The Lady and the Tramp
I probably tend to idealize manga a bit — Japanese comics often seem to me to be less insular, less exclusively male-oriented, and overall better than their American counterparts. Hideo Azuma’s Disappearance Diary is, in this context, a nice corrective, for it is as monotonous, as self-absorbed, and as relentlessly guy-fixated as the work of any interchangeable American autobio wunderkind who ever snapped his arm in half while trying to simultaneously lay out a grid and pat himself on the back.
Admittedly, Azuma’s style is more polished and expressive, and his boxy layouts more inventive, than you’d find in the work of most of his American peers. His cartooning chops are impeccable, and many of the small moments are great: he learns how to tie his boots like a laborer in a flurry of expressive motion lines, for example, and his dts summon up a host of adorably blobby hallucinatory critters. Alas, these bright spots are methodically buried under the steady drip-drip of the tiny panels and the mundanity of their content. I’m willing to look at one drawing of Azuma vomiting; three or four seems a bit excessive; twelve and I’m wondering why in hell I offered to review this book.
If the art is repetitive, it’s got nothing on the writing. Reading Disappearance Diary is like being locked in a room with that boring guy (you know the one) who can’t tell the difference between an interesting detail and his own belly-button lint, and who is constantly telling the punch line in the middle and then going back to it three or four times to explain why it’s funny. The pages drag on and on — Azuma gets up, Azuma does random uninteresting thing, Azuma does other random uninteresting thing, Azuma goes back to tell you about the uninteresting thing he did yesterday, Azuma goes to sleep, Azuma wakes up…..
What’s most frustrating is that it seems like there really is a worthwhile plot buried here somewhere under the soporific storytelling skills. The narrative focuses on a decade long period of crisis in Azuma’s life during which the successful manga-ka quit his job to become homeless, returned to work and quit again to become a gas pipe-layer, returned again and then descended into alcoholism. Obviously, something worth hearing about was going on in his head — and just as obviously, he doesn’t want to discuss it. Azuma avoids introspection with an intensity and vigor that is positively incriminating. Instead, of explaining himself, he focuses on the details of daily life, apparently under the assumption that there is something intrinsically funny or interesting about the life of a homeless man, or that of a pipe-layer, or that of a hospitalized alcoholic. In other words, the lumpen proletariat is supposed to have innate anthropological interest, a theory which is both offensive and, as it turns out, false. It’s no more revealing to see Azuma search for cigarette butts every day than it is to watch him dig a hole every day than it is to watch him trying to meet his deadline as a manga artist every day. Whether you’re a big-game hunter, an international spy, or a garbage man, without emotional context the routines of daily life are just routines.
So what is the emotional context or background? What would give this drab plod some meaning? There’s not a ton to go on, but it seems to me that the big, unanswered question in the manga is about Azuma’s relationship with his wife. We hear very little about her. In the opening sequence, when he talks about quitting it all and running away to live in the woods, he mentions his editors and friends, but never his wife. Over the course of the whole book, though, a few details come out. We learn that she puts out a missing persons report on him both times he disappears. We learn that she acts as his assistant on his comics, and that she makes some effort to get him to handle his assignments in a responsible fashion. In the last chapter, we see her committing him to an institution for alcoholism. While he’s there, he mentions briefly that he is afraid she will divorce him, though she apparently never does.
In a couple of bonus interviews, we find out a bit more. Azuma’s wife apparently thought he was dead at one point during his first disappearance, and during his second she remodeled the house, eliminating his studio. Also he has kids, and they didn’t recognize him when he came back the second time. Oh, and his wife was apparently kind of pissed at the way she was so thoroughly excised from the manga.
The most telling moment though, comes in the comic itself, towards the end of his second stint away from home, when he’s working as a pipe-layer. The police pick him up for having a stolen bicycle, and discover his identity. Azuma relates:
“After that they took my fingerprints, gave me a stern talking to, and my wife came to get me and took me home (abbreviated because none of this was funny.)”
Of course, if Azuma was going to cut everything unfunny, he’d be in big trouble. Virtually nothing in the book elicits a laugh; on the contrary, it’s all deadly dull. The suspicion, then, is that he cut the discussion about his wife not because it was serious, but because it might have been interesting. Indeed, once he and his wife are reunited, he continues working his blue-collar job, commuting from home. Surely there would have been some revealing conversations there. They might even, one would think, have had comic potential.
Azuma’s reticence here also casts light on the first words of the comic: “This manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible.” In this context, “realism” would seem to indicate grit, misery, and so forth. But, in fact, Azuma is perfectly willing, and even eager to retail the sordid facts of his existence — scrounging through garbage cans, vomiting all day every day, etc. What he isn’t willing to talk about in the manga is his wife, or his kids, or, for that matter, any of the important relationships in his life. Instead, we see him interacting with a series of men for whom he expresses insistent disdain. As a pipe-layer, for example, he works with a guy named Yanai. Yanai is bossy and disgusting and most of his partners drop him after only a week. Azuma, though, sticks around much longer. He attributes this to the fact that “whatever nasty things [Yanai said to me, I had my own pride.” That’s one interpretation, I guess.
As it happens, Azuma is best known, not for autobiography, but as one of the creators of Lolicon, a manga genre which depicts young girls in sexualized situations. The fascination with unavailable girls, the apparent preference for relationships with emotionally stunted men, and the refusal to discuss his own marriage — all these form a rather suggestive triangle. No doubt it’s impolite to psychoanalyze… but then, it’s also bad manners to relate endless strings of wearisome anecdotes. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who wades all the way through this deliberately tedious volume is owed a little payback.
This piece first ran in The Comics Journal.