Goodnight Punpun (Oyasumi Punpun)
Story and art by Inio Asano
Originally published in English by Viz (2016)
This story follows Punpun, a young boy depicted as a tiny bird, living in a small suburban family. We follow his journey, dealing with the many challenges life throws at him, including oncoming adolescence, domestic issues and budding romances. As life becomes a burden, Punpun’s journey shifts between bouts of hope, and clouds of darkness.
To be honest, I wouldn’t call myself an Inio Asano fan. I’ve read many of his works, and though intrigued initially by multiple concepts Asano attempts to explore, I’ve found most executions lacklustre. Goodnight PunPun was the fifth Asano work I’d read, and the series that made me question my opinion on him. This manga both challenged the boundaries of the medium while simultaneously providing an engaging read. This is without a doubt Asano’s best work, and combats some of the disappointment I’ve had reading his previous manga.
Originally, I thought having the main characters being depicted as birds would become irritating. It seemed like a cute gimmick that allowed the manga to stand out aesthetically, but would get old pretty quick. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how useful this addition was to the piece. It added intrigue and also helped with some comedic affects. Further, the character’s ability to morph into different shapes (all in the same caricature style) gave the reader additional information on the character’s feelings and general atmosphere, something that could not be done with conventional character designs. The author still adds panels where Punpun, and his family possess human bodies. Through masterfully angled scenes, Asano show us realistic hands, legs and torsos. This addition reminds the audience that all our characters are still human, and not part of some fantasy species, while increasing the intrigue that comes with viewing their “true” form. For that reason, the audience acknowledges that Punpun is human, but can only picture him in their mind as a bird.
Very early in, the reader becomes aware that this coming of age story is much different in its exploration of issues. Most manga in this genre explore issues on a surface level, focusing more on school relationships and budding romances. Punpun, however, deals with incredibly serious themes from a very young age, including domestic abuse, divorce and neglect. As most of these issues are depicted in the simplistic bird-comic form, the more graphic scenes the reader experiences (of which there are many) are softened. However, Asano purposefully removes this from his manga in order to strip these experiences into their most basic form – just as a child would see it. The reader’s perception is skewed due to the abstract way that these events are being depicted, much like how a troubled, naive young boy may see the world around him. While most characters are unpleasant at best and detestable at worst, the authors ability to put me into their shoes, living life with their questionable morals and sense of reality masterful, and a highlight of this work.
Asano has a very distinct art style, something that can be identified immediately after opening up one of his manga. I enjoyed the imagery used by the mangaka; the purposeful planting of certain symbols within backgrounds led to a more surreal experience for the reader. As I previously mentioned, the art has an important role in perception. Its ability to alter reality to fit his various characters would have been tricky to do, but was a success, as I was goaded into various realities through my read. While the backgrounds were always great, personally, I’m not a huge fan of Asano’s depiction of people. While unique, it makes many characters look childish (possibly due a rounder face), which can detract from mature moments.
My one major gripe with this series was the protagonist. Punpun deals with a lot over the course of his life, so it’s no surprise that he becomes complicated psychologically. However, he is also one of the winiest characters out of any manga I’ve read. After everything he’s gone through, you’d expect to see him upset and down quite often. However, the entire cast of supporting characters (apart from a few who have their own storylines) are created to assist him 24/7, and are at the mercy of his moods. He’s never particularly kind or grateful, and never tries to help himself for the betterment of his friends and family.
One of the most important aspects of character design in any story is their personal development. I didn’t feel like Punpun developed at all, aside from physically growing. There were no instances where he stopped feeling sorry for himself or realised he needed to treat others better. He was incredibly neurotic and that detracted from the piece. I don’t really want to follow a character who’s not willing to learn from his mistakes (or the mistakes of others) and continues to sulk his entire life away. It’s incredibly frustrating and upsetting. So many of the characters suffered due to him, yet they all stay faithful to him, which is more of a testament to their character than his. Because of this, it was hard identifying with multiple characters, as they’re all unable to break this monotonous cycle of negativity.
While many do help Punpun, most did not develop either. They meet the difficulties in their life with complaints and indifference. I enjoyed the idea that everyone was suffering, because everyone in life is. We all have our own issues we must deal with. If Asano’s answers to these troubles is to lounge around all day and sulk, he is not providing his readers with helpful methods of dealing with complications in life, and that’s something we see his characters struggle with.
An issue I found not just with this manga, but with many of Asano’s work is the addition of philosophical depth. Throughout this manga in particular, many characters enjoy providing insightful comments to the reader, making statements on the nature of the universe, reality and the meaning of life. Simply put, it tried way too hard to be deep. It came off as quite pretentious, with characters (primarily fuelled with angst) making cynical comments throughout the manga, attempting to come across as “insightful”. Many of these parts go for way to long (particularly Pegasus’ monologues), and, in a frustrated flurry, I would skip most of these parts that went pages too long. Making cynical and depressing comments doesn’t mean they are true or deep, it just comes across as edgy.
Overall, Goodnight PunPun is an ambitious work with a lot to like – discussing deep and serious themes that don’t sugarcoat depressing situations. It uses abstract storylines and imagery to follow a variety of troubled characters, putting the reader in their skewed perception of reality. However, a neurotic main character who is unable to change, along with Asano’s faux intellectuality can make this piece a frustratingly sour read. I’d recommend this manga to anyone who wants a darker piece to read which plays with the “coming of age” genre, and can put up with edgy philosophy and lacklustre character development.
Art – 9
Story – 8
Writing – 6.5
Overall – 7.5/10
Image sources: http://punpun.wikia.com/wiki/Oyasumi_Punpun_Wiki, https://weheartit.com/entry/177278777, http://rebloggy.com/post/manga-oyasumi-punpun-asano-inio-goodnight-punpun/13406659350, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOymBZNCd9I