Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
On the road after the death of Aiko's abusive mother, Aiko and Punpun have no set destination except for “away.” They think about settling down and starting a new life together in some remote area of Kagoshima, but their pasts are catching up. Left alone, Punpun tries to find a way to just slip away – but life, especially his life, is never that easy.
Spoiler warning for Goodnight Punpun volume 6
Inio Asano's works up through Goodnight Punpun specialize in being difficult. He admits as much in an interview after completing this series, that there's almost a contrariness to the way the tale unfolds in terms of what readers might want or expect to see. In that sense, this final volume ends the only way it can – one part sweet to three parts bitter, with nothing ever being entirely the way that any of the characters would have wanted it to be.
In the previous volume, Aiko admitted to Punpun that he did not, as he thought, kill her abusive mother – that ultimately Aiko herself committed the crime after Punpun strangled the woman. This doesn't appear to have necessarily affected how Punpun feels or sees himself, but the revelation has absolutely taken a toll on Aiko, adding to her already compromised mental state and her suffering from the infected wounds left by her mother's knife. By the time Aiko leaves Punpun alone, it feels as if she's really been dying the entire time they were together, and very possibly since they first met in elementary school. Despite the fact that they've had sex, Aiko and Punpun's relationship still retains the innocence of when they first met, marked by Punpun's consuming desire to save Aiko from her own life. Whether we see this as stemming from Punpun's own abusive childhood, wherein his uncle made a token effort to save him only to marry his rapist or as Punpun's own need to prove that he's worth something to someone, there's very little that feels possible about their romance. It's the love of the doomed for the dying, the kind of romance that in classic Japanese fiction might have ended in a shinju, or lovers' suicide.
What makes the direction the story takes in this volume interesting is that ultimately Asano is not recreating Chikamatsu Monzaemon's 1721 play The Love Suicides at Amijima, but instead following the folktale of the Herd Boy and the Weaving Maid, known in Japan as the myth behind the festival of Tanabata. Rather than dying together, Hikoboshi and Orihime are instead separated for 364 days of the year before being allowed to reunite on the seventh day of the seventh month. This festival is one that Aiko has been fascinated by since we first met her, and there's a sense that she sees herself as Orihime to Punpun's Hikoboshi. While the two are separated after elementary school and are later reunited, that turns out to be an incomplete reunion, the equivalent of the one-day meeting of the folkloric characters. Aiko's actions in this volume make for a much longer separation – with Punpun's inability to cross the river she already has, the two are effectively parted until they might one day meet again. This theme of parting and reunion is pervasive throughout the volume – Punpun and Sachi, Seki and Shimizu, Harumin and Punpun – even Gesumi and Mimura have a brief version of the tale. For most people this might represent hope, but as used here, that only feels true of Seki and Shimizu, who have a long-standing friendship to repair. For Punpun the many partings and reunions are simply a reminder that he is still here, still in people's minds, and still unable to mean something to the only person he has failed to make an impression on: himself.
Goodnight Punpun's finale is, in some ways, an exercise in depression and uncompromising reality. As we saw through the character of Pegasus and his doomsday cult, reality is very much what you make of it (and Asano has said that Pegasus' group really did save the world), and much to Punpun's distress, the reality of Sachi and her friends has him in it. For Punpun, who lacks agency, especially now that Aiko is gone, that means that he's trapped, both in other peoples' realities and in his own well of depression. From the little boy who just wanted to save Aiko and who always did what he should, he's become a young man who goes through the motions. “I'm moving forward,” he says, “It turns out that it's not that hard.” He then lists the basics of what it takes to do so, adding, “It's very easy…it's like living as a ghost.” Punpun is a ghost in his own life, a Hikoboshi who just waits for Tanabata without really believing that it will ever come.
Reading Goodnight Punpun is like having your heart crumbled away slowly. It isn't so much heartbreaking as it is heart-emptying, a story that doesn't end so much as simply stop. By switching character perspectives for the last chapter, Asano forces us to see how very little progress Punpun has made from the time the series started – Harumin is living the life he's supposed to, productive and outwardly pleasant. Even Shimizu and Seki have finally settled into careers. But Punpun continues to drift like a ghost, going where Sachi or someone else blows him. We're left with the sensation that it isn't much of a life, nor is it the one Punpun wants…but it is what it is. It's not a comforting thought, but it isn't meant to be – devoid of dreams, Punpun can only yearn for sleep.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Interesting use of Tanabata story and themes of parting and reuniting, last chapter's shift in perspective works well, art enhances the story
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