21 September 2009

10 Thoughts About Disappearance Diary

Disappearance Diary
Original Title: Shissou Nikki (Japanese)
by Hideo Azuma
200 pages, black and white with color cover
Publishers: Fanfare/Ponent Mon (US/UK), EastPress (Japan)
ISBN: 978-84-96427-42-6
$22.99 US / £ 11.99 UK

1. I recently checked this book out from the Queens Library on a whim. It’s a manga book from 2005, published in English in October 2008 by Fanfare/Ponent Mon, who is, in my mind, the Japanese equivalent of Fantagraphics, a publisher whose aesthetic mission seems to be to bring the highest quality Japanese literary comics to an American audience. The book is both written and illustrated by Hideo Azuma, a well-known and widely-acclaimed Japanese cartoonist. Disappearance Diary is his first and only work available in English. It won several major awards when it was released, including the Grand Prize at the 2005 Japanese Media Arts Awards and the 2006 Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize. It was also honored as an official selection at the 2008 Angoulême International Comics Festival.

2. At the highest level, the book is a “somewhat fictionalized” memoir about Azuma’s battles with mental illness, alcoholism, depression and the rigors of the comics profession. The book is divided into three sections, each with 4-6 page chapters which feel like they were originally serialized. The first section, “Walking at Night,” opens with a botched suicide attempt, before quickly re-focusing on Azuma’s first “disappearance,” in which he becomes homeless, sleeps in the woods, scrounges for food in the garbage bins behind restaurants, and generally spends his days sleeping, drinking and wandering the city. The subject matter is bleak, but Azuma uses a brightly dispassionate narrator voice, relying on self-deprecating humor to lighten the mood, blunting for both himself and the reader some of the more painful details from this obviously difficult period in his life. Azuma’s intention to keep from delving into the depths of his despair is made clear on the book’s opening page when the artist declares that “This manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible” (this quote is also extracted and highlighted on the back cover). And like Chris Ware’s work, Azuma’s sparse, beautiful linework is at odds tonally with its subject matter, creating a strange emotional dissonance that is at first jarring, but quickly becomes comfortable and soothing as we disappear into the dark caverns of Azuma’s troubled memories.

3. The second section. “Walking Around Town,” focuses on another of Azuma’s disappearances. This time, however, Azuma abruptly leaves his family and 20+ year career as a manga cartoonist and, after a brief period on the streets again, winds up working for the Japanese gas company mounting pipe fittings. It’s interesting to read Azuma’s sometimes bewildering descriptions of the various oddballs and con-men he encounters on the job, and heartbreaking to know that while all of this is going on, his family is searching desperately for him.

4. In fact, Azuma’s family barely features into this narrative. Whether the cartoonist left them out to spare them the trauma of reliving their torment, was simply unable to identify with the pain and fear they must have endured, or simply didn’t feel their emotional responses to his disappearances were interesting enough to warrant inclusion, their absence is nonetheless conspicuous. In the few brief appearances his wife makes in the book, one cannot help but wonder why she did not leave him after so many horrible incidents, nor how she managed to live with her frustration while continuing to support someone who was both mentally ill and severely alcoholic. Aside from the obvious curiosity, Azuma’s family’s perspective also might have been useful because it would enable the average reader with little or no experience with alcoholism and mental illness a way into the story.

5. The latter half of the second section sees Azuma briefly return to drawing manga, and in this period, he takes on an inordinate amount of work. His effort during this period is manic in terms of page output, while the quality is not surprisingly diminished. Unfortunately, American readers will likely find this section difficult to navigate because none of the works that Azuma discusses are available in English. After attempting to wade through this section, I ended up skimming ahead.

6. The final section, “Alcoholic Ward,” is the most fascinating of the three by far. In it, Azuma takes yet another fall and this time turns into a serious alcoholic, and once again ends up sleeping on the streets and scrounging for money to buy sake. In the end, his wife drops him off at a hospital and the final half of this section is comprised of Azuma’s recollections of the various characters he met while rehabilitating. What makes this section stand out is the way Azuma brings his fellow patients to life with just a few panels.

7. The book ends with a brief discussion between Azuma and Japanese cartoonist Miki Tori. It’s an uplifting ending for the simple fact that Azuma is able to soberly reflect on those dark times in his life, and seems to have achieved some peace and clarity from telling his story. There is another short interview hidden under the inside back cover flap which seems more mocking in tone, but is worth a quick read. The interviewer, Kiuchi Maya, asks questions like “What were you like, Mr. Azuma?” and “What’s your ideal life like?” but Azuma, consistent with his narrator voice, answers honestly, but with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

8. Azuma's artwork throughout is astoundingly rich in detail, begging readers to linger just a few extra seconds in each panel, without over-dramatizing or cluttering the story. It’s clear Azuma is a natural at manga figure drawing (he is beloved in Japan for his depictions of sexy girls in uniforms), and his artwork tends toward the more simplified, Peanuts end of the scale. Still, one cannot help but gaze at panel after panel of meticulously drawn images and feel a little sorry that a) the cartoonist has been so afflicted that his output and artwork have suffered, and b) that more of his stories are not available in English.

9. At the end of the book, Azuma alludes to the fact that this is only part of the story of his struggle, and that at some point, he may return to finish recounting his journey. That would be welcome. Part of the difficulty I had with this book is that it feels incomplete. We never really learn how Azuma managed to get his life back in order, nor what he feels about those dark days now that he is older and apparently stable. Has he learned anything from his ordeal (he claims in the final interview he no longer drinks)? What about his family life? Does he have any regrets? All of these questions beg to be answered. UPDATE: I have seen a few sporadic rumors online of a second volume, titled Depression Diary, but I can’t find any information regarding plans to publish this book in English.

10. I don’t tend to read a lot of manga, mostly because there is so much other good stuff to read and I’ve always felt a little bewildered by the sprawling narratives and put off by the fetishized, big-eyed artwork. But this book is a great example of why keeping an open mind is always critical. Disappearance Diary is a superb book, not perfect, but one that lingers long after its final page, and to dismiss it just because it’s manga would be a real shame. This book is far more than just an autobiography, it’s a personal triumph of the human soul, an inspiring work that takes emotionally devastating events and transforms them into beautiful little cartoons, which is no easy feat, but what’s even more impressive is that the book remains grounded despite its weighty and depressing subject matter.

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