Disappearance Diary

July 17, 2009

Hideo Azuma – Fanfare – 2008 – one-shot

Strangely, I think the last two books I picked up from Fanfare were autobiographical works by famous/notable mangaka unknown in America that related horrible/tragic personal stories in a detached and lighthearted way.  Fanfare may actually have a monopoly on this genre, because it seems that no other publisher has released a book that approach anything like Disappearance Diary or Doing Time.

In Doing Time’s case, it was Kazuichi Hanawa’s story of being in prison after being caught with a gun model that was too realistic.  Rather than talking about what he did to get there or injustice or the usual prison topics, it is an oddly impersonal account that simply catalogs day-to-day prison life in extreme, extreme detail, down to diagrams of the meals on the plates.  Hanawa might not actually be as famous as I think he is, or like to think he is.  He’s one of the Garo artists (and a fantastic artist, at that), and I enjoyed his story Mercy Flesh in Comics Underground Japan immensely, but I’m not sure how much of an impact he’s had elsewhere.  On the other hand, I know I’ve read at least three different accounts of his legal problems in different books I have, so he must be of some interest.

Hideo Azuma, on the other hand, is the father of lolicon, for better or worse, and Disappearance Diary is a comical, detached story about two different times he snapped under deadline pressure and decided to live as a homeless man for as long as a year, and then later about his recovery from alcoholism.  He states right off the bat that the book will have a positive outlook, so he’s going to remove as much of the gloomy stuff from the story as possible.  He also does this because he says it’s hard to draw realistically, so this depressing, tragic story is drawn in a comical way that would make it look right at home next to Dilbert.

It’s actually pretty amazing how appealing he makes living homeless seem.  He talks about how easy it was for him to get certain types of food certain places, and always makes the decision to show moments of triumph, like the day he found a convenience store that provided him so much food from its trash he was overweight when they finally found him and brought him home.  He talks about his daily scavenges for cigarette butts, strange encounters with people and homeless people more crazy or agressive than him, how he hated being called a beggar (he got all his food from the trash, and didn’t beg money from people), and things like what eating radishes did to his digestion.  All the stories are kind of funny and happy in their way, and the book is formatted in short chapters so that the day he finds the full bottle of whiskey, how great that is, and how he rations it and enjoys it with a proper meal takes up one short chapter.

The first bout of homelessness ends when he is picked up as a suspect for a crime and someone recognizes his name as a manga artist.  The second round goes on until he gets bored of being homeless and is set up in construction/demolition job by a pair of shady brothers.  This part of the book was also quite charming, because the shifty brothers and his cranky coworkers make for great gag characters, even if what they were doing wasn’t all that funny in real life.

Strangely, after this there’s a brief segment where he details his career as a manga artist and goes from his beginnings to his periods of semi-popularity and overwork that drove him to flee his career, and then flee it again.  Apparently his wife was his only assistant for a long time, and also helped him come up with a lot of ideas and was the one that filed missing persons reports on him and had him committed for his alcoholism.  It never mentions anything much about her, but if he stayed married to the same woman throughout his entire life and career, she is truly a saint.  He may acknowledge this strain at one point by not detailing their reunion after a disappearance, because “there wasn’t anything funny about it.”

That section reads a little like a deranged, short version of A Drifting Life, except for sci-fi romantic comedy and lolicon instead of gekiga.  I laughed really hard at a panel where Azuma and a few other artists rally for the cause of trying to stop the yaoi takeover at comiket with their new (and presumably the first) lolicon book.  Also notable is that most of his work was for Akita Shoten, my favorite Japanese publisher, and even more notable is the fact that many of his stories ran in the completely insane Shounen Champion magazine and its spinoffs, perhaps proving that jolly poor taste (which I mean as a compliment) has always been the aim of that publication.

And because he’s writing about the history of manga, even if it’s just a little bit, he talks about how he met with Osamu Tezuka, and we learn that apparently editors were constantly changing Tezuka’s stuff.  Which… I mean, I’ve read his stories, and they are quite literally the most rambling and insane stories you can find.  What did they look like before the editors got to them?

The final part of the book talks about how he later became an alcoholic, and even this part has a light touch even though there’s nothing funny about it.  He talks about how he needed to drink in order to fall asleep, but drinking enough for that left him feeling too sick to drink the next day, and he would start to hallucinate and become suicidal.  Eventually he started passing out in random places and was too inebriated to draw, which is when his wife had him committed against his will to a psychiatric hospital, where he recovered.  Interestingly, the AA program seems to be about the same in Japan with the same types of practices at the meetings, ways of addressing members, and even the same serenity prayer.

And speaking of rambling and insane, I’m going to go ahead and stop talking now.  In short: Disappearance Diary is an extremely interesting book not only because of its story, but because it manages to keep a light touch and a lot of humor in what would otherwise be an incredibly depressing story (for a shocking shot of realism at the end, he states in an interview in the back that during his bouts of homelessness he was so cold he thought he was going to die).  It’s an interesting story, but because of its nature a lot of details are left out, and the timeline between episodes isn’t clear.  If you think it sounds interesting, you’ll probably like it, but it’s not going to be something that appeals to a casual reader.