Red Colored Elegy (Drawn & Quarterly) is the longest sustained narrative produced by author Seiichi Hayashi, a cartoonist most recognized (when he’s recognized at all) for his opaque and elliptical short stories. His work tends to concern the interior lives of angsty young adults—most of them suffering from oppressive social conditions and infertile economic conditions—and Red Colored Elegy is no different.
The plot of Red Color Elegy (inasmuch as there is one) can be reduced to a simple statement: Ichiro and Sachiko are live-in romantic partners whose lives are complicated by unfulfilling work and pressure from parents. But the real joy of reading a Hayashi comic isn’t found in its plot. The value is in the particularity of Hayashi’s cartooning: what he draws, the way he draws it, and the ways he weaves those images together.
Influenced by the inventive style of global film New Waves—from Seijun Suzuki in Japan to Jean-Luc Godard in France—Hayashi represents the complex interior lives of his characters by inflecting a poetic, expressive style. Characters are often drawn without mouths, and with their eyes rendered to be simple and emotive. Hayashi reduces bodies to an unassuming assemblage of clean, straight, simple lines—an aesthetic detail that is clearly a choice, because elsewhere Hayashi draws faces, details, and landscapes with incredible richness and visual sophistication. He juxtaposes these more detailed images against his characters’ simplified figures, and they serve to punctuate scenes, offering an abrupt transition out of a scene or a dramatic moment of tension within one.
One particularly memorable punctuation is a page covered entirely by a bold, evocative illustration of a field of flowers; each blade of grass sprouts out of the ground in a thin, quick stroke of white emptiness against a solid black background, the clouds composed of thick blobs of ink that curl and lilt just perfectly.
Readers already familiar with Hayashi’s work will know that the cartoonist resists clear or naturalistic storytelling, but his alienating affect is part of the appeal. With a constantly evolving aesthetic, Hayashi’s pages bristle with a tension that attracts the eye even as it repels the part of the brain that has been trained to read comics. The effect is something attractive but elusive, which is difficult to sustain for more than 200 pages (no doubt why Hayashi worked primarily on shorter works). Fortunately, Red Colored Elegy represents one of the most successful works by one of the comics forms greatest practitioners, and its long-awaited reprint should be one of the year’s most exciting releases. Unfortunately, the very things that make Hayashi so exciting are also the things that make him unapproachable, and the book’s release will no doubt be met with a mere fraction of the interest it deserves.