By Hideo Azuma
200 pages, black and white
Published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon
At some point in time, I think everyone’s wanted to "get away from it all" and just escape. It’s a pretty normal urge—even if most people don’t actually follow through on it. Maybe that’s why I was almost instantly attracted to the idea of Hideo Azuma’s Disappearance Diary, an autobiographical story of how a manga artist suddenly snapped and decided to become a homeless man. The reality of his situation? Perhaps not what you would expect.
Azuma is a mid-to-low-level manga creator, stuck drawing stories about schoolgirl characters in sexually charged situations. Then, one day, he just gives up. After burning bridges with his editors, he finds himself heading into the woods one night and not coming back home. What initially is one night of homelessness becomes many—but that’s just the start of Azuma’s escapes from society.
One of the things I liked the most, right off the bat, about Disappearance Diary is Azuma’s frankness when it comes to his situation. He doesn’t seem to ever sugarcoat his circumstances, or try and make himself come across as particularly glamorous. Instead Azuma presents his life in a "warts and all" sort of attitude. We get him scrounging for cigarette butts, digging through trash bags for food, and mixing together drops of alcohol at the bottom of empty bottles in order to get a fix. It’s actually more than a little horrifying as you read it, realizing that this is someone who’s lost almost all of his self-respect and hit rock bottom, yet still finds a way to survive. Through this all you get to see the harsh reality of what it’s really like to be homeless; both through Azuma’s early assumptions proven to be wrong, as well as how he adapts his life to keep on going.
It’s not until the end of Azuma’s first bout of homelessness, though, that I think Disappearance Diary begins to really cater to its strengths. Up until then you’re seeing Azuma interact with no one, and it’s primarily about Azuma’s way of learning how to deal with being homeless. Once he’s picked up by the police and his wife comes to collect him, though, you begin to really get a sense of what sort of person Azuma is like. He’s been homeless for well over a month at this point, and it’s only now that we even discover he has a wife; there’s been no thoughts about her presented to us, no worry about what she might be thinking. It’s a really eye-opening moment, and it challenges the reader’s assumptions about everything that’s happened up until this moment. Previously the assumption presented to the reader is that Azuma’s actions are only harming himself, that no one (well, aside from his editors) would really be too bothered.
When Azuma "disappears" again a few years later, we see Azuma get a job as a gas-pipe layer and really have to interact with others. This, to me, is the real heart of the book. We’re learning more and more about Azuma, his new job, and his co-workers. It’s enthralling reading, despite (or perhaps because of) its mundanity. His later trip to a hospital for alcoholism, as well as his stories of what it’s really like to work in the manga industry, connect perfectly to this narrative; suddenly you begin to really understand what forged Azuma into the exasperated, escapist, easy-to-quit person that he becomes. When he finally has to go to the hospital for alcohol detox, it’s not surprising in the slightest. (I do, incidentally, recommend reading this book for anyone who has any sort of romantic notion about the Japanese comics industry. It’s rather eye-opening in terms of the draconian tactics and near-slave-labor that exists there.)
The art in Disappearance Diary is cartoonish and simplistic, but I think that works well to Azuma’s advantage. He still does a good job of drawing his surroundings, bleak or otherwise, but there’s a sort of everyman quality to them. It’s easy to substitute yourself or someone you know into any and all of these roles, for better or for worse. And, for such a simple style, Azuma does a really good job of bringing the streets of Tokyo to life. From trash bins to restaurants, it’s almost like a seedy edition of a walking guide to the city. The style also helps keep up Azuma’s forever-cheerful and upbeat tone to Disappearance Diary. It never plunges into the obvious realm of self-pity, instead visually having a big grin always plastered across its face.
Disappearance Diary isn’t as good as you may have heard; it’s actually even better. One of my favorite books to be published this year, it’s an engrossing story about what happens when someone gives up on society and responsibilities to "disappear." I never thought I’d be laughing at a story of someone’s hard times, but Azuma’s attitude is almost infectious. Engrossing and intriguing, you’ll want more Disappearance Diary the second you’ve finished it. Definitely check this book out.
Purchase Links: Amazon.com