Interview: Goodnight Punpun Creator Inio Asano

by Rebecca Silverman,

Inio Asano is the renowned artist and writer behind a small library of emotionally complex manga that have been embraced and celebrated by audiences in Japan and around the world. Asano is known among many for his affecting and deeply-felt portrayals of some pretty challenging emotions: selfishness, narcissism, self-hatred and severe depression are just some of the painful feelings Asano trades in. Inside these emotions, Asano builds personalities we see ourselves in – and often the reflection is painful, resulting in a unique and deeply affecting storytelling style that audiences around the world have lauded. His catalog is mostly a list of titles that wound up on countless “best manga of the year” lists: Solanin, A Girl on the Shore, Goodnight Punpun and most recently Dead Dead Demon's Dededede Destruction, out this spring from Viz Media, have all come highly acclaimed.

We had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Asano at this year's Toronto Comic Arts Festival about his career, the controversial ending of Goodnight Punpun, his take on the generation gap in Japan and much more.


DEAD DEAD DEMON'S DEDEDEDE DESTRUCTION © 2014 Inio Asano/SHOGAKUKAN

ANN: Before you began serializing Good Night Punpun, you mentioned that you were done writing “feel good stories.” Can you explain that a little further? Do you have a specific series you've written that you would classify as “feel good?”

INIO ASANO: I think the series I created before Goodnight Punpun, in particular What a wonderful world! and Solanin, focused on the notion that young people have that they are inherently “special.” With these two stories, the main storyline was about how over time the characters take in the norms of society and adapt to them.

When creating these two stories, I purposefully made the young character's self-consciousness appear as part of their youth and inexperience so that they would reach a larger readership, and thus I avoided touching on the darker, more troubling aspects of the human character.

I found writing stories like this boring and restrictive. Therefore, staring with Goodnight Punpun, I made a conscious decision to write my stories so that they challenged the reader, especially from an ethical standpoint.

What, specifically, did you want to accomplish as a mangaka with Punpun's story? Did you leave him alive at the end to show that there are no easy ways out in life?

Punpun is too serious, therefore has a hard time communicating. He is also awkward and kind of annoying.

Goodnight Punpun is about Punpun meeting various people through the series and how he starts to understand his “true self.” Punpun is his own individual, so there is no need for the reader to always agree with or understand Punpun's thoughts and actions. I myself do not believe Punpun is a “good person” as typically defined by society, but by creating a main character that, from an entertainment standpoint, would never be cast as a main character, I wanted to show readers that people like him exist.

But also, Goodnight Punpun introduces so many characters all with their individual values and a story with many layers. It is hard to boil down what I wanted to say through this series but if there is one point I wanted to tell the readers, it is that the world has many different values, but that none of them are “right.”

I struggled with whether or not to keep Punpun alive at the end, but I value the journey more than the ending of Goodnight Punpun. I understand there are readers who would have wanted Punpun to take his own life in the end. Punpun is a character who was loved by some readers and hated by others so rather than to be forgiven by dying and having a certain easy ending to the story, I wanted to choose an ending where the readers have an uneasy feeling knowing Punpun is still out there living his life.


DEAD DEAD DEMON'S DEDEDEDE DESTRUCTION © 2014 Inio Asano/SHOGAKUKAN

What has the reaction been to your decision to leave the series relatively open-ended?

When the serialization ended, the readers' reactions were highly divided. There were readers who understood the creator's choice and some readers who had resentment due to the fact the story did not end in a way they wished. But I think both reactions are perfectly natural. I do not provide answers or truths through my work. I just raise questions and provide some hints. Everyone's interpretation varies, so I hope by reading the manga, each reader can come up with their own truths and make their own discoveries.

How do you feel about genre classifications? Most of your work defies easy classification, instead seeming to cater to readers who themselves may not feel like they fit into any one generation or category. Is this a specific audience you want to reach, or do you feel that labeling a series as this-or-that genre puts limits on both it and the creator?

For sales purposes, I think it is important to have genre classifications. But I think the creator should not lose freedom and creativity by using the genre classification. When manga becomes restricted by what manga is supposed to be, a lot of similar manga are mass-produced and I know there are readers who dislike this situation, including myself. I never consider a certain genre when I create manga. There are creators who pursue creating manga that's very “in-the-box,” but there are many other creators whose goal is not just creating manga, but using the medium of manga as a tool for self-expression. I often read manga by creators by the latter. I am drawn to their originality and I myself use manga similarly. Even though my work may be niche, I'd like to reach a larger audience, so I am especially sensitive to what's going on in the world.


DEAD DEAD DEMON'S DEDEDEDE DESTRUCTION © 2014 Inio Asano/SHOGAKUKAN

Among some audiences in the West, there are those who don't think it is appropriate for stories like A Girl on the Shore to depict children engaging in sexual activity for any reason, and books on the American Library Association's most banned and challenged book lists frequently contain explicitly sexual works. How do you feel about the generalized idea that sex in fiction is somehow a marker that the story is worth less or should be removed from shelves? Have any of your works been banned or challenged for sexual content?

I don't think it should be banned, but I think there needs to be definite zoning, especially for works where the main purpose is to show sexually explicit content. These works must be completely segregated in public space. Yet with sexuality so entwined in daily life, when creating manga based on real life, it is hard to not have sexual content in the work. I don't think it cheapens the work to include sexual content when it functions to further the story. My works in Japan have not been rated according to age and I have not been challenged for the inclusion of sexual content.

There have been multiple news reports that the Millennial generation in Japan is among the gloomiest and least motivated. Is this something that you're consciously touching on in Dead Dead Demon's Dededede Destruction in the way that no one pays much attention to the fact that aliens have invaded? Or do you not agree with that assessment of Millennials?

This is the first time I've heard of the term “millennial generation.” I researched the term and seems to be used to describe a group of people born between 1980 to 2000. I just barely made it into this generation. Even within people born within that 20-year span, I can notice a generation gap. I can definitely see differences in values compared to people 10 or so years younger than me. You can say that millennials in Japan are jaded and less motivated, but if you break it down further, you can say this generation does not expect much for the future and what they consider “happiness” is different from past generations.

Today's youth in Japan haven't known anything other than Japan being in recession and having no hope for their economic future. Therefore, as some have mentioned, this generation decided to concentrate more on their private lives rather than on work. I myself agree with this assessment.

Previous generations might consider millennials to be unfortunate, but I think they themselves do not consider thinking this way and are quite happy. Maybe they are just telling themselves they are not unhappy, but in any case, from the outside they seem quite happy. The outer projection of happiness, as well as not aiming for things that likely are unachievable and not taking things too seriously seems to me a smart way to live in these times.

These characteristics of today's youth are definitely reflected in Dead Dead Demon and are one of the most important elements in the story. These depictions are not based on irony or sarcasm. The thought that one can choose one's own level of happiness is freeing and I feel there is a lot of potential in this thought.


DEAD DEAD DEMON'S DEDEDEDE DESTRUCTION © 2014 Inio Asano/SHOGAKUKAN

Your manga has been translated into multiple languages, including French, English, German, and Italian. How do you feel about translation and the fact that your books are read around the world? Do you worry that some of your points may be lost in translation, either literally or figuratively?

In my manga, dialogue is especially important, so I do wonder how the dialogue is conveyed to the readers in translation. But there is no way for me to check, so I choose to trust the translators. When I visit events in various countries and interact with the readers, the feedback I receive lets me know that good amount of what I wished to convey has been done.

Some manga creators are uncomfortable with digital copies of their books. How do you feel about that? Do you think that legal digital copies are a positive for the manga publishing industry?

I think that digital manga is extremely useful as a method of simply “consuming” manga. I take no issue with the idea of digital manga.

However, a print copy not only can be consumed but also has value as an actual product since it is printed and distributed, which makes owning a print or digital copy different. So, I think readers should purchase either format depending on their own needs.

Obviously to combat piracy, it is important for publishers to publish digital copies, but until publishers come up with something that outmerits the pricing and the easy access to pirated material, I think the underlying issue will not be resolved.

On that same note, do you have any strong feelings about social media? How does it factor into your storytelling or your communication with your readers?

For many people, social media is so ingrained into their lives that it's something I cannot ignore. Even in my manga, the frequency with which I draw social media apps etc. has increased. In the past I was interested in the unspoken rules and manners of social media as a new cultural movement, but at the core of it there is the sense you can always start over, and the lack of responsibility associated with it has led me to feel like it's all a little superficial.

I am personally happy using manga as a medium of one-sided communication, so I mainly use social media for promotion and updates.


DEAD DEAD DEMON'S DEDEDEDE DESTRUCTION © 2014 Inio Asano/SHOGAKUKAN

You've been described as “the voice of a generation.” How do you feel about that? Obviously it creates a lot of pressure, but does it influence the types of stories you tell as well?

Being considered “the voice of a generation” was something I felt people wanted me to be about 10 years ago. I don't think people expect that of me now. With so many people using social media, there are more people who have directly become the “voice of a generation.” As such, I don't feel the need to do so as a manga creator.

Is there a specific character trait you find yourself writing into most of your protagonists? Do you create characters first and then fit them to a story, or does plot generally come before character?

Punpun from Goodnight Punpun. I took the changes I went through from childhood to adulthood and applied it to the creation of Punpun.

I used to come up with a storyline first and then add characters that fit the story. But with DEDEDE, I created the main character's visual designs, as well as their personalities, and from there came up with the story, which is the opposite of how I worked in the past. I think that with long-running series, there has been a shift in which the characters are more heavily valued than the story itself.

Is there anything you'd like to say to your English-language readers?

When I was just starting out, I never imagined my manga would be read outside of Japan, but now I am very much aware there are many readers around the world with similar viewpoints. Via social media, I have also been in touch with readers' reactions outside of Japan. With all of the content available on the Internet these days, manga might be a considered an old-school media, but manga is something that a single creator has sole responsibility for, therefore it reflects the creator's talent and style. Those creators have prided themselves that they will not be part of the disposable culture of web-based content. At least I believe so. Even if my work might be minor, I do not want to compromise on quality and hope to continue creating manga well into the future.

Our sincere thanks to Viz Media, TCAF and Inio Asano for the opportunity.


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