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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Disappearance Diary

by Jason Thompson,

Episode XCV: Disappearance Diary

"This manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible."
—Hideo Azuma

The themes of nearly every Shonen Jump manga are "friendship, perseverance, victory," but you don't hear too much about isolation, laziness and failure. But that's life: lots of people go through a period of depression, anxiety, or stress-related breakdown, whether it's a quarter-life crisis, a mid-life crisis, or whatever. Manga artists get it too: the flipside of Bakuman, where the heroes are teenagers who are all talented and pumped up about drawing manga, is I'll Give it My All…Tomorrow, where the hero is a 40-year-old unemployed man who wants to be a mangaka except that he's lazy and he sucks. Of course, I'll Give It My All…Tomorrow is a comedy about fictional characters; it'd be too depressing if you knew someone like that in real life. (In fact, in comedy the main character's lameness has to be exaggerated, so readers don't think "This is too much like me" and get depressed.) But even in real life, something that's awful at the time can be funny (in a sick way) years later, like Joe Matt, who wrote an autobiographical graphic novel about the years he wasted doing nothing but watching porn, or Hideo Azuma, who wrote Disappearance Diary, a manga about how he quit his manga career, ran away from home, and turned into a homeless alcoholic.

Disappearance Diary is available in English in a really nice edition from Fanfare/Ponent Mon. Hideo Azuma was a famous mangaka in the late '70s and '80s, when he drew lots of science fiction, school comedy and cute-girl manga. He dabbled in porn, and his cute girls were considered a major influence in the development of the lolicon genre, but he also drew lots of popular mainstream works, like Nanako SOS and Little Pollon, which star cute little girls because the target audience is cute little girls, that's all. Anyway, Disappearance Diary doesn't have any nudity or sexual elements. For a man who Chris Vaillancourt called the "father of lolicon", Azuma seemed to have a fairly normal family life, with a wife (his former assistant) and two children. At least until the day he got depressed, gave up on it all and walked out leaving his family behind.

As Azuma describes it, it was 1989. He had just finished a manga series, so he took a break and spent some time crashing with friends. His editors are angry at him for not telling them where he is, so he starts abandoning his responsibilities and drinking heavily. Eventually, he stops working completely and just drinks all day. He considers suicide. Later, on a trip somewhere, he runs out of money to get home, but instead of calling someone or borrowing some money he just finds spends the night sleeping in the woods. Then he decides to stay there.

There's tons of manga about how funny it is to be extremely poor—from Poor Poor Lips  to Excel Saga—but Disappearance Diary is the only nonfictional manga about being poor and homeless that I've ever read. With one important difference: Azuma chose to be homeless, unlike most homeless people, so there's a sort of insane spirit of adventure about the whole thing. It's like when you're a kid and you fantasize about running away from home (my own dream was to go to Mexico—I remember looking at the horizon and thinking "That's SOUTH. If I keep going that way, I'll get to MEXICO!!!"), except Azuma is 39 years old. Like Robinson Crusoe, he explores the woods and makes a little home and finds all kinds of useful stuff. He finds some rotten blankets and tattered sheets and makes a bed. He scavenges for food, picking wild radishes and cabbage, digging through garbage like a raccoon. In the course of the manga, he eats:

  1. the end of a hot dog
  2. some moldy nikoman buns
  3. used pork fat he finds behind a ramen shop
  4. a half empty bottle of tempura oil ("And for my after meal dessert…tempura oil!")
  5. a handful of grass
  6. some rotten fish

Thrown-away fast-food, half-rotten apples, moldy bread…but he's so hungry he enjoys it! Everything's delicious when you're starving! It's almost like Gokudou Meshi! (Of course, he also drinks whatever leftover booze he can find in the trash.) Unfortunately, he doesn't have the powers of the characters in Moyashimon, so he can't tell when something is rotten or not, and once in awhile he gets sick. But he's surprisingly tough. Living this freegan, hobo lifestyle, he actually gets fat. The only real problem is the rain and cold. But here, Azuma's manga artist training comes to the rescue, and using his manga tools he happened to bring along—a utility knife, a mechanical pencil, scissors, pen, tape and eraser—he even manages to make a primitive stove! But the smoke from the stove attracts people who come to investigate, and so he abandons his camp and hides even deeper in the woods, imagining that he's a ninja with stealth powers. He searches for garbage at night when there's no one around to see him, and his only friend is a bird, whose songs wake him up in the morning.

Ahh—good times! Basically, Azuma just wants to get away from people—whether out of shame or a desire for solitude, he doesn't say. Maybe it was the stress of raising a family, or maybe the workload of being a mangaka. Takeo Udagawa's Manga Zombie is full of stories about mangaka who went insane, turned into religious fanatics, otherwise cracked because of stress. At one point Azuma says that when he was homeless, he actually lived a healthier lifestyle than when he was a mangaka: at least he got lots of sleep ("There's nothing better in this world than sleep"), had lots of time for reading, and didn't have to work such insanely long hours. On the other hand, maybe there's also an element of masochism to intentionally exposing yourself to starvation, freezing, sickness and loneliness, as if you feel you deserve it on some level. Or perhaps if you're depressed enough to want to commit suicide, you simply don't care what happens to you. Then one day, while he's out gathering food, Azuma is picked up by the cops. His family put out a missing persons report, and the cops soon identify him, leading to a surreal moment when one of the cops turns out to be a fanboy who asks him to draw a sketch of a cute girl. At least he avoids a Misery sort of situation. And then Azuma returns home.

Flash forward to 1992, and it all happens over again. As before, Azuma is vague about the reasons: "Something growing out of my head made me do it." This time when he's homeless, he isn't so antisocial. He spends some time in a public park and actually observes people: one of the other park regulars is a religious proselytizer who goes around trying to convert everyone, but he never goes near the homeless guy, which is fine since Azuma is agnostic anyway. ("Why don't you read some science fiction!" he scoffs.) He approaches another community of homeless who live in tents, but they're too scary for him, so he runs away. He hangs out at the library and reads books.

Then someone offers him a job, and strangely, he accepts it. He gets a job under a fake name as a day laborer fitting gas pipes. He gets to know the other workers: a mix of wannabe-Communists, rich kids slumming it, bad-tempered drunks, and so on. He even starts renting an apartment, although he's perpetually in debt because of all the parasitic, vaguely criminal people who hover around poor people making them sign exorbitant loans. (Apparently it really IS like Excel Saga!) Soon, he's building some muscle, and really getting into the blue-collar life ("The nice thing about working hard is that you sleep real well at night"). Doubts nag at him: he realizes that he still wants to draw manga, but instead of going back to his old life he submits a manga to a magazine under his made-up gas-pipe-fitter name. It's like he's starting a nice life from scratch, and he'd probably still be working as a pipe-fitter, if he wasn't discovered by the cops again. Soon Azuma is back at home, with his wife and children crying at him, and telling him how they suffered while he was gone.

Yeah, he does sound like kind of a jerk, abandoning his family, doesn't he? His poor wife hardly shows up at all in the manga, although I get the feeling that it might be because she didn't want her own private life to be exposed. Around page 127, we finally get some background on Azuma, including a short history of his manga career. Non-Japanese readers will find much of this confusing, because there's tons of unexplained references to Azuma's untranslated manga, but it gives a little picture of Azuma's life. In his early 20s, he says, he hardly drank at all. In his own words, he was a SF fanboy and he always wanted to draw science fiction, and it was his editors who kept making him put in the hentai stuff. (Although he does admit he likes loli manga: in one panel set in 1979, he and a bunch of other male artists band together to make loli dojinshi, vowing "We'll drive yaoi out of Comiket!") Mostly, he writes about difficulties and doubts. His editors keep forcing him to make changes to his manga to make it more commercial, and it infuriates him. (In one entertaining part, he gets to meet his idol, Osamu Tezuka, and Tezuka tells him the same thing. "They're always changing my stuff." "It's not easy even for Tezuka, huh…?!")

He deals with the stress by drinking. "The scary thing is that dependence creeps up on you," he says. By 1997, he estimates that he's been drinking about five cups of whisky and shochu every day for the last fifteen years. Then he starts getting the shakes, having hallucinations, and puking in his sleep. His wife has to has to put up with his drunken ravings and even finish his manga for him when he's too drunk ("Ink in the characters at least! I'll do the rest!"). In 1998, he's put in a psychiatric hospital and undergoes an Alcoholics Anonymous-like program. He meets lots of weirdos there, but he seems to take the AA message to heart, and the hospitalization comes off as a good thing. Finally, he's released from the hospital, sober for the moment, although he doesn't make the mistake of saying that he's "cured." No alcoholic is ever completely cured; every alcoholic can relapse if they aren't careful.

For fans, there can be a certain fascination to knowing that your favorite artist has a screwed-up personal life. It can even seem glamorous if they die of it, like Ramo Nakajima, a Japanese novelist and friend of Azuma's, or Amy Winehouse, or so many others. Unlike rock stars, though, mangaka tend to keep their personal life out of the media, which is one of the reasons Disappearance Diary is so special. It's a frustrating read in some ways because it doesn't give us all the answers (especially about how Azuma's family was dealing with the situation); but on the other hand, unlike your emo friend who posts on facebook about how bad their day was and how mean their boss is, Azuma never seems to ask for our pity. It's a comically horrible portrait of a deeply messed-up man drawn like a chibi cartoon character with one eye bigger than the other. You may find Azuma unsympathetic (although I think it's pretty clear there is a psychiatric, chemical reason for his behavior and he's not just an irresponsible flake), but he draws what he wants and he dares to expose his life on paper. In an interview in 2005, when Disappearance Diary won Grand Prize for manga at the Japan Media Arts Awards, the interviewer asked Azuma "What is your motto?" and Azuma answered "Draw what you like; manga is graffiti; to each his own." That's the first lesson of Disappearance Diary: a personal manga like this is probably more interesting than whatever crap Azuma's editors wanted him to draw. The second lesson is, people's lives can take them to bad places. Someone should draw a dojinshi named Bakuman: 20 Years Later.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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