Tuesday, May 18, 2004


Here, finally, is my report on the major creator I promised three weeks ago. (It's not as polished as I'd wanted it to be, but I figure it's time to let it go.) His name is Seiichi Hayashi, and the book of his that I own is a collection of works from the late sixties and early seventies, entitled Sekishoku erejii (Red Colored Elegy). The title piece, and the longest piece in the book, is a 230-page realistic graphic novel about a young man who wants to draw manga, but has to spend most of his time working on commercial anime to make a living, and his troubled relationship with his girlfriend. This piece has nothing in common with the formulas of commercial manga, nor is there anything adolescent about it: it's as fully a work for adults as is Chris Ware's work.

The storytelling is elliptical, with a great deal left unsaid. And although the work centers upon the characters' emotions, these are seldom put into words. The reader must infer the characters' emotions from the characters' body language, or from such things as one character spending two pages watching flies circling around a light fixture. The closest analogy in American comics to Hayashi's storytelling here that I know of is that of Jaime Hernandez, but Hayashi is much more oblique than Hernandez. And while Hernandez loves Maggie, Hopey and the rest, Hayashi views his characters with a colder eye. The main character here, in fact, comes off as rather unsympathetic.

To tell the truth, I'm unsure how to evaluate the story. Hayashi's obliqueness, combined with my imperfect knowledge of Japanese, left me unsure at times what was happening. (Though as far as the language itself is concerned, "Red Colored Elegy" is by far the easiest to read of all the manga I've attempted.) Nor does my lack of knowledge of Japanese society and culture in the sixties, when the story is set, help matters. What is clear is the power and mastery of Hayashi's art. While Hayashi's storytelling seems simple at first, it is actually quite complex, using a variety of techniques. At first his faces and bodies may appear stiff and awkward. But comparison with the other stories in the volume, which were mostly drawn earlier, makes it clear that this stiffness was a conscious stylistic choice for this story, not a matter of skill. Bodies contort to display emotion. (Here's an example, not the best, but the best I could find online.) Backgrounds are sometimes blank, and sometimes dark and ominous.

"Red Colored Elegy" appeared in 1970-71, contemporary with the height of American underground comix. But none of the underground artists were doing anything nearly as ambitious as this at the time. And virtually none of them had Hayashi's technical mastery of art and storytelling. I can't help speculating on what would have happened had this story been published in the U.S. in 1971: it might have provided underground artists of the time looking for literary models with an alternative to E.C. comics, which were probably the nearest approach American comic books had made up to that point to stories that could interest adults, but were limited in both ambition and execution.

"Red Colored Elegy" occupies two-thirds of the book's pages; the remaining third is made up of six shorter stories in a diversity of styles and moods, all written in 1967 and 1968 except for one which was written in 1971. The most accessible of these is "Ware ga haha wa" ("I am your mother"), which tells the story of Japan's relationship with the U.S. between 1945 and 1968 in the form of the relationship between a frog (Japan) and the gorilla who adopts him (the U.S.). "Yamauba komori uta" ("Mountain witch lullaby") combines traditional Japanese folk tales and legends with a plot involving giant robots and icons of American popular culture serving as villains. "Hana chiru machi" ("Falling flower town") also subverts the themes of traditional children's stories and manga for its own purposes: what at first appear to be the comic adventures of a mischievous child, drawn Tezuka-style, becomes the lens through which a tragedy is viewed. "Akatonbo" ("Red dragonfly") and "Sakura-iro no kokoro" ("Pink heart") are both realistic stories, though quite different in subject matter and tone from "Red Colored Elegy." "Aguma to musuko to kuenai tamashii" ("Aguma and son and an inedible soul"), a brief story sending the gorilla from "Ware ga haha wa" to hell, completes the lineup. (There's also a brief essay by Morio Agata, who wrote, produced and directed the film "Boku wa tenshi ja nai yo," adapted from "Red Colored Elegy," placing "Red Colored Elegy" in historical context.) These stories appear to depend for their full meaning on aspects of Japanese society and culture which I'm unfamiliar with, so again I can't fully judge them. But, as with "Red Colored Elegy," Hayashi's mastery of art and storytelling is apparent.

Frankly, I'm shocked that I'd never heard of Hayashi: apart from two passing mentions in Dreamland Japan, I don't recall ever seeing him mentioned in English. Nor had what I'd read about the history of manga led me to think that there was someone this good working at a fully adult level in 1970. While the U.S. is becoming more acquainted with contemporary manga (though what's been translated is still only a small fraction), the history of manga remains virtually terra incognita. While Paul Gravett's forthcoming history of manga should do something to change this, a single book can only do so much. How many other artists of this quality are completely unknown to us?

The book is published by Shogakukan,: the ISBN is 4-09-192471-9, and the price is 629 yen. Here's Hayashi's website, which doesn't seem to have any samples of his manga aside from the one panel I linked to above, but has plenty of illustrations by him; there's also a page (in Japanese) where you can buy his books, including Red Colored Elegy.

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