One wishes upon a star, yet the star is distant and surrounded by darkness, isolated like the protagonists, never touching. The lack of connection is reinforced by the “I don’t understand him” comment. The two characters are often seen talking across each other (one later page: Sachiko: “I felt unsure of myself.” Ichiro: “What did you’re sister-in-law tell you?” Sachiko: “Let’s get another futon.” Ichiro (thinks): “I want to draw comics.” (37)).

The hanging laundry/clothes is also a repeated motif. In the panel of Sachiko kneeling we see what looks like clothes hanging in the corner of the panel. Are these clothes and the laundry that follows, the banal chores of daily life, the grounding to the dreams? On the two page spread described above, the top two panels have stars in them, while the bottom two panels having clothes: the dream above, everyday life (seen as chores, something to escape) below. Other symbolic images are found throughout the manga, such as cherry blossoms, a persistent image in Japanese art/literature, which hint at the fleeting nature of life, youth, and beauty. Similarly, I noticed in reading the book, that neither Sachiko or Ichiro are ever drawn in such a way that you can see their faces fully. They are always in profile, from behind, or in a three-quarter behind view. They always seem to be at least partially turned away, a visual metaphor that further accentuates their isolation and communication issues.

While the narrative has numerous convention panel sequences, Hayashi often juxtaposes panels that fit together in unusual, indirect ways. One page (21) offers a kind of metaphorical panel transition of undecidable subjectivity. The top panel shows Ichiro and Sachiko standing under a blossoming cherry tree. Sachiko has just told Ichiro that her parents have arranged a marriage for her. “It concerns you too you know,” she says. “Me?” he replies. They are separated by space and his word balloon. The following panel shows Snow White and Prince Charming in a smiling embrace as blossoms fall around them. I’m left wondering, is this a mental projection of one of the characters, a picture perfect romance filtered through animation (an apt image since they both work in the field)? Or is this an ironic commentary by the author/narrator, commenting on the storybook naivety of such an idea? Either way, the juxtaposition of the two images raises connections, questions, thoughts, and feeling through a method that is rarely seen in comics. A diegetic panel juxtaposed with one that is indeterminately extra-diegetic.

We see something similar late in the book (222). The couple decide to end their relationship. Sachiko points her finger out like a gun; “Bang!” goes the sound effect. The following panel shows Ichiro lying dead on the ground, blood splattered and spilled. This is more directly metaphorical, yet still a striking transition (and it sends us back to that early sequence of Ichiro asssaulting the cartoon character).

Some of the sequences are more difficult to parse. One (58-60) starts with Sachiko’s father, in a single page image, one eye open, one eye closed. The four panels of the next page show: a lizard’s tale with a flower blossom, the father’s head with blossoms/leaves blowing in the background, a lizard’s head with clouds in the background, and a hand holding a razor blade with blossoms again in the background (this time in white on black). A turn of the page brings another full page image showing the father, slumped over, grasping his wrist as blood spurts from it. I have no idea why the lizard is there. I’ve puzzled it over and think there is some symbolism I am missing (like the cherry blossoms, perhaps something cultural).

The French Nouvelle Vague is mentioned on the back copy as an influence, an influence which is obvious from the start. Experiments with montage and cuts were a hallmark of film directors like Godard. An even more explicit connection is found in a two page spread where panels of Sachiko and Ichiro are intercut with panels containing a text, a single sentence spread across five panels: “What a middle school grad needs to do to succeed” (26-27) is quite Godard-esque (including the graffiti-esque way the text is written, adding a connection to the May 68 events in my mind). Godard often intercuts text with images like that.

Occasionally Hayashi inserts panels into the narrative that are outside of the normal (most common) visual style of the book. His drawings are primarily sparse and spare. The couple’s apartment is identified by a futon in a white space. Characters are loosely and often inconsistently delineated with a minimum of detail and a flat use of white, black, and one shade of gray. But one image (46) of the couple making love is drawn with harsh hatching and a thicker line than previous panels, a star shines from the corner. Their pose is like a fight, clawing and grasping at each other, their heads arched away from each other. The stylistic shift emphasizes this page, the figures, and the emotion. The star seems to remind one of something more in the distance.

Later in the book, we turn the page, and come to face-to-face with a single two-page image drawn in a more detailed style (lots of attention to word grain) that shows the top of a building with a wire of some kind running off it, perhaps electric or maybe telephone? I’m still not clear what the purpose of the image is. A number of these two-page images punctuate the narrative, most often carrying a strong metaphorical or symbolic weight.

Hayashi frequently overdoes the angst of his characters. A few times in the book he repeats an almost identical sequence where, across four long horizontal panels, Ichiro, in despair and verbalizing it, hunches himself over into a ball on the ground, or, in a very similar way, flees across the page in despair. These images of Ichiro (and at least once, Sachiko) seem overly melodramatic, particularly after each successive repetition. The character’s are often amped up by visual symbols like an often used lightning bolt image.

The repetition of images and the connections made between panels at a distance are some of what makes this book so interesting, a plethora of examples of Groensteen’s concept of braiding (tressage). This gives the manga as a whole a narrative density that transcends simple plot. All these formal elements force the reader to read closely, to think, and to make connections in ways more involved than most comics. This makes Red Colored Elegy an unusual and exciting reading experience, so much so that I am tempted to just go through this book page by page and point all the seeming non sequiturs, jarring transitions, repeated imagery, and other formal aspects of the book. But I must leave some to be discovered.

An added ellipsis to this book is the lack of context. I originally ordered this book based on a few limited signifiers: publisher (D&Q doesn’t do much manga, but when they do it tends to be interesting alternatives to most of what gets translated), time period (not a lot of manga from previous decades ends up translated either), and an unusual looking cover. I ended up reading a few reviews of the book before I got to the book itself and learned some of the historical context of the work that way (see Bill Randall’s review in The Comics Journal 292 (Oct 2008)). The book itself is missing any sort of introduction. The only thing we get is the text printed on the little paper band wrapped around the back cover. Without that band a reader wouldn’t even know that the manga dates from 1971. This is a poor decision by D&Q. Some kind of brief introduction with some historical context covering both the time period in Japan and in manga specifically would have been much appreciated. You’d never see a translation of a thirty-seven year old novel appear without some kind of text to add context and even answer the question of why this particular work was deserving of translation. Outside of that omission, Red Colored Elegy is an attractively designed book with eye catching covers.

I hope D&Q will follow up this volume (and the Tatsumi volumes, which I liked much less) with more unconventional manga translations.