Goodnight Punpun is by far the strangest manga I have ever read. Within just a few pages I knew that. It’s also an incredibly large volume which surprised me because usually things that are strange aren’t incredibly long in fear that you’ll lose the audience. That was not the case here. The strangeness is matched only by its humor and pacing. Punpun is a crudely drawn bird that almost looks like a ghost at times. No one ever acknowledges this fact which is part of the charm the story holds. He’s treated like a normal kid and in a way it makes the dark humor and the very real world elements that are present throughout the story all the better.
And oh, what a story. Again it’s strange. Punpun is in middle school and so he’s discovering his body and going through changes. He’s liking girls more, especially the new transfer student Aiko. He follows her home, but she sees him and calls him out for following her. They walk together and we see that her family has some new age health clinic. Punpun heads home in the other direction after being completely lost. I should point out that Punpun doesn’t actually talk. When he actually says something we never see him say it, it’s just words on the page. Even the narration is from the third-person omniscient perspective which also adds to the humor of the story. Everyone kind of talks for him and assumes his answers. It must be very difficult to write like that, but it works for the story.
While Punpun is going through physical changes, his family is also going through some changes. The dark comedy kicks into high gear here as Punpun’s dad beats his mom, ends up in jail and she goes to the hospital and never really wants to leave. This essentially takes them out of the story and introduces his uncle as his caretaker. His uncle who is jobless and constantly wanting and not wanting to talk about the existence of god or rather how there is no god.
How do you describe a story in which the teacher freaks out and threatens suicide when homework isn’t turned in or the principal and his assistant playing hide ’n’ seek like children in the middle of the day? Or a group of boys finding a porno tape with a message from a man saying he killed his family and hid a bunch of money? Or a young girl that threatens murder if she’s every betrayed again? Perhaps the strangest of them all the creator of the manga appearing as god and not answering any of Punpun’s prayers. All of these things and a lot stranger happen in Goodnight Punpun, which I can only describe as a dark comedy coming of age story.
That said it’s incredibly effective at being strange, dark and yet really emotionally deep when it comes to kid’s growing up and going through changes with their bodies, their home life and dealing with the deepest of all emotions… love. To put it plainly, it’s really fucking good.
Because Punpun never talks and because of the intentional design for the character (and his family), the art becomes all the more impressive. Punpun may not say a word, but his face and actions constantly say everything for him. He faints when follows Aiko home and she says she’ll call the cops on him. It’s ridiculous, but funny because of how he looks. This little ghost bird just falling over. There’s not a lot of detail to Punpun, but there is a lot of skill and room for expression because of this. It’s the same way that One-Punch Man works for its main character. The rest of the book is photo realistic. To the point that some characters are out-of-place and almost over the top. In that regard it reminded me of Satoshi Kon’s work on something like Paprika with a mixture of beauty and realism.
The strange level of depth and lack of depth is partially what makes the story so weird. Punpun and his family are all plain and simple looking with the settings are photo realistic and most of the people very photo realistic, but then other characters are toned back and not as detailed given them more of a childlike quality to them. The art is incredibly balanced in this sense and remains so even when a fourth layer of just a photoshopped image is used. Frankly, the art is bold and beautiful.
I can’t imagine that this manga is going to be for everyone. If you’re looking for fantasy stories or cute girls with magic, then you will not find any of that here. But if you’re looking for something mature, with great art and a quirkiness all its own, then I encourage you to check out Goodnight Punpun.
Goodnight Punpun Vol. 1 Creator: Inio Asano Publisher: Viz/Viz Signature Price: $24.99 Release Date: 3/15/16 Format: TPB; Print/Digital