Getting away from it all
Manga artist Hideo Azuma is famous for two rather ignoble reasons. In 1979, with the publication of his underground self-produced comic “Cybele” he created the controversial “lolicon” genre featuring sexualized (although cartoonish) images of young girls that still exists in Japan today. Ten years later, in 1989 at the height of his success and popularity as a manga artist, he left work for pack of cigarettes and didn’t return, escaping for a year to live a life free from pressure as a homeless person.
“Disappearance Diary” (a literal translation of Japanese title “Shissou Nikki”) is the story of the second ignoble reason.
Azuma was overcome by the pressures of success, by the demands of deadlines and the politics of publishing houses and their domineering editors. He was committed to several ongoing weekly and bi-weekly series, yet unable to turn down requests from editors for fill-in stories for their magazines due to threats that the editors would then withhold work from him altogether. Azuma had a wife who worked as his assistant, and the two of them would pull all-nighters rushing to get work of dubious quality out the door. The only relief came from alcohol binges that left Azuma hung-over and in even less of a mood to continue in a job he was increasingly hating. So on the spur of the moment he left, abandoning job, wife and responsibility to sleep in the mountains and gather food and drink from the garbage cans.
“Disappearance Diary” covers the three times in Azuma’s life that he disappeared from society. The first diary, “Walking at Night” is about Azuma’s 1989 escape where he lived in the mountains outside of town and learned the skills necessary to survive without money or home. Azuma was eventually caught by the police and returned to his wife a year later due to a missing person’s report. He went back to work drawing manga, but then two years later he disappeared again (Diary #2: “Walking Around Town”), this time becoming a manual laborer working on broken gas pipes and living in a shared apartment with other day laborers. Caught again after a year and returned to his wife (this time captured for riding a stolen bicycle), Azuma’s final disappearance came in 1998 when his alcohol abuse caught up to him and he became a full-fledged physically dependent alcoholic, suffering from visual hallucinations and forcibly hospitalized by his wife for recovery and treatement (Diary #3: “Alcoholic Ward”).
While all of this seems terribly depressing, when chronicling his disappearances Azuma has done so in a light-hearted and comedic tone. Azuma doesn’t really have it in him to tell stories of angst and suffering, so instead there is a quirky tale of a miscreant who is tasting the freedom of lack of responsibility while still being aware of the depths to which he has sunk. Azuma says right at the beginning that “This manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible.”
And this is a funny comic, if you like your humor dark. Told in a the cartoony art style that is Azuma’s trademark (but without any of his lolicon stuff, so don’t expect to see that here), it talks frankly about homeless life, about the best places to scrounge garbage to eat, about how to forage for cigarette butts and leftover alcohol, and about the problems of going to the bathroom when all you have eaten is foraged wild vegetables, and how a bottle of used tempera oil comes in handy in such occasions. Azuma is fairly inventive, using leftover vinegar to pickle cabbage before it goes rotten, creating a stove from an old crate and some tin cans and other crafty touches that make homeless life better. He admits that he hit his lowest when he stole food from another homeless person. His life as a day laborer is more straight forward as he works through the ranks and advances in jobs, getting training in the methods of gas-pipe laying and dealing every day with the personalities who make day-labor their career. A funny section in this diary is when he can’t resist the temptation to send in a comic strip to the gas labor’s newsletter, and his strip is printed. When he is finally arrested, one of the police officers is a fan of Azuma’s work and recognizes him, asking him for a sketch before letting him go.
The “Alcoholic Ward” is where Azuma’s disappearance diary turns much darker, and the humor evaporates. Both the homeless life and day-laborer life were Azuma’s choices, and there is a cavalier sense of freedom in running away from the pressure of responsibility, but when he gives his life over to alcohol demons emerge to haunt him at every corner. He comes close to death, and works his way to recovery, but even Azuma’s comedic style cannot complete mask the horror he must have experienced.
I dearly loved this comic. Azuma’s art style and humor were perfectly matched to the story. I am really glad he decided to do this as a biographical comic and not featuring a cat as originally intended. It definitely would have lost some of its power.
The only problem I had with “Disappearance Diary” is that maybe Azuma left out too much in wanting to make the story light-hearted and positive. I respect that outlook, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed the comic nearly as much if it had been doom and gloom, but I couldn’t help but wonder what else happened? There are two interviews with Azuma included in this comic, and in both he hints at real terrors he experienced that never appear here. And what about his wife? Was she really OK with these occasional year-long disappearances? Did she just wait at home faithfully for Azuma’s return? We don’t get to know.