Inio Asano is one of the bigger names in the manga scene in Japan. He is known for writing a wide variety of stories and genres, from the psychological thriller of Nijigahara Holograph to a slice of life tale like solanin. Today’s subject is perhaps one of Asano’s most memorable series, Goodnight Punpun. Is it good?
Goodnight Punpun Vol. 1 (Viz Media)
Written and Drawn By: Inio Asano
Translation By: JN Productions
Lettering: Annaliese Christman
Punpun Punyama is a normal elementary school kid. He has a group of friends he hangs out with, has some big dreams, is getting more curious about the world (wants to find some porn as well), and there’s a girl he’s crushing on. This is his weird, surreal, melancholy story… of the time he was in elementary school.
The Initial Impression
Goodnight Punpun is a bizarre little tale; it’s a slice-of-life/coming of age story with heaping doses of surreality and wild imagery. Goodnight Punpun introduces us to Punpun, our odd elementary school kid protagonist with an active imagination going through enormous pressures, difficulties at home, and the bewilderment he faces from having grown up a bit quicker than most. However, to even the describe the manga as just that does not do it justice, since the story also gives attention to a lot of the other people around him. There are also plenty of weird moments sprinkled throughout, along with plenty of odd daydream/fantasy scenes as well, giving deeper insight into the main character. Despite the sound of it, this first volume is just so thoroughly engrossing that you can’t put it down.
The absolute best aspect of Goodnight Punpun is its fantastic, rich character work. Inio Asano is a master craftsman when it comes to his characters, making them all feel like living, breathing three-dimensional human beings. Punpun himself is the most developed of everyone in the story so far and is also easily the most memorable. He’s never shown talking — instead, Asano lets odd bits of narration express what he’s thinking or fits of body language (like nodding and shivering). The character feels relatable very early on, with him suffering from fears, worries, and problems a lot of us have had in our past: trouble at home, freaking out about changes with one’s body, experiencing love for the first time, worrying about letting people down, trying to act tough around friends despite internal problems and worries, and wondering what exactly sex is. I find a bunch of these things, personally at least, rather relatable to things from my past or things my friends brought up in grade school.
Punpun was into some weird things as a child.
The supporting cast is very distinct and memorable in their own ways. There’s Aiko, the girl who Punpun has a crush on (and seems to return his feelings) — she has a complicated home life and often seems to lean on Punpun for help, even pressuring him hard in the middle of the book about running away together. You have Punpun’s parents, a dad who loves his son a lot but appears to have a messy and destructive attitude and a mom who feels very negligent and almost uncaring towards a lot of aspects in Punpun’s life. There’s Uncle Yuichi, who is probably the best role model in the kid’s life and tries his best to be there for him, but has his own issues (some obvious and some subtle). There are also the kids that Punpun hangs around with, each of them with their own defining backstories and issues, such as having an alcoholic dad, having to move away and one whose a bit overly imaginative and not all there. Everyone here gets some time, whether it be small or big, that helps define them and helps show what kind of influence they have on the main character for better or for worse.
Asano’s writing is very strong overall. There are a bunch of odd narrative choices, like depicting Punpun and his family as cartoon doodles, Punpun never talking, an entire chapter essentially being a fever dream, most of the adults acting in very weird and bizarre ways (maybe this is due to how Punpun perceives them as a child), or how the lead often consults a photorealistic smiling God for help. It’s stuff like this, not even mentioning any other surreal imagery, that might make this seem too complicated or hard to understand if you skim it or look at it from an outsider perspective. However, despite appearances, Goodnight Punpun is fairly easy to read and not all that complicated. There are certainly parts that are left up to interpretation and are certainly out there, but despite this the script and storytelling are sound. Beyond that, the dialogue is fairly strong (unnatural at points, but on purpose obviously) and the emotion and drama is effective due to how the creator presents the story and its characters, like with the final appearance of Punpun’s dad in the book or the kids investigating the abandoned building.
With people advertising like that, I can totally see people just rushing in to join that health club.
Another strong aspect of the manga is easily the artwork, which is a mixture of highly detailed and life-like backgrounds and locations, regular and manga-ish looking characters, and also cartoon antics and surreal imagery. It makes for one of the most memorable looking mangas I’ve read in a long time and frankly, despite it being off-putting at times, the artwork is amazing. According to interviews with Asano, backgrounds were made by taking photographs of locations and then redrawing them with characters and objects in them. It does make the characters and certain objects stand out more and allow for some scenes to pop more, like when Punpun hugs Aiko in a big two page spread. The characters are all very unique looking from each other in the way they designed from their faces to body types, and everyone is incredibly expressive in their body language; especially the oddball adults (like the teacher who throws a huge fit at one point). The cartoonish and oddworld imagery used to depict Punpun, his family, and his daydreams are inventive and memorable, like with it depicting some of the harsher and heavier scenes (the final part of the first chapter springs to mind).
One of Goodnight Punpun’s weaknesses is that it’s lacking in direction. To be fair, that’s sort of what you would expect from a slice of life type story, since they are usually about people in their daily lives and the mundane, everyday things that happen to them. There are events that happen in the manga, but they don’t string together any big overarching story in anyway. So for people wanting something a bit more tangible or solid, this might not be your cup of tea. Also, something that is a bit of a letdown is the fact that manga has no color pages in it. It’s very clear at some points that this manga was meant to have color pages, but for some reason, Viz didn’t have them in this release.
First, I’d like for you to stop knocking me over with your Times New Roman font, God.
Lastly, the surrealness of the manga may hold it back even more. This series, or at least this first volume, is a bit strange in its execution like I mentioned. Punpun and his family are all drawn as cartoonish bird doodles with very little detail and have very cartoonish reactions and movements, which is very strangely contrasted against the far more normal looking humans and realistic looking locations. It’s odd for sure, but it only gets stranger.
Lots of the adults look very off in their appearance with blank expressions or off-gestures, but also have these extreme overreactions and creepy moments that look so bizarre that you are not sure if they are really happening or not in the story’s reality. Punpun has a hyperactive imagination and viewpoints, so there’s a lot of surreal imagery that goes with it when he’s imagining or talking to things, such as his interactions with the smiling afro God. The surreal visions and imagery usually never gets too out there so that it ends up interfering with the story or understanding what happens (sans Chapter 16), but it can be distracting and may not work for some.
Is It Good?
Goodnight Punpun Vol. 1 is a wild and out-there, but still grounded and relatable enough story about a kid and his early years. It’s not a particularly happy or upbeat story, but just a story about the life of this little kid in elementary school and all the problems and challenges that keep piling up on him. It’s a manga that I recommend more than others to any audience out there, since this is a story that has to be read and experienced. Talking and writing about it does not remotely do it justice.