It’s time to return to Goodnight Punpun, which almost seemed normal and quaint in the last volume compared to the depressing downward spiral of (well-written) misery and psychological problems the series usually presents. What does the series have in store for us now?
Goodnight Punpun Vol. 5 (Viz Media)
Translated and adapted by: JN Productions
Lettering by: Annaliese Christman
Punpun’s life almost seems normal now–almost being the operative word. He has a decent job and some nice friends and is even partnered with Sachi Nanjo to help her with her manga. However, these things cannot last in his mind and he’s soon headed to fall deeper into the gutter, even more so than ever before. Also, his childhood crush, Aiko Tanaka, happens to be in the area. He’ll eventually run into her before his lease is up… right?
Goodnight Punpun remains one of the most difficult mangas to review and analyze in this outing. The story merely is the glue that holds everything together and barely feels present at all this time around. It only makes a big impact towards the second half of the book when Aiko makes her appearance. That’s when things start picking up and the plot starts moving instead of meandering around. Like past volumes, the focus of the manga remains on the characters–the damaged, barely keeping it together, self-loathing, and or depressed characters of the series.
If there was ever a book series that I wanted to give to a psychologist, because it badly needed counseling and help, it would be Goodnight Punpun. Its characters are some of the most miserable, cynical, and broken characters that I have ever read about. But in the case of Punpun, that is a compliment– Asano is a skillful writer and one of the strongest when it comes to characterization and capturing humanity’s more troubling aspects. Everyone feels like a well thought out and developed human being with multiple layers to them thanks to Asano spending so much time focusing on them throughout their lives and having them interact with others. By the time we’ve reached this point, we understand why Punpun is so broken and damaged due to the heavy amount of crap and abuse he has gotten over the years. We get breakthroughs with Masumi Saki and Akio about why they are the way they are, even as rough as it can be. In the case of Akio, it gets really uncomfortable and provides us some rather interesting context when looking back on scenes in the past with her. It’s quite fascinating to read if you have the stomach for very dark character-focused material.
That being said, this is not a book without its problems despite how well written and depressingly realistic it gets. The major thing comes with the fact that Punpun himself is not remotely likable at this point. It is very easy to understand how he got this way and there are elements we can sympathize with or understand. We’ve all been self-loathing at times, had terrible things that happened to us, or really beat up on ourselves, blowing up simple things into something bigger. But Punpun goes further than that with how overall despicable he is and coming across as blaming almost everyone else for his mistakes. The despicable parts definitely come out in the second half where he lies about his identity when trying to become someone else (getting into some brief, iffy rape by deception) and ultimately taking advantage of Akio when she’s at an extremely low point. It’s just downright uncomfortable and hard to read about, even making you question why you’d want to keep reading further about a character like this.
Of course, that’s not the only problem with the series (the others, thankfully, are not as uncomfortable as the abuse and rape in the book). While Asano writes some very well written characters and even great scenes and exchanges between them, he has difficulty when it comes to dialogue at times. He likes to have his characters act as mouthpieces to expose random, cynical viewpoints on the world and society, like with Sachi’s ex-husband’s appearance. One of the most blatant examples is the scene where Sachi and her editor discuss the manga draft she submitted and about the reasons why audiences like certain things and the storytelling process. It honestly sounds like Asano just told us an experience he had in the past using these characters and it’s so awkward (it does not help that Sachi almost seems like a stand-in for him, even down to the fact that a manga she later submits happens to be Solanin, one of Asano’s older works).
Asano always takes the dark and depressing route with the story and his characters, making things a bit more forceful than natural in how moments play out. It just feels like the writer is always trying to avoid things brightening up for the characters, especially Punpun, and helping them reach a good point in their life; it can just feel artificial and frustrating. Lastly, there’s this entire subplot involving a cult that’s been building up for several volumes now that just feels out of place and random. It takes up quite a few chapters and constantly gets referenced, but it never really adds to anything. The scenes are always incredibly goofy and quirky, almost reminiscent of the series before things got depressing. However, the tone and placement of this subplot just feel completely out of place now that the series has gone down such a dark route. I do generally think the writing is pretty good on the book, even if it feels directionless at times, but these problems do stand out and can be rather distracting or take away from what is a strong character piece.
The one thing that remains absolutely flawless in this series is the artwork. Asano is just a phenomenal artist when it comes to almost everything here. While I’ll believe he has admitted to using some digital work to construct and create the backgrounds and scenery, the locations feel very real and help ground this story more. The panel layouts and use of double or single page spreads is very well done, allowing the story to flow naturally and never feel really decompressed or awkward at any time. The combination of both the backgrounds and layouts lead to some beautiful shots in the book, like Punpun and his friend looking over a railing as tons of cherry blossoms are blown around, or the final bit with Sachi in the volume. The characters are drawn so very well and everyone looks unique from one another and also appears rather real in some way (outside of Punpun, but that’s only natural). The use of angles in the panels, shadows, and how characters express themselves through their body language can be absolutely incredible and powerful without even saying a single word. Just the scenes with Aiko and Sachi can be so moving and heartbreaking with the situations they deal with in how they are presented. This is simply one of the most gorgeous books I have ever read without a doubt.
Goodnight Punpun Vol. 5 has problems with its story, execution, and how hard it can be to read it at times, perhaps more so than ever before. It’s also a simply fascinating series in what it presents through its characters, writing, and artwork. It’s a troubling manga to read, especially in its second half, and it truly gets under your skin at times. Despite that, I keep being drawn back into its world. This is one of the most beautiful looking series with some of the saddest, most broken, troubled characters currently out on the market. Even at its weakest and despite it being such a difficult read, Goodnight Punpun is just one of those series that should not be missed.