Solanin is a story about young adulthood, written by Inio Asano at the point when he was experiencing the feelings he was transcribing. It’s a great story, but it is very much about that moment – that specific kind of freedom, that specific kind of fear. A Girl on the Shore is similarly concerned with the specific emotions of a listless, emotionally deadened adolescence, and that story ends when its exact emotional moment concludes.
Goodnight Punpun is a work that seems to be striving for true emotional universality. And so Goodnight Punpun is about a bird.
Well, not actually a bird. It’s clear that Punpun and his various bird-shaped family members are in truth human beings – it’s just that, in one of many surrealist touches making this work stand out, Asano decided that representing his protagonist as a childlike bird-scribble was one of the best ways to make his protagonist feel inherently relatable. In interviews, he’s discussed both this and the way he intentionally hopes his style “tricks” people into reading his works. And in this case, Asano’s framing devices smartly serve multiple, seemingly contradictory purposes.
Goodnight Punpun is the story of a boy growing up in a broken home, with his family represented through loose caricature and his thoughts conveyed by a close but still emotionally removed narrator. Through these choices, Asano simultaneously makes his work both more intimate and more emotionally “safe,” less tense and exhausting on a moment-to-moment basis. Representing spousal abuse and attempted suicide through a child’s idea of what a bird looks like renders these moments endurable while simultaneously placing us in Punpun’s perspective, a place where his parents aren’t scary grown-ups, they’re just his parents. The narrator’s voice performs a similar service, softening Punpun’s deeply felt emotions with the dry, gently mocking delivery of perspective.
But at the same time, Punpun’s design means he is universal. His design reflects one of the central strengths of loose representational art altogether – that by reducing a human figure to the fewest physical touchstones possible, you can broaden the scale of that figure’s representational power. Punpun is everyone, and his raw, generally understandable emotions are everyone’s childhood emotions. He’s an unusually sensitive kid, but not so much that you can’t see where he’s coming from. Asano’s choices in defining Punpun’s world make it simultaneously safe and intimate, a harsh place that you’ve seen before, but can only now bear to look at.
Of course, it helps that Inio Asano is one of the sharpest observers of life working in his medium. His draftsmanship is obviously stellar, and his dialogue possesses a grounded quality that feels legitimately literary, but the greatest strength Punpun possesses is its steady eye for the emotional reality of small childhood experiences. One more of the manga’s fanciful touches is the way that most of its adult characters occasionally digress into wild, visually terrifying fancy – but from the perspective of a child, it makes sense that the actions of adults seem frightening and unpredictable. Punpun’s daily adventures viscerally convey the feeling of knowing so little, but being afraid to admit you don’t know anything at all. How does sex work? What are girls like? Who will I be when I grow up? These questions are too big for Punpun, but he doesn’t want to look scared in front of his friends.
Those friends are equally well-realized, their own respected interiority revealed in tiny, incidental asides. Seki, the boy whose vaguely defined life experiences have forced him to grow faster than his friends, and who thus pushes them along on frightening adventures. Harumi, the boy who’s anxious about his family moving, and thus tries to give his friends more happy memories to share. Shimi, whose wild fantasies are fake, but whose dedication to his friends is laudable and real. And Aiko, the girl who alternately tempts and terrifies Punpun, with her bright shining smiles and threats of destruction.
There are treasures in Punpun’s first volume, real moments of grace. When Punpun’s crush first kisses him, and light floods the dingy gym. When his dad briefly returns, and he feels his father’s warmth, and it is good. A gorgeous shot of the night sky, as Punpun’s anxieties are briefly dashed by the presence of his friends and the light of the stars. In moments like that, Punpun could almost believe he might become a great scientist, saving humanity from destruction and discovering a planet where he can be happy. Moments like those are the landmarks charting a path through the wilderness of childhood, the markers you wistfully think on when all the hardship has faded away.
But a childhood is not made up of those moments – it’s made up of waiting and wondering and not being sure, fearing being left out and fearing being carried along. Punpun’s everyday life is anxious and lonely, and we feel that too, the fraught tension of not knowing what people want from you, or if anyone cares if you’re gone. Punpun loves his father, but his father is not a great man. Punpun fears his mother, and is right to, for she is afraid of her own son. What does “hanging out” even mean? Why do we need to search for these bodies, even though I just want to go home? Maybe if I disappeared, I wouldn’t have to answer these questions anymore.
As Punpun’s uncle says in what might as well be Asano’s voice, “‘happiness’ describes moments, and it’s never permanent.” The permanent things aren’t the highlights we remember – all we can rely on is the knowledge that there will be hills and valleys, quiet sunsets and many stones on the path. Punpun’s hopes fly off like a thousand birds in brilliant array, rising with the thoughts of his classmates as one small chapter in an uneasy life concludes. Get some sleep, Punpun. Tomorrow is another day.
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