Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Punpun Onodera is starting high school. Thanks to the events of his first year of middle school, he's studied hard and gotten into a top high school, but all he can think about is sex. He does manage to get some, but not in the way he wanted, and it sends him further down the rabbit hole of his own conflict with himself. That seems to run in the family, though – his uncle Yuichi has been missing for a while only to resurface with clinical depression and his mother's hedonism is out of control. Punpun can't quite reconcile any of this with himself or who he wants to be. If there is a god, what use is he to Punpun anyway?
No one writes dark and difficult stories quite like Inio Asano. While there are tragic and depressing elements to his series, and those certainly abound in this latest omnibus edition of Goodnight Punpun, it wouldn't be fair to simply label him as an author of tragedy – it's more like he has his own brand of dark magic realism, where a grim spirituality pervades the lives of his characters. There are strange fantasy elements, such as the giant head who occasionally appears before Punpun and whom he thinks of as “God,” but ultimately the tragedies are of the characters' own making. It's a bit like reading an urban manga version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's story A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.
This book, which contains volumes five and six of the original Japanese editions, follows Punpun as he begins his high school career. He's still getting letters from his father that he barely reads, his mother is increasingly antagonistic, and his uncle Yuichi has vanished, leaving his girlfriend Midori depressed and confused. By this point Midori has become a part of the Onodera family, and if Punpun doesn't quite know what to make of it, he also seems to accept her being there. Mostly he's got his own issues to think about – his failed love with Aiko which spurred him on to study hard all of middle school so he could get into a top high school and the fact that he hasn't had sex yet. This last one occupies a lot of his thoughts, with masturbation being one of the few releases he seems to allow himself. Although we almost never hear Punpun talk, we get the distinct feeling that he holds almost everything inside. He knows that his parents divorced because his dad was abusive and he knows that his mom's an alcoholic – he just internalizes those facts and moves ahead, growing spiritually heavier with each new encounter. He doesn't seem able to form lasting relationships with anyone, which stands in stark contrast to his elementary school companions Shimizu and Seki.
In volume two, Seki announced his intention to quit school after junior high, and that's what he's done. He's now broke and tattered, spending most of his days away from home looking for work. Shimizu, on the other hand, has gone on to high school (a different one than Punpun) but remains devoted to Seki. There's the impression that it's very much the two of them against the world, and that Shimizu will never abandon Seki to face it on his own. While we could read a homoerotic element into this, at this point it feels much more like it is meant to stand in contrast to what Punpun's experience of life is. Like Punpun, Seki's home life is borderline abusive and difficult, but he has a firm friend in Shimizu to help him weather the storms. Punpun has no such connections, although whether that is because he is incapable of forming them or too socially inept to manage them is unclear. It could also simply be that after years of watching his parents and Yuichi fail to establish lasting or perfect relationships he can't bring himself to commit to one. This seems especially plausible after he experiences statutory rape by Midori: he's watched her pursue his uncle and stand by him during his absence, and now she takes out her frustrations (both emotional and sexual) by having sex with Punpun. The artwork makes it clear that there is a very selfish element to this, as well as the fact that Punpun is emotionally uncomfortable. The fact that he botches his one chance for a sexual encounter afterwards shows both his yearning for a meaningful one and also that he has no idea how to gauge a situation based on his experience.
Midori's assault is the major turning point of this depicted year. Given that she sticks around as a member of the Onodera family, Punpun's home life becomes even more uncomfortable for him, but his attempts to reinvent himself and find a friend group fall short. When his mother tells him not to come home because she's having a “friend” over, Punpun's self-worth and understanding of his place in the world utterly collapses. Interestingly enough, after both of these defining moments the narration shifts to someone else – Seki in the first case and Ms. Onodera in the second. Getting the story from Punpun's mother's perspective does give us a better understanding of her (and especially of the events leading up to the divorce) but does nothing to make her more likable: she is simply not a good person. Her hospitalizations and the events in the final quarter of the book are the nail in the coffin of Punpun's family, and when we once again skip ahead two years at the end of the volume, it feels as if we can expect an ever-more detached Punpun, cut loose and drifting through the world.
As I said, this is heavy, dark, and not a little depressing, but it's also somehow familiar. Asano takes the people who fall through the cracks and pulls them into the light for a bit, showing us stories that we read about in newspapers and giving them a human element. By drawing Punpun's family as phallic bird-creatures he also forces us to imagine what they look like on our own, allowing us to make the characters as relatable as we can (or cannot). It also adds the element of magic realism to the book in its depictions of crowd scenes, where a lone creature stands out amidst the wash of realistically drawn humanity. It's odd but highly effective.
Punpun's life hasn't been an easy one, and it doesn't seem like it, or anyone else's, will be living the Disney fairy tale any time soon. He'll be seventeen and a third year in high school when volume four opens. Let's wish him pleasant dreams until then.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Doesn't shy away from awkwardness or unsettling content, yet manages not to be utterly depressing. Interesting visual contrasts, shift in narrative viewpoint rounds out the story.
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