This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 22, 2016.
The first collection of Goodnight Punpun by Inio Asano is a tale of growing up that is equal parts humorous and tragic, dense and simple, sincere and exaggerated. When writing children, adults often create characters and voices that read like playacting. While we were all once children, our memories and understanding of that period are warped through the veil of time. Goodnight Punpun ignores the negative connotations of this genre in a medium and presents a thoughtful story that still embraces youthful affectations. Asano makes a study of the changes that end childhood and reveals them through a series of dualities in his own work.
The first volume of Goodnight Punpun follows Punpun Punyama, a grade school student represented as a simple, two-dimensional bird in a photo-realistic setting. As he approaches middle school, Punpun is confronted with a variety of common challenges: his parents’ crumbling marriage, budding sexuality, the existence of death, and young love. Many of these center on his relationship with Aiko, a girl from an equally troubled family.
What is most striking about Asano’s artwork in Punpun is not his attention to detail or sense of realism, but when he chooses to discard both. Punpun and his immediate family are all rendered as childish birds, floating like sheet-wrapped ghosts with stick limbs, two dots for eyes and a beak. Only height and one or two additional features (e.g. glasses) distinguish Punpun from his uncle or mother. This is never remarked upon within the story; they are simply designed differently and rest upon the page like a doodle in a Renaissance painting.
This choice is purposeful and effective. Punpun has the appearance of a blank slate upon which readers may project themselves. He is a specific character though, introverted and warm-hearted; he is as lovable and odd as any child. Unlike his friends and teachers, Punpun lacks in visual specificity. This removes a large barrier and encourages us to see ourselves as Punpun while reading. It also reveals the plasticity of childhood, wherein Punpun can be shaped to become almost anything or anyone. Punpun can be made cruel with a bent eyebrow or cowardly with a simple shiver, but is still reverts to his base form just as quickly as he changes. While his family of similarly-drawn birds are sometimes shown with some intensely-detailed aspect (e.g. his uncle’s bloodshot eyes), Punpun is pure. Phallic imagery and Punpun’s erections provide one of the only challenges to this process as Asano emphasizes Punpun’s gender and sexuality. It is in this aspect that Punpun begins to lose both the visual and thematic purity of childhood.
The rest of Asano’s characters are sharp and filled with detail. The supporting cast of children and adults alike are easily-recognizable without ever becoming caricatures. Slight changes in age feel as natural as watching a cousin grow, with small adjustments around a very clear center. The comic’s backgrounds are particularly engrossing, often based on photographs to expose the history-rich landscape of Japanese cities and rendered by Yuki Toribuchi and Satsuki Sato, Asano’s background assistants on the comic. Vine-covered walls show every leaf and every building, even in a city-wide spread, is distinct. It is a delight to immerse yourself in these settings and consistency of characters. The contrast between Punpun and this world exposes that while children may become many things, their impact on the world is negligible. Punpun does not affect his surroundings, sturdily constructed in dense line work, as they affect him.
Asano’s dialogue also manages to walk the line between two distinct tones brilliantly—another of the many dichotomies found in the work. On the one hand, he captures the naivete and pure romanticism of childhood love. At the end of chapter three when Punpun says, “ I may not be able to save everyone from extinction. But no matter what happens I want to protect you, Aiko.” This statement reveals Punpun’s commitment to the sentimental, even as he accepts his lack of power in the world. He is sincere and dedicated.However, a few chapters later, Asano provides a madcap approach to Punpun’s first wet dream. His thoughts fill two panels and an entire page in bold letters: “My brain! My brain squirted out of my wiener!” No matter how romantic Punpun is capable of being at time, he is still a child and given to flights of fancy. His understanding of the world is bizarre when viewed through adult eyes and his emotions spike in unexpected direction. It’s both funny and honest. That sincerity is the constant in Punpun’s speech.
Meanwhile, the gulf between Punpun and adulthood is further emphasized by the actual content of his conversations. Punpun’s conversations with his uncle often veer to the very serious matters of his father’s abusive behavior, mother’s attempted suicide, and human sexuality. The subtext of what his uncle fails to tell him speaks volumes that could not be contained in a single word balloon. He deflects some questions by teaching Punpun a prayer (e.g. Dear God, dead god, tinkle tinkle hoy) and handing him a book on human anatomy when asked about a wet dream. Answers of science and religion are presented on a superficial level, but they are clearly disingenuous in not answering questions Punpun does not know how to phrase. Then as Punpun and his friends discuss porn and adventures, like when they march down the street chanting “PWC” (Porn Watchers Club), the story reassumes the innocence and unfettered joy of childhood.
Asano’s structuring of these two distinct tones—both in art and in dialogue—alongside one another is not without reason. They are a reflection of the fraught existence of childhood. Long days of wandering your hometown and obsessing over silly games quickly give way to revelations of how the world works. A pleasant afternoon spent with a crush can become deathly serious with only a few sentences. The whiplash of moving from the farcical to the life-changing is not just effective entertainment, it is an effective reproduction of the learning process of childhood. When we are given so much new information as if fed by a firehose, it only makes sense that so many conflicting moments would exist side-by-side.
The combination of plainly spoken narration and earnest dialogue construct apt metaphors and descriptions for feelings that can only be felt at a certain time. Punpun states his emotions bluntly and each of them seems enormous, untempered by experience and cynicism. All of this work recreating the experience of childhood serves to make its transitory nature more clear. The duality of childhood is formed by the strain between what was and what will be. When Punpun loses the idealized image of his father or has his first wet dream, it is a unique moment. They pull at the seams of his life and the story itself as it fluctuates in artistic and written styles.
Asano emphasizes a child’s fear of these changes with adults depicted as horrifying monsters. Besides Punpun’s immediate family, every fully grown character possesses a face constantly tilted and fixed in a state of rictus. This presents adults as a separate entity and one to be feared and studied like carnival grotesqueries; they are an incomprehensible other. Punpun only finds understanding and solace in his cohorts, who fail him or he fails. The most central example of this comes in the broken promises made to Aiko. The construction of these promises is natural and comes from a place of goodwill, but they are impossible things to keep. That dilution of purity is the path to adulthood in Asano’s work where all good things become corrupted eventually. Reading Punpun’s thoughts on the nature of honesty and promise-keeping, and seeing the emotional impact of these pure ideals being lessened is intensely painful. It is in these moments that the ideal is drawn to the real and Punpun moves further from childhood.
Asano’s craft is impeccable. The images and words on the page are those of an artist in complete control of his craft. What makes Goodnight Punpun transition from being technically accomplished to a truly great work of art is the honesty with which it portrays the world. Adult readers look on this comic and see the dualities that compose childhood – the battle between the silly and deathly serious, between romance and realism. We carry these conflicts into adulthood, but we can never retain the innocence or optimism of what once was.