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Drawing new life out of an old story

by David Cozy

RED COLORED ELEGY by Seiichi Hayashi, translated by Taro Nettleton. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 235 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

Here’s a rough synopsis of the plot of Seiichi Hayashi’s “Red Colored Elegy”: A young couple, committed to their art, struggle to keep themselves, their art, and their love alive. This will strike no one as wildly original. What is surprising, however, is that, despite its hoary story line, “Red Colored Elegy” is a success.

This is a testament to Hayashi’s artistry. Some artists make a splash with work that appears to be (and occasionally is) entirely original. Other artists, generally the more gifted, are able to take even stories millenniums older than Hayashi’s and make them new. Part of the fascination of such artists’ work is in seeing how they manage to make us forget that we should have tired of their plots long ago.

“Red Colored Elegy” is a comic book. This probably isn’t the first time that la vie boheme has been presented in this form, but the fact that “Red Colored Elegy” is not an opera, novel, or movie may go a little way toward making it new. The genre into which “Elegy” falls, however, is not sufficient to explain the work’s success.

More pertinent is its relation with the gritty realism to which many of Hayashi’s contemporaries hitched their creative wagons. Artists working in a genre still associated with men in tights may feel that unless they eschew the flights of fancy that characterize more commercial offerings they will never be taken seriously. Hayashi, too, keeps a foot in the realist camp — his bohemia is in no way sanitized — but he also introduces fantastic elements into his world of jobbing illustrators, scandalized families, and turbulent relationships.

Thus there are pages on which Ichiro, a struggling manga-ka, argues about his future with a walking, talking pot of ink; others that are taken up with film strips, each frame of which features the face of Ichiro’s lover, Sachiko, lamenting her deadly dull job as a tracer; and one in which the moon, looking down on Sachiko and Ichiro’s tumultuous love, weeps.

“Red Colored Elegy” was produced in the early 1970s, so it is no surprise that Hayashi’s protagonists conform to stereotypes that, in those years, may have gone unexamined. Ichiro, ambitious male that he is, is willing to give everything for his art. The four frames in which he struggles to create a comic, in their economy, display Hayashi’s skill. We see, on the right side of the first frame, Ichiro sweating at his drawing table. To the left of the frame are spatters of ink. In the three frames below the first the artist continues to sweat, and is continually dissatisfied, and in each of these frames the spatters of ink on the left become wilder, larger, more unruly. Hayashi shows us Ichiro struggling, but it is the spatters that bring the struggle home.

Sachiko, on the other hand, though also an artist, or at least artistic, and also surviving on the fringes of the art world, has other things on her mind. When they meet after a breakup, she tells Ichiro, over the four frames that take up another page, “I’m . . . I wanted . . . a baby.” We see their conversation, but it is King Kong glaring in the window that helps us understand how threatening Sachiko’s desire is to Ichiro.

“Well,” Sachiko had reminded Ichiro earlier, “I’m a girl,” and as such, one gathers, there are things more important to her than comics.

The story may be old, and some of the characterization dated, but “Red Colored Elegy” remains a compelling work of art. One hopes Drawn & Quarterly will release more of Hayashi’s work so English readers can see how, in the last three decades, his talent has developed.