Seiichi Hayashi produced Sekishoku Elegy between 1969 and 1970, in the aftermath of a politically turbulent and culturally vibrant decade that promised but failed to deliver new possibilities. With a combination of sparse line work and visual codes borrowed from animation and film, the quiet melancholy lives of a young couple struggling to make ends meet are beautifully captured in this poetic masterpiece.
Uninvolved with the political movements of the time, Ichirou and Sachiko hope for something better, but they're no revolutionaries; their spare time is spent drinking, smoking, daydreaming, and sleeping—together and at times with others. While Ichirou attempts to make a living from his comics, Sachiko's parents are eager to arrange a marriage for her, but Ichirou doesn't seem interested. Both in their relationship and at work, Ichirou and Sachiko are unable to say the things they need to say, and like any couple, at times say things to each other that they do not mean, ultimately communicating as much with their body language and what remains unsaid as with words.
Japan has long been a densely populated nation. From as early as the warring states period, Japan's best textual works have been imbibed with a lofty dialogue on the nature of life in the face of human multiplicity. Contextual concerns may change within a matter of years, certainly numerous times within centuries; yet a perceptive statement on the individual self in disparate comparison with greater society often creates timeless humanistic relativism in texts.
'Red Colored Elegy' is as much in its composition a reaction to its context, as it is an attempt to fully comprehend the conception of human attributes and behaviours underpinning the simplistic romance
of Sachiko and Ichiro.
In contemporary history, Japan's textual output has undergone multiple changes in thought and construction. Just as any other country's output, this results in a polymorphous hydra-like pattern of expression within texts, making it all to easy to chase a chimera down a path of needles in interpretation. However, relatively speaking, there has been three major periods that have catalysed paradigm in the last two hundred years for Japan textually; the Meiji restoration, the Pacific War, and the Shouwa modernisation, especially that of the sixties.
As the concise blurb to this 'Red Colored Elegy', released by the Canadian company Drawn and Quarterly, translated by Taro Nettleton, and only available in hardcover, states: "Hayashi produced Red Colored Elegy between 1970 and 1971, in the aftermath of a politically turbulent and culturally vibrant decade that promised but failed to deliver new possibilities." Indeed within the pages of Red Colored Elegy is a political denouement of the evolved state of consciousness the Shouwa reinvigoration of the sixties precipitated. While not as wholly negative as 'failed' suggests, 'Red Colored Elegy' explicitly explores the non-conformist behaviours and attitudes of Ichiro and Sachiko by way of elucidating an unstable relationship in an unforgiving Tokyo clime.
For Japan, what would come to be known as the 'free thinking' decade started in May 1960, four years before the analagous movement in the United States. The signing of the ANPO treaty (Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan) coallesced people with divergent political opinions into opposition. These views were due to an American post-war occupation whose actions were of mismanagement, corruption, perceived degraded morals and discrimination. The oppositional reaction was of a large and co-operative scale, whose base belief radicalised the institutional and the empirical in favour of the individual. These individuals thus experienced a revolution of new consciousness.
The collective expressions of the aberrant viewpoints found within this opposition would be vented through all mediums, not least in the newly formulated medium of manga. Albeit saying this, the freedoms of mangaka were severely restricted. Manga was a textual form derived from educational woodblocks. The newly founded magazines that published manga had strict guidelines as to the content of what could be released (though this does not subvert subtext messages that are appropriately vogue within manga from 1956-1973). Very much aesthetically derived from imported Western comics, the early years of manga focused upon Shojo and Shonen narrative construction.
Mangaka who wished to express their diverse systemic concerns and invidualistic stylisations of narrative only began to find a home in 1964, with the formation of the alternative manga magazine Garo. While interpretations of Garo are mixed, undeniably in its first years Garo solvented an anti-war leftist attitude, going so far as to support militarism and communism in some of its content. Seiichi Hayashi, who penned 'Red Colored Elegy', contributed a number of manga for Garo during the sixties. These were manga (not extant in English) mostly transfixed by an ephemeral past of the '10's and '20's, promoting bucolic democratic pastoral values. As the decade drew to a close, the aspirations of the opposition proved to have had little effect of consequence. Garo's output began to change- featuring rape, gore, and political alienation. This is the period in which Hayashi composed 'Red Colored Elegy'.
'Red Colored Elegy' is primarily a tragic love story. The narrative is satisfyingly mostly told through images. With the first pages of panels the premise is laid out. Ichiro is a hope-filled amateur mangaka, who has moved to Tokyo seeking work with an international contractor. Sachiko is a secretary or clerk in a large company, who has recently met Ichiro. When Sachiko's family contacts her, she learns of the fruition of an arranged marriage. Under the Sakura, Sachiko confesses her love to Ichiro. The start of a passionate but short-lived relationship.
The setting of 'Red Colored Elegy' is approximately 1965, Tokyo. Unlike Hayashi's previous works, obsessed with a (fictive) rural past, it's rooted entirely in the modern day. This Hayashi emphasises, by programmatic illustration of telecommunications, infrastructure and modern appliances as well as a host of other things. But it is the fugue-like mentality of individuals within 'Red Colored Elegy', self-referential usage of the manga industry, in symbiosis with a comprehensive intertextuality that embeds a cohort of French new-wave and American rock-and-roll sources that truly denotes the period. These all highly qualitative allusions form a patchwork that eventuates in a highly cynical denouncement of the period as a whole (and its 'failed' possibilities). Yet unlike some other manga at the time, Hayashi achieves this through a cohesive story, and a baldfaced approach of tackling the theme of human multiplicity, the individual against greater society.
Ichiro finds himself in an inequitable position, his income low, his manga rejected by publishers. Ichiro is mainly the device through which Hayashi characterises himself as creator. By placing Icchiro against a standardised institution of both Japanese and Western comic/manga industries, Hayashi gives voice to a placation against the new corporatocracy of the large investment in capital consumption the state was encouraging at the time. While this was by all accounts, with especial reference to the divisive Tokyo olympics, largely successful; Hayashi identifies a lack of satiation with cultural output. Both reflectively aggrandizing dissatification, and retroactively defining the individual against the demands of a whole, Hayashi successfully corroborates Ichiro's own personal support of the oppositional movement while not directly referring to it.
Indeed, Hayashi is subtle in his envelopment of the reader into the peculiarities of both Ichiro and Sachiko's rather humble aspirations. Hayashi has been criticised (rarely) for his portrayal of women, pertinent to Sachiko. Sachiko defines her life by love of Ichiro, who responds with often nothing but misunderstanding. Indeed, the first line she says when we see the two characters together is 'I don't understand him'. Sachiko's de facto relationship with Ichiro, and denial of an arranged marraige, constitutes the generational change in lifestyle of the time. Her instrumentality regarding the relationship often seems one-dimensional, though a love simply constituting infatuation seems plausible.
The art style of 'Red Colored Elegy' is quite unique. Before the homogeneity of manga was delineated, and as opposing western comin style, Hayashi's aesthetic takes a deviant approach. Called 'hetauma' [good-bad] by one commentator, the style is purposefully rough and simplified. Evident of this is a panel per chapter done in a different style. The characters defy normal regulations of anatomy, yet stay despairingly human. Little detail in backgrounds is done unless solely focused upon. The kinaesthetic quality of the drawings is enhanced at the cost of stability. Certainly many readers find themselves wondering how 'Red Colored Elegy' can be defined as manga, taking a parallel path in textual construction. This is largely quantified by defining 'Red Colored Elegy' as Gekiga, though arguably Hayashi purposefully moves against some conventions of the style.
As 'Red Colored Elegy' is only available in hardback, and rare at that, it's easy to think of Hayashi's work as some kind of relic. Yet 'Red Colored Elegy' is more than that. Its contextual dialogue on the paradigms of the sixties, as well as constant reference to pop-culture and sub-culture movements of thought constituted by numerous examples of intertextual interstices and allusions- made 'Red Colored Elegy' potent enough to change the industry itself. While not changing the techniques of production as it was quite a stand-alone, 'Red Colored Elegy' was a catalyst to liberalising and humanising the content of manga. This is for one primary reason though; 'Red Colored Elegy' was a financial success. The volume sold extremely well in Japan- bought by adults as well as teenagers. This would incredibly eventuate in a best-selling song based on the manga, and a anime of 'Red Colored Elegy' in 2007.
The reasons as to why 'Red Colored Elegy' was successful while being perceptibly a product of an empowered intellectualist minority is based in the success of not only espousing a dialogue on context, but also an altruistic representation of romance. Sachiko and Ichiro's love is entirely realistic. Not perfected beings, they argue and they fight, while loving eachother deeply.
This makes 'Red Colored Elegy' invaluable within the anime and manga industry.
While primarily a deconstruction of the sixties and its sediment of thought that lead to the behaviours and attitudes of Sachiko and Ichiro, the basic humanistic love story in the face of an oppression of human multiplicity is breath-taking. It is easy to debase 'Red Colored Elegy' for its blinkered contextual perspective, its questionable ethics and treatment of women, but undoubtedly Hayashi's work will stay in the acumen of manga or gekiga for time immemorial.