Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Red Colored Elegy

The story: Sachiko and Ichiro are a hapless and hopeless pair of twenty-somethings, disenchanted with life, working in animation and seemingly scraping along. Although Ichiro works at an animation company, what he really wants to do is make comics. Unfortunately, it's not working out. Meanwhile, both Sachiko and Ichiro are experiencing problems with their respective families from Sachiko's arranged marriage to the suicide of Ichiro's father. They grow apart emotionally, depression abounds and eventually Ichiro pushes Sachiko aside. All the while, they're both suffering in their own ways, unable to communicate their feelings with one another.

Reaction: I've never read or seen a manga like this—it's a stream-of-consciousness tale with pop art touches and an emotionally and historically charged setting. And this certainly is an elegy; only this is a lament for the living, not the dead. This is a seemingly minimalist story that underscores the times and relationship that Sachiko and Ichiro are enduring. Honestly, it became increasingly depressing as the various layers of emotional depth are peeled away as the story goes on. There's a quiet desperation that Seiichi Hayashi communicates, all with a minimal amount of art and text.

Deep thoughts: Similar to the U.S., the 1970s were a time of cultural change in Japan. From the student protest movement to the introduction of feminism, it was a time of change balanced with an economic growth that placed Japan ahead of its industrial peers. By using this as a backdrop, it better illustrates the inherent difficulties in the familial and cultural obligations that Sachiko and Ichiro face with her broken, arranged marriage and his duty to help pay for his father's funeral. While the world around them was changing, Sachiko and Ichiro must still deal with what they've inherited from their families.

Artwork: The artwork here is a mix of modern styles, at times reflecting the pop art and cubist movements. There's also a wide spectrum of techniques, including photorealistic images, and sketchwork and cross-hatching that enhance the surreal and, at times, the macabre. It's highly experimental while still holding true to a minimalist aesthetic. Much of this story takes place in the sparse, one-room apartment that the young couple shares. It proves a fitting visual metaphor for the emotional emptiness they're experiencing. Characters aren't so much unattractive as they are without attraction visually; simple pen lines define the characters at almost all times and, to the untrained eye, they may seem unemotional. But, there are nuances of personality, emotion and character that exist nonetheless.

The verdict: Highly recommended. I can see why this manga received so many accolades—it's a dichotomy in so many ways. From its illustrative minimalism and its emotional depth to the cultural changes versus familial obligations, it puts the universal experience of the quarter-life crisis under the lens of a particular historical era, making it both relatable yet unique. Red Colored Elegy is available in the U.S. from Drawn & Quarterly.

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