Sunday, April 8, 2007
Disappearance Diary (失踪日記)
by Hideo Azuma (吾妻ひでお)
published in various places (East Press)
1 volume (2005)
Hideo Azuma's award-winning, non-fiction, soon-to-be-English work. For those who haven't yet heard the premise, Azuma was a moderately successful manga artist in the 1970s and '80s who fell into alcoholism and escaped his work by running away from his responsibilities in 1989 and going homeless. After this experience and his eventual return to normal life, he repeated the cycle in 1992, this time finding work in a new town as a gas pipe layer. In 1997, his alcoholism was so bad that he was forced into a rehab clinic. These three experiences form the three different chapters of the book, which also includes a few descriptions of his career in general scattered throughout.
The most immediately striking feature of the book is the dichotomy between the serious, depressing content and the buouyancy of the cheerful cartoon art. Azuma claims that he removed all realism from the art because it would be "tiring and depressing" to depict it that way, but without any experience with Azuma's previous work, I can't say whether this means that he could have drawn with more detail, or if this is his only style. Certainly the images of characters from his older manga appear to be in the exact same style as the people in Disappearance Diary. His previous work appears to be a mixture of frivolous, tittilating romantic comedies and light sci-fi, a B-level output enough to give him a cultish weirdo following -- I have a feeling Yuzo Takada owes no small debt to his formula.
As for Disappearance Diary, it lives up to its moniker, consisting largely of minor anecdotes of daily happenings. The first account, of his stretch of solitary homelessness, is easily the most brutal. Azuma describes his daily struggle with starvation and the cold in heartbreaking detail: eating grass, drinking discarded bottles of tempura sauce, ransacking garbage cans. The pipelayer and rehab sections are similar in execution, except that Azuma's personal quirks take a backseat to the eccentricities of his fellow workers and patients. Throughout, Azuma continues his goofy slapstick framing, leeching the realism and pathos of his experiences out of the manga. His insistence on distancing himself from the reality of the situation in his depiction because it would be "too depressing" is somewhat disingenuous, however. At face value, as the slightly silly and undramatic life of a homeless man, Disappearance Diary is boring. What makes it interesting -- and I believe that Azuma recognizes this -- is the distance between his version of events and what we can imagine to be the reality of the situation, all of the things he's left out. What was most shocking to me was the offhand revelation, after we have seen Azuma trotting out the lowest periods of his life, that he had a wife during these entire travails! You'd never imagine he was a married man if he hadn't admitted to it, and their relationship, other than the fact that she does his assistant work when he draws, is left completely in the dark. This facet of his life I found to be much more interesting than what he actually does tell us.
It's possible that my mild dislike of Disappearance Diary as it stands stems from the art, which I will admit is not to my liking. As well, the many accolades and awards possibly had me expecting something different, and those expectations clashed with my lukewarm reception. It's certainly an intriguing book, and its concept is a rarity in the world of manga. But fittingly enough, these traits I only find myself admiring from a detached standpoint, much like Azuma's book, and the true core of enthusiasm I could have felt toward Disappearance Diary is as hidden as the real events obscured behind his creative veil.