Goodnight Punpun’s second volume is clammy and claustrophobic and cold. Its characters are alternately bundled in heavy winter clothes or sweating and naked beneath the sheets, suffused with a sense of spiritual isolation or simply embarrassed at the wriggling baseness of their desires. Childhood is over for Punpun, and even if it was an awkward and frightening time, it was still laced with precious, golden memories. Punpun is in middle school now. Middle school is terrible.
Asano’s work can’t help but convey an intimacy that often bleeds over into ugliness. This volume’s first few pages are like that, as two of Punpun’s old friends get in a fight after school. Blood and flecks of spittle fly from too-close faces, expressions contorted in pain or pity. Smudged cheeks exude a warmth that counterbalances the cold, breaths puffing out to make tiny clouds of smoke. “When you were in grade school, you said you could see God, right?” Seki asks Shimizu. Shimizu looks up, and his old friend God is still there – but Shimizu lies. “Nu-uh,” he says. “Not anymore.”
Shimizu’s lie could stand as a summation of Punpun’s attitude towards middle school. Robbed of the certainty of childhood, Punpun struggles through lonely days of hormonal overload. There are rumors about other kids in class now, reflective of a larger, public social dynamic. At one point, Punpun wonders to himself if everyone else thinks differently than he does, and is afraid. That’s the promise of adolescence – upon discovering the limitations of our feelings and perspective, we realize we are far more alone than we thought. Social interactions gain stakes and consequences; “I like them” shifts to “I wonder what they think of me” to “how could they like me, I am terrible.” Punpun has gained a knowledge of social context without the wisdom to handle it. And as Punpun struggles with feelings of loneliness and self-doubt, he seems to become a background character in his own life.
As Punpun frets and stews, his classmates rise to lead the volume’s drama. Punpun is still obsessed with Aiko, but it turns out Aiko is dating Yaguchi, a boy on the badminton team. Punpun hates Yaguchi! How dare he steal Aiko away! And then Punpun talks to Yaguchi, on a long walk home from school.
As it turns out, Yaguchi has problems of his own. Initially confident in his badminton abilities, Yaguchi was determined to race up the junior rankings, and thus ensure himself at least one element of stability and pride. But Yaguchi has been eclipsed by Komatsu, a younger ace whose pitiless skill at badminton is girded by a perfectly adolescent Randian philosophy: “everyone has to compete their hardest, and losers get what they deserve.” Komatsu’s certainty is based in a worldview for arrogant children, but his skill is real. Facing him has forced Yaguchi to grow up. “It turns out I’m not actually a genius. I’m just a pretty average guy.”
Average or not, Yaguchi is more of a classic protagonist than anyone else in this volume. He’s thoughtful and considerate, dedicated to the things he values, but willing to accept his limitations. He meets the revelation of Punpun’s feelings for Aiko with misguided but endearing Manly Spirit – if he can beat Komatsu at their upcoming tournament, he’ll keep Aiko forever. He’s suffering from a screwed-up ankle, and so his efforts demand painful sacrifice. He’s probably going to grow up to be a pretty nice guy.
Punpun is not Yaguchi, or anywhere close to Yaguchi. Punpun is an Asano protagonist; confronted with difficult and contradictory motives and lessons, he curls up into a ball and wishes it all away. His jumbled thoughts are presented in searing black panels, multiple layers of overlapping sentences evoking the reality of not knowing the best path. Awful clowns and other strange imagery pop into his head at the worst times, highlighting his shame at running away or masturbating or simply being himself. It is actually Komatsu’s juvenile celebration of the “joy of living” that brings Punpun to wonder how others think differently than him; he is trapped in that terrible developmental moment of having learned “I am all alone in my head” without further realizing “so is everyone else, and we’re all muddling through the best we can.”
Of course, that lesson is something we’re ultimately forced to learn again and again, as our confidence ebbs and flows with our daily fortunes. This volume’s middle act pulls away from Punpun’s perspective, emphasizing the fundamental impossibility of being with a lengthy visit to Punpun’s uncle Yuichi. At thirty-three, nothing has turned out the way Yuichi wanted, and at this point he’s not even sure what he wanted in the first place. Pursued by a cute waitress still in the light of her twenties, Yuichi ultimately spills his ugly guts: he was nearly seduced by a teenage girl, her feelings were ultimately proven to be a vehicle for attacking her abusive mother, and a small life he’d created at twenty-eight went up in flames.
Yuichi’s story is an unbelievable melodrama, but it echoes the uncertainty of Punpun’s own troubles. When Yuichi is pressed by his new love to visit the wreckage of his old life, he discovers everyone has moved on – their lives have all continued, while his has been stuck in reverse. This discovery is no comfort to Yuichi, as he realizes that his guilt was perhaps the only thing keeping him going. Yuichi’s story lacks the wry distance and comforting ephemerality of Punpun’s struggles – approaching his mid-thirties, there’s no “don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it” solace here. By contrasting Punpun’s concerns against Yuichi’s, Asano seems to highlight the bleak point that growing up is as much of a comforting fantasy as Komatsu’s values.
In the end, the big match is defined by the blood and sweat that wind like new rivers all through this volume. Yaguchi winces in pain as Punpun frets in the stands, moving closer to Aiko as she admits she doesn’t want to date the golden boy. Yaguchi has too much for her, she explains – she wants a perfect love who could live only for her, but Yaguchi is talented and popular and whole. She wants someone who needs her, someone who can “know her perfectly.” She wants a certainty Punpun cannot provide.
Punpun tries, though. Stewing in feelings of lust for Aiko and fear of reprisal and guilt for Yaguchi’s injury, he tries so hard to be what she wants, to say what she needs to hear. Aiko gives him a second chance to run away with her, and he wants to take it – but he can’t. He tells her to go to Yaguchi, because he needs her now. He runs outside and he cries in the snow.
“When Punpun was little, it seemed like he’d be able to touch the stars if he reached out his hand. But now they were terribly distant and wouldn’t even look at him.” Goodnight Punpun is unflinching in its portrayal of just-barely-self-aware adolescence. Having just learned to curse his old dreams as childish, Punpun is left with no certainty to cling to and no role models to look up to. Punpun is not rescued by Aiko’s love, or comforted by Yaguchi’s friendship. The long winter continues, and Punpun sleeps and frets and cries. He studies, because he doesn’t have anything else to do. He grows a couple years older. Maybe high school will be better.
In the end, the only comfort this volume can offer comes in the promise of the title itself. Life is hard, but life is always changing. Asano can’t promise things will get better, and doesn’t even seem confident they will. All any of us can do is go to sleep, because tomorrow will be a different day.
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