Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
It's almost too easy to call Goodnight Punpun a slice-of-life story or a coming of age manga. Although it is both of those things, it's also a bit of a fantasy, albeit a fairly mundane one. Inio Asano's story follows fifth-grader Punpun Punyama (although we have to question whether that's his real name), a little boy who sees himself and his family as ghostly birds, although everyone else in the manga is drawn realistically. We don't know why Punpun sees himself like this and Asano offers no explanation – in fact, it isn't until a brief glimpse through his father's eyes towards the end of the book that we see what the Punyama family really looks like. Also interesting is that Punpun himself never speaks over the course of this two-volume omnibus. The narrator tells us what he wants to say, and in a few cases square narration bubbles tell us his words, but we never see a speech bubble with Punpun's actual spoken words, and he responds to most questions and comments by either nodding vigorously, crying, or quivering. Punpun is pure emotion covered with a sheet, thin armor indeed against a world he's learning is not what he'd like to think it is.
Early in the story we learn that Punpun adores his father, who has recently been laid off. Whether this is the cause or something else, his father goes on a rampage while Punpun is asleep, destroying their home and attacking his wife. Thus Punpun's world is quickly shattered – his dad is taken away by the police and his mother is hospitalized, resulting in his young uncle coming to take care of him. At the same time, he and the other boys in his class embark upon a hunt for porn in order to figure out what sex is and a new girl named Aiko transfers into his class; Punpun immediately develops a crush on her. All of these events contrive to come together in ways that mirror the boys' (and Aiko's) home lives, whether or not Punpun himself is aware of it. In fact, it feels as if the real question in many cases throughout the book is whether or not Punpun truly understands what is going on around him – he seems on the more innocent side for a ten-year-old (roughly the age a child is in the fifth grade) and like he's really struggling to understand the world around him.
Punpun's family life, anything but idyllic, is mirrored by those of his friends, making the point that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Aiko's family either runs or is involved in a health cult, charging ludicrous sums of money for highly dubious cures and making it feel impossible for Aiko to live a normal life. She actively resents them and clings to Punpun's affection as her ticket out, which puts more pressure on the boy than he can reasonably handle. (Signs seen around town show the passive-aggressive campaign against Aiko's family, which suggests that her life truly is difficult.) Meanwhile his friend Seki's father has also stopped working (albeit for different reasons) and is descending into an alcohol-fueled depression, which leads to Seki's far too cynical worldview and early cigarette habit. With the most stable member of the friend group, Harumin, transferring away towards the end of the volume, Punpun's extracurricular stability is also on the wane.
Asano uses elements of the classic coming-of-age story in these volumes, such as Punpun's increasing independence (although that's largely because his home life is falling apart) and his fascination with the act of sex. Despite the fact that this is about elementary school children, there are some fairly explicit scenes when the boys get ahold of a porn magazine and a video, though it isn't played for (our) titillation. Punpun's reactions are often quite funny as he tries to learn without adult help; when, after his first wet dream, he asks his uncle for help (he's afraid that his brains squirted out of his penis), instead of explaining, his uncle gives him medical textbooks, which leads Punpun to dream of vagina monsters, which are both funny and very true to a child that age trying to make sense of a foreign concept. Punpun also uses a special chant his uncle taught him to talk to God, who shows up as a grinning Japanese man with big hair and glasses, a clear photographic insert into the artwork. Asano frequently uses photographs to enhance the sense of place in the story, creating a book with three artistic layers of abstract, realistic art, and photography. It works to showcase the way Punpun sees the world, although it can be difficult to read at times.
Goodnight Punpun's first omnibus volume sees Punpun through elementary school and starts him on middle school. We don't get a day-by-day account, but we see enough to understand how he gets from point A to point B. It isn't always an easy read (though Asano rarely is) and it requires a lot of thinking to fully understand, so if you're looking for something light, this is not the book to grab. But despite its sometimes tortured use of symbolism and abstract air, this is a fascinating story about a little boy growing up in a world he doesn't always want to understand.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Thoughtful and interesting, Punpun comes off as a real child rather than a child-sized adult. Nice parallels between his life and his friends'. Art is unafraid to experiment…
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