Four-Eyed Stranger #18: Disappearance Diary

Oliver Ho

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

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Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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