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Four-Eyed Stranger #18: Disappearance Diary

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Monday, Nov 15, 2010
An influential, controversial (and incredibly overworked) manga artist through the 1970s and 1980s, Hideo Azuma documents his subsequent breakdowns in a surprisingly light and engaging diary.

“One day the artist wakes up with the disquieting feeling that it has all gone wrong.”
—Eddie Campbell, “The Fate of the Artist”


Three times, Hideo Azuma stepped out of his life. After starting his career as a manga artist at age 19, in 1969, Azuma worked steadily for nearly 30 years. Then in November, 1989, he told his co-workers that he was stepping out to buy some smokes, and he never went back. Well, not for a while, anyway.


Disappearance Diary covers three periods in Azuma’s life: the two times that he ran out on his daily life, and the one time he was forcibly removed from it by being committed to a psychiatric hospital. 


“This manga has a positive outlook on life,” he states at the start of the book. “[A]nd so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible.”


Depicting himself as bowlegged, potbellied and unshaven, with one eye bugging out, the version of Azuma we meet in the Diary maintains his cool and laid-back demeanor even in the worst of circumstances. In these pages, he looks like a character from a Charles Bukowski story by way of Charles M. Schulz.


Published by East Press in Japan in 2005, with an English translation following by Fanfare Ponent Mon in 2008, Diary manages to be a strangely charming and gag-filled story about dark subjects.
  


“I think every artist, when they realize they’re imitating themselves, sink into a bottomless depression. Especially in humorous manga, if you repeat yourself, you can’t make it,” he says in a “confidential” interview included in the book.


Azuma experienced a breakdown in 1989, brought on by overwork and industry pressures, as well as a growing alcohol dependency. After leaving work (and his family) without warning, he lived on the street (specifically, in the woodlands on the outskirts of the city). When police picked him up one night on suspicion of robbery, they discovered his identity, and after asking him to draw some of his famous characters, they brought him home. 


“[Then] in April of ‘92, in spite of all I went through to return to work, yet again I dumped my projects and took off,” he writes at the start of the second story in the Diary. “Something growing out of my head made me do it.”


This time, he lived on the streets again, and by chance took up work as a pipe-fitter. He began to find success in this industry, and the relative security (along with improved health) seems to have afforded him some crucial self-reflection. The Diary‘s final story takes place in 1998, when his alcoholism became so bad that his family forced him into rehab, where he spent time in detox strapped to a bed.


Diary makes a fascinating companion to Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s epic 2009 autobiographical manga, A Drifting Life. Each offers an insider’s look at the development of manga and the life of the artists who strive to make it in the industry.


Where Tatsumi went on to create the gritty gekiga style of manga, Azuma became famous primarily for his comedic and science fiction work, and for being the “father of lolicon.” In the Diary, he seems to attribute the development of that controversial style of manga to the demands of editors, who insisted that he create work that would be guaranteed to sell. 


“You’re not helping increase our magazine sales,” one editor berates him. “You’re only popular with a select group of weirdos!”


Many of the Diary‘s scenes that deal with the manga industry focus on the power and tyranny of editors, one of whom is even rumoured to have torn up pages by Osamu Tezuka himself. A powerful presence in this and Tatsumi’s book, Tezuka seems to represent for both artists the ideal of perfection and the apex of the art and business of manga.


There’s almost too much inside information in the Diary, and at times there’s an unfamiliarity to the references to Azuma’s and other creators’ works, as well as publishers and editors. Rather than distance the reader, this adds a strong sense of authenticity to the work.


As much as the Diary offers a look into the life of a successful mangaka, Azuma spends more time on the day-to-day details of his life in the three periods covered. In the first story, we follow along as he learns to survive the winter and discovers the best places to find food. 


In the second story, we meet his oddball collection of fellow pipe-fitters, and also witness (via flashback) his development as a manga creator. The final story details his experiences in the psychiatric hospital. We meet the other patients and follow their progress through rehab and, in some cases, relapse. 


Through it all, Azuma manages to balance the horror with an incredible lightness. There are two interviews included in the book, and in the first, the interview remarks that “it feels like you’re keeping yourself collected and looking at the work in terms of the gags.”


“That’s because looking at yourself from a third person perspective is the basis of comedy,” Azuma responds. “Even in misery, some part of you can laugh at itself, I think.”


———-


Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga and unusual modern work by Asian artists.


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