by Hideo Azuma; translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian and Elizabeth Tiernan
published by Fanfare/Ponent Mon; $22.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
In 1989, after twenty years as a professional manga artist, Hideo Azuma quit all his projects and ran off to live as a hermit in the mountains. After a few months, he was discovered and returned home.
In 1992, Azuma again ran away. He started out homeless but eventually found a job as a pipe layer. This time, he was gone for over a year.
Finally, in 1998, Azuma’s alcoholism had become so severe his wife had him forcibly committed to a detox program. He spent four months overcoming physical and psychological dependency on alcohol and learning how to live soberly.
Well it’s in my blood and it’s in my veins
And it’s in my life and it’s all the time
— “Melancholia” by Van Morrison
Azuma sets the tone for this manga in his introduction, where he says, “This manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible.” Under a lesser storyteller, this would have been a pollyannaish manga instead of simply upbeat. This optimism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Azuma has written an enjoyable, almost uplifting, autobiography about the darkest times in his life. On the other, the realities and dangers of homelessness and alcoholism are glossed over.
To be fair, Azuma doesn’t completely ignore the negative aspects of his experiences. On one page, he mentions that he almost froze to death. Some of the dumpster diving sections are stomach turning, especially when he finds a cigarette butt and lighter in some udon noodles he’s eating. He also reminds the reader that living under the stars is only nice if it’s not raining or the middle of winter.
My first reaction when I finished reading the book was, “Azuma’s wife must be a saint to have put up with all of this.” My biggest complaint with this manga is how Azuma’s family is missing from most of it. I really want to get his wife’s perspective on this period of his life. I can understand her sticking with him after the first disappearance, but not the second. Not to mention her enduring the years of alcoholism. I kept wondering, “How does his family ever feel secure around him again?” Each time he goes to the publisher’s office or heads out to the convenience store, do they wonder if he’s coming back? How do you ever rebuild trust in a relationship after violating it three times? Not giving his family’s side of the story leaves a hole the size of the Grand Canyon in the narrative. The effect of these disappearances on them is completely ignored.
There’s also a hidden melancholy in this manga. (Thus the Van Morrison lyrics at the top.) At times, it breaks through the positive veneer and overwhelms me. This is the story of a broken man, someone desperately trying to escape a life that no longer brings him any satisfaction or joy. This is best seen in the one section where Azuma’s cheerful gloss is surprisingly and noticeably absent, that describing the life of a manga artist.
Azuma paints a depressing picture of his twenty years in the manga profession. It’s a life spent under constant pressures from editorial dictates, deadlines, and assignments that pay the bills but don’t satisfy him artistically. Azuma’s bitterness over the psychological damage of such a lifestyle lays naked on the page. The chapter serves as a sober reminder that not every comic artist can be a Rumiko Takahashi or Frank Miller. For each artist that finds riches and fame, there are thousands who work hard and live paycheck by paycheck taking the assignments they can get. After twenty years of such a life, Azuma found himself burned out and desperate to get away.
The artwork here is excellent. As befitting the tone of the book, Azuma has chosen to use a more cartoonish style, as seen on the cover. I could easily see someone animating this book without having to make changes to the art. The character designs are simple but highly effective. There’s a liveliness and energy to the art that makes the characters come alive. Azuma is a gifted artist.
I can only recommend this book with reservations. I worry this book makes homelessness look easy. (Azuma’s survival skills are truly amazing; he should be teaching classes to the Boy Scouts.) I’m also afraid that some might get the idea that when you find your life unbearable, it’s okay to simply abandon everything and everyone to start over fresh. That being said, it’s still an engaging and well-written manga, a fascinating look at one man’s struggles with just being a human being. However, it only tells half the story and that makes it flawed.