“The first time I saw you in Las Ventas in May was the first time I ever thought red was a beautiful color.”
Seduce Me After the Show introduced the English-speaking world to the extraordinary talent of Est Em; Red Blinds the Foolish gives us a chance to see how her talent has matured and grown, and what it can do when it’s given more space. The title story is longer than any I’ve seen from Est Em before, and it has all the subtlety and depth of her earlier stories, coupled with a rich slow-burning development of its themes and characters. The backup stories are equally superb, each one fitting and filling out its length to perfection.
In the title story, Rafita is a famous and beloved bullfighter, known as “the Red Matador” because of the colour of his costume. Mauro is a butcher who works in the slaughterhouse where the bulls killed in the corrida are cut up. Mauro is colourblind and as a child used to play at being a bull in a bullfight; Rafita killed his first bull at the age of twelve, and since that day has never felt any fear in the ring. The tale of their coming together, and of its consequences, is filled with dreamy and poetic, not to say morbid, imagery (“Let’s say it wasn’t a dream. That I was really a bull, and you the matador…”); not all the questions raised are answered, and there’s nothing pat or formulaic about any of it.
The backup stories each share the quality “Red Blinds the Foolish” shares with the stories from Seduce Me After the Show: that sense of conveying only the essence of a rich, complicated life story with many strands. “Corpse of the Round Table” expands on Mauro’s backstory; “Baby, Stamp Your Foot”, “Tiempos Extra” and “Lumière” deal with different characters, all of them strange, in one way or another: a shoemaker with an unusual (but appropriate) fetish; a football hooligan with the Winged Victory of Samothrace tattooed on his chest; an elderly novelist inventing (or recalling?) a story about a beautiful dancer. The stories feel like spotlights shone for a brief span onto lives that will go on long after the last page, still marvellous and still intractable, never capable of being made simpler than they are.
Est Em’s stories concern men who fall in love with men, but that aside, her writing has more in common with gekiga or literary fiction than with the standard run of BL manga; when BL is classed as “adult”, this typically means it features explicit sex scenes, but Est Em’s stories are genuinely adult in that they hew firmly to a low-key tone and consistently refuse escapism and emotional manipulation. Her visual style is utterly individual, marrying a Western naturalism in the human figures with a Japanese awareness of space; it has a loose, sketchy feel that one usually can’t find outside doujinshi.
All in all, there is no better word than “unique” for what she does: there is nobody else who makes manga like this. Est Em is a treasure.