Four-Eyed Stranger #14: "Dreams, they blossom at night"

Oliver Ho
Allusive and elusive, Seiichi Hayashi's alt-manga classic remains poetic, haunting and strange after forty years

Red Colored Elegy draws from diverse influences ranging from Walt Disney to the French new wave, James Dean to Ken Takakura.

I cannot follow you, my love,

you cannot follow me.

I am the distance you put between

all of the moments that we will be.

--Leonard Cohen, "You Know Who I Am"

Leonard Cohen's work embodies love, sex and spiritual longing, and he's a Buddhist monk. There's much more to Cohen of course, but it has always suggested a zen-like paradox to me that he should combine such extremes with apparent seamlessness. All of this comes to mind while reading Red Colored Elegy, a manga that seems absolutely unique while also recalling dozens of other artists and works. As the zen koan says, "The wave and the sea are one."

A deceptively complicated and structured book, Seiichi Hayashi's Elegy was serialized in Garo magazine between 1970 and 1971, then published as a one-volume English translation by Drawn and Quarterly in 2008. It's the story of troubled young lovers Ichiro and Sachiko, who live together and struggle with money, motivation, family and love, as well as their own desires and dreams.

Famous Blue Raincoat, Grayscale: Leonard Cohen provides a good starting point for Seiichi Hayashi's Red Colored Elegy

It's angst-ridden and romantic, dark and dreamlike, decidedly idiosyncratic. Scenes seem to jump haphazardly from one to another, reality blending with dreams almost free-associatively, while occasional single-panel pages feature text like song lyrics. The opening page sets the tone with what looks like a film still and lines that include, "like the ghost killed in the fable, killed for nothing, I give my life to each page I draw."

The notion of the artist sacrificing everything in order to create his art runs throughout Elegy. Ichiro tells himself "I want to draw comics," and in a particularly difficult time, repeats to himself like a prayer, "Just draw, just draw, just draw, just draw."

He's a conflicted character, passionate about his work and his love, but just as often selfish, immature and cruel towards Sachiko, who has sacrificed (among other things) her family's acceptance to be with him. Elegy is a love story, ultimately, about two characters who try, fail and try again to love each other. They're driven apart by their conflicting expectations of themselves and each other, and by their abilities to communicate to each other and to themselves. It's a dense and puzzling story, but it's also clear that Elegy's plot is secondary to its emotions and associated style.

"The emotional thrust ... is clear, but it's expressed through strange, externalized details," writes Chris Lanier in the January 2009 issue of The Believer. "Hayashi was trying to import the disjunctive innovations of French new-wave cinema to the comics page. The result is a condensed visual poetry that still feels avant-garde nearly forty years later."

The nouvelle vague's emphasis on subjectivity and existential explorations over straightforward narrative resonates strongly with Elegy. An early panel jumps from Ichiro drunkenly talking to himself outside to an image of the moon, which has a face (also recalling Georges Méliès' 1902 silent film, A Trip to the Moon). The moon appears to be crying ink-black tears, and it's difficult to tell if it's a cry of sadness, pain or terror.

Ichiro walks with what appears to be a headless Disney-ish character, with inky blood spurting from its neck. When Ichiro meets with Sachiko during turbulent storm, the scene jumps from showing the two characters approaching each other in anger and sadness, to an image of Snow White and Prince Charming embracing each other.

Over 235 pages, the black and white artwork can be breathtaking as often as it puzzles. Ink appears to bleed from the lights, ink drips and flies from characters like sweat and tears. The fragile-looking characters seem to bend and warp with their emotions. Sparsely drawn panels move suddenly into incredibly detailed scenes: a landscape of fields, a sombre night-time image of snow falling in an alley, a roof detail drawn large, or two-page spread of breaking waves.

In a Chicago Sun-Times article about the classic Left Bank film, Last Year at Marienbad, Roger Ebert writes: "Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade."

That sense of infinite unfolding, along with Marienbad's striking surrealism, ring true with Elegy. Marienbad was written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose "Nouveau Roman" philosophy also prioritized individual vision and perception to objective plot. If Robbe-Grillet had been a manga-ka, he might have created something like Elegy.

Even though Ichiro and Sachiko aren't particularly political, but there's a sense of living during a time of revolution. For example, Sachiko laughs when she discovers she's spent the entire day wearing a headband that proclaims "Unite!" On his blog, the great Eddie Campbell calls Elegy "a long strip cartoon about the stuff of life; it's about sex and love, the attempt to make a living from art, and your parents dying."

"In 1971 I would have found this inspirational. There was an idea getting around that comic books could amount to something more than routine bouts of costumed pugnacity," he writes. "If I could, I would have obtained a copy in Japanese and kept it on my shelf, and would have contented myself to imagine what was being said and done. I like the way it indolently takes its time."

Someone who did find Elegy inspirational in 1971 was famed Japanese singer-songwriter (and actor/director) Morio Agata. The manga so moved him that he wrote and recorded a song of the same name. Released in 1972, it was Agata's debut single, and also his biggest hit.

"I wanted to live like Sachiko and Ichiro; to have aspirations even while living stoically and humbly," Agata says (as quoted on Elegy's book jacket).

In 2007, an version of Elegy was released as an animated film, which further brings to mind stylistic connections with other animated films of the late 60s and early 70s, such as René Laloux's 1973 classic Fantastic Planet, and the Beatles' Yellow Submarine, from 1968. The bendy, loopy (and funky-looking) characters from either of those films would seem to fit right in alongside Ichiro and Sachiko.

Hayashi also seems to share qualities with artists of that era like Peter Max and Alan Aldridge (specifically, their minimal, psychedelic sides). Among modern comic artists, his story and style feels akin to Chester Brown, and to some of David Mazzucchelli and Dash Shaw, whose conversation in issue 300 of The Comics Journal also touches on the subjective nature of manga.

But more than any other artist, moreso even than Leonard Cohen, the artist that Elegy seems to suggest strongest is the novelist Haruki Murakami, specifically his breakthrough 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood. Set in the 1960s, the novel is a bittersweet love story whose tone "resembles nothing so much as a sweet, sad pop tune," as Jay Rubin writes in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words.

"Writing from memory like this, I often feel a pang of dread," the novel's narrator, Toru Watanabe tells us. "What if I've forgotten the most important thing? ... Clutching these faded, fading, imperfect memories to my breast, I go on writing this book with all the desperate intensity of a starving man sucking on bones."

Watanabe's description of dread feels like a mirror-image of a scene in Elegy, where Ichiro crumples in desolation and sorrow, and tells himself, "So long as tomorrow comes, I'll be able to forget the pain." A moment passes, and then he says, "But I told myself the same thing yesterday."


Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.


Morio Agata's song, "Red-Colored Elegy"





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