You may rightfully be wondering, why am I talking about manga? Well, a while ago my friend Infomantis wrote for this site and I promised that in return, I’d write about Dungeon Meshi/Delicious in Dungeon and it had me thinking, why don’t I also write about manga for the site in general? It’s my site, my rules, I do what I want. Besiiiiides, I need a fresh change in my life so that I don’t feel like I’m going crazy.
So, to kick things off, here’s something I wrote for Patreon a long time ago. I updated the pictures and edited it a little bit more, please enjoy.
(cw: sexual assault, depression, abuse, cults)
Dark content in media is something that I see argued a lot on Twitter. There’s a section of the internet that believes that media shouldn’t explore those things at all, even to go as far as claim that anything bad in something represents a real life moral failing of the creator. Then there’s the opposite take that extols the need to explore dark ideas in fiction for the sake of nuance instead of keeping everything squeaky clean. It’s a take that I agree with, though I’m of the opinion that there sometimes needs to be restraint.
I recently played Fear & Hunger, which is a pretty good game that leans into the dark stuff. I personally think that it could have shown a little restraint, but for the most part, all good vibrations all around. So, in kicking off manga content on this site, let’s look at a series that I think is a good example: Goodnight Punpun.
Goodnight Punpun is a manga series by Inio Asano that ran from 2007 to 2013. It is a dark coming-of-age story about a boy named Punpun Onodera. He’s initially drawn as a funny little bird guy, so surely, this leads to something totally normal.
Goodnight Punpun is a series about life, with all its beauty and blemishes. Characters can go from talking about something mundane to something more profound on their minds. Or maybe they say something just horrid, destroying their “normal” image to the reader. But the thing is, this is “normal.” Sometimes people just have a horrible aspect to them, and whether or not that makes them completely evil is up to your perspective. In fact, there’s really only one character in Goodnight Punpun that can truly be considered evil, lacking the lighter, more mundane shades that’d characterize them as a “normal” person. If anything, this feels like it was done to throw Punpun’s own horrible act toward them as more morally gray, more “normal.”
But that’s way later, when Punpun is at his lowest, when the only place lower for him is Hell.
Even at the very beginning, during the most innocent period of his life, Punpun deals with a lot of things. He learns what porn is, because even though underaged people shouldn’t be concerned with that stuff, they will find it if they’re interested in it. He deals with a neglectful dad and an emotionally abusive mom that drifts apart after an incident of domestic violence. He holds dreams in his heart, but those dreams are soured as it becomes apparent that they’re unrealistic for him. He goes on a fun adventure with friends, only to have to deal with the fact that one of them is moving away forever. In fact, he deals with the sad reality that friend groups drift apart for various reasons, with two of his friends leading side plots completely unconnected to him, never even bothering to think of dear old Punpun.
Most importantly, he falls in love with a girl, Aiko. She is his first crush that winds up being a lifelong obsession. Though, it doesn’t feel like Punpun is obsessed with her, specifically. Rather, he’s obsessed with the idea of her and the innocent childhood that she represents. She represents a period where Punpun dreamed and had a reliable friend group before they all drifted apart, and it feels like he wants to cling to that ideal past – even if he doesn’t believe in it, anymore.
By high school, Punpun is on a downward spiral, angsting over life events and failing to keep a promise to Aiko, who for a time has moved away from his life. And things only get worse, as his growing depression gets combined with the growing pains of puberty. His growing interest in sex is paid in a dark way in that he gets raped by his aunt Midori and he, in turn, nearly rapes a woman he has a crush on.
Punpun is not a good person. Punpun does a lot of shitty stuff, with his inner monologues painting him as a spiteful asshole. However, despite all that, Punpun is still a pitiable figure. A lot of genuinely bad things happen to him, and even his more mundane anxieties can be sympathized with because, well, they’re mundane and probably the lived experience of at least one person you know.
When he was at his most sympathetic, for me, was the brief period of post-graduation life before he reconnected with Sachi, an artist from the gallery he visited with his date. At this point, Punpun is very aimless. He wanted to be independent and accomplished that by moving away from his aunt and uncle, but he doesn’t know where to go from there. He sets a big future goal for himself – meeting Aiko again – without even knowing if it will ever come true. And meanwhile, he’s just working a dead-end job. Like. Man. I originally wrote this almost two years ago and I’m still feeling that.
Does the tragedy in his life justify his behavior? Not at all. In fact, besides his molestation inspiring his own attempted sexual assault, Goodnight Punpun does little to justify his awful acts. And the thing is, Punpun is aware of the kind of person he is, and it just feeds into his self-loathing. In a sense, he may see his pursuit of Aiko to be a form of redemption, believing that doing right by the person he values the most in life will make him feel better. Or maybe he wants to enjoy a hedonistic high before he kills himself, as he believes he deserves. Either’s good.
Goodnight Punpun displays a knack for pursuing realism. The human character designs show a fantastic variety that captures all walks of life. Maybe there are some background characters that look alike, but for the most part, everyone looks unique. It’s part of why the interstitial crowd shot panels work so well, because the members of the crowd look distinct.
Now, the environments are more realistic than anything else in Goodnight Punpun. Though, the environments aren’t completely hand-drawn. Asano actually uses manipulated photos and draws over scenes that he constructed through CGI for backgrounds. And honestly? Good for him, the style works and if it makes things easier for him, it’s a method worth pursuing. I really recommend checking out this talk he gave on his art, if you’re interested in that.
There’s a lot of interstitial panels in Goodnight Punpun of these crowds and manipulated environments and I really think it adds to the experience. Besides showing off Asano’s art skills, they set a tone for the story. Regardless of what’s going on in Punpun’s life, the world continues marching on. City streets will always bustle, people will always live their lives, the countryside will always be a quiet refuge, etc. These panels remind the reader that he is just a small speck compared to everything else, and while existentially terrifying to think about, it’s also just a fact of life.
Stepping away from the realism of the world and its people, there’s the surrealism of Punpun and his family. They all look like cartoonish bird people with comically simple looks compared to everyone else. However, in some intense moments, those bird bodies suddenly gain a lot of detail, turning the cartoonish forms into something grotesque to help express the intense emotions the characters have at that moment.
For Punpun specifically, his appearance invites readers to imagine what he would actually look like, especially since it grows increasingly clear that his appearance is metaphorical. Further encouraging this is that almost all of Punpun’s dialogue is portrayed as quotes in plain black panels, as if readers are to read him like a script. Punpun is hardly a self-insert, instead being a character that invites introspection.
However, as the manga progresses, Punpun’s form shifts to reflect who he is. At one point in his post-graduation depression, he turns into a pyramid. Just a static shape, no true liveliness to him. And toward the end, when he’s at his lowest, he’s a humanoid… but his head becomes a pure black demon head. Sometimes there’s eyes leering out. Sometimes the text of his all-black speech panels are etched across his face instead. And sometimes the face of God smiles out through him.
And that leads me into Punpun’s God. A perfect mix of Goodnight Punpun’s styles can be found in God… or something Punpun initially believes to be God, at least. “Dear God, dear God, tinkle hoy,” he chants, and the visage of a smiling guy with an afro appears. Punpun’s God is an uncanny figure in that he’s realistic, but not in the same style as Asano’s human characters, essentially looking like a photoshopped image of Some Guy. Punpun’s God leaves the realm of realism in that he almost always appears with a shit-eating grin in various places, talking in big fonts like an exaggerated version of Punpun’s text presentation.
As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Punpun’s God isn’t an actual god, but more like a manifestation of his intrusive thoughts. Its realism reflects Punpun’s darker impulses, while the cartoony ways it shows up reflects a childish desire to redirect the cause of these thoughts. Something like, “I didn’t want to do it, a voice in my head said so.” The God is initially something to lean on, but it then turns into a sort of scapegoat for Punpun’s worst thoughts- whenever it’s not actively goading him into self-harming, that is.
…It also might be the only problematic thing I object to? Like, hey, kinda weird that a being with black characteristics is a source of evil. To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought much of it if it weren’t for the fact that some of Punpun’s God’s appearances are accompanied by an actual black guy appearing? Like, it’s not a racism thing happening within the story, but a racism thing happening with the presentation of the story, which is an actual problem. I mean, I like to see God, it’s always either fun or really fucked up when he shows up, but I hate the connotations associated with him.
There are a lot of other characters outside of the watchful eyes of “God”, reflecting off of Punpun in different ways. A notable character is Punpun’s uncle, Yuichi, who takes up a surprising portion of the second American volume. As a parental figure to Punpun, he isn’t exactly great, but he makes a better effort than Punpun’s biological parents. He does try his best for Punpun and his girlfriend-to-wife Midori, but it becomes clear that he’s extremely flawed. He isn’t exactly responsible, nor is he faithful, and he’s fully aware of this. Mirroring Punpun’s later self-awareness and suicidal ideation, Yuichi considers suicide or getting someone to kill him multiple times. However, by the end, he’s come to a place of stability with Midori and a new child – perhaps being a mirror of what Punpun could be.
Another notable character is Sachi, the most important part of Punpun’s social group post-graduation. She helps Punpun get out of his funk by encouraging him to be a writer for a manga she’s making, pursuing her dreams whilst Punpun has given up on his. Though, Sachi doesn’t solely exist to help Punpun. She’s pretty blunt about pointing out Punpun’s flaws that she can’t fix herself. She cares about him, but like a real person, she has her own ambitions. In fact, she’s willing to drop Punpun to pursue a manga career on her own when an editor finds Punpun’s writing to be inadequate. Sachi is a character that can be somewhat cold, but those moments of coldness are completely understandable. Completely normal.
Then there’s Seki and Shimizu, two of Punpun’s childhood friends. Early on, Seki has it rough with his father’s failing business, and he pretty much stopped going to school to do odd jobs. He has a bleak outlook on life, which… is kinda funny since he’s spouting pessimistic things as a middle schooler. Despite reading as an angsty pre-teen though, Seki is a bit of a realist, choosing to roll with the punches he’s given rather than wallowing in life’s failures like Punpun. Ironically, middle school Seki may be more mature than high school and up Punpun.
Well, I mean, Seki does consider committing a murder for money at one point, under the belief that human beings can easily do vile things with laws and norms being the only guard rail against depravity. However, Seki pulls back in the end, recognizing the flipside that while humans could freely do evil, they can also freely do good things even if it’s of no benefit to themselves. By the end, Seki isn’t exactly the happiest nor the healthiest, but he lives his life as a good member of society as best as he can.
And besides, he needs to look out for Shimizu. Shimizu is an oddball like Punpun in that he can also see a god – one that has poop for a head. Whereas Punpun’s God is a projection of intrusive thoughts, Shimizu’s God is either the product of a mental disorder or maybe an actual God (more on that later)? Seki takes it upon himself to protect Shimizu and give him someone to lean on, even if he isn’t the nicest toward him.
However, that all changes when Shimizu starts falling in with the Pegasus cult. Contrasting Punpun and Aiko’s horrible codependent relationship with each other, Shimizu starts drifting away from Seki in favor of a cult that validates his beliefs. Seki tries to pull him out in his own harsh way, but it only pushes Shimizu further. This eventually leads to Seki having to physically rescue him from a potentially fatal incident in what may be the only genuinely heroic moment in Goodnight Punpun. Well, unless you believe Asano’s claims that the Pegasus cult actually did something.
So with that, we finally arrive at the most divisive aspect of Goodnight Punpun: the Pegasus ensemble.
Pegasus is a strange man that believes that the world is coming to an end through a universal rhythm that he claims he can hear and interpret. As such, he gathers a cult of like-minded individuals to fight off the end of the world, recruiting the likes of Shimizu on account of his ability to see a god. Together, they will harmonize with the universe and save Earth from destruction.
It’s just kinda stupid. From the perspective of pure Plot, the Pegasus cult is bizarre, especially with the amount of focus given to them. At times, Pegasus reads as a secondary protagonist, which is weird when everything he’s doing seems like complete nonsense. In fact, in an interview with Asano, the interviewer straight up had to ask what the deal was with Pegasus. Asano assured him that the Pegasus gang really was saving the world. No. I actually don’t believe you. You’re lying to me.
For me, I don’t care too much for the narrative purpose of the cult. However, I see a thematic purpose of them that a lot of people don’t seem to see.
Pegasus is essentially a counterpart of Punpun. While Punpun has a cartoony appearance that goes through realistic problems and acts more and more stoic as he grows older, Pegasus is a realistic looking man that’s easily one of the hammiest, if not the hammiest character in the manga. While Punpun’s obsessions lead to him having an indifference toward the world (save for Aiko), Pegasus has a sincere love for the world and his followers – so much love that he’s willing to die for it all.
Of course, you can’t discuss Pegasus without acknowledging his cult. Disregarding Pegasus’ supposed heroism, cults are dangerous institutions that prey on the vulnerable. They offer family, a sense of purpose, a sense of security… something that Punpun desperately needed. If Pegasus represents the flipside of Punpun, his cult represents a different path that Punpun could have easily taken. In the grand scheme of the latter parts of the story, the Pegasus ensemble ironically represents a sense of stability – and how easily the search for stability and something to believe in can go wrong.
However, do you need to fully understand something to believe in it? Well, we all have something to believe in, whether it’s putting belief in another person or believing in something mundane. But if you believe in, say, a celebrity, you don’t fully know that celebrity. As seen multiple times in the past few years, beloved figures are torn down when a dark truth about them surfaces. And even when those truths emerge, some of their believers still cling on out of some sense of duty.
Such is the case when Punpun and Aiko reconnect. When they meet up again, they’re pretending to be more impressive than they actually are, claiming to have made something of their lives when in reality, they’re both in dead-ends. They fall for each other’s fake images, but when those images are stripped away, they still stick together. However, that connection is less because of actual love and more because of the sense of security they give each other, showing that they don’t fully know each other.
As it turns out, Punpun’s post-high school graduation circle and his estranged dad understands him differently too, as seen through Sachi’s search for him when he’s away with Aiko. For the most part, they all view him positively. Punpun’s friend from high school, Mimura, understands him as an introvert and is willing to give him space, not recognizing that his friend is in a depressive mood in spite of his genuinely caring attitude toward him. The daughter of Punpun’s landlord reveals that Punpun had always been stopping by to give her dad gifts, showing an angle that even we the readers didn’t know; said dad was also giving Punpun a helping hand in trying to set him up with a career in real estate and Punpun was actually doing good at studying for it. As for Punpun’s dad, he believes that Punpun was an energetic and talkative kid back when he was around, which was maybe true for like, 5 pages.
Sure, Punpun is a bit of a weirdo, but he does good and tries to do his best, at least in their eyes.
And in contrast, as Sachi gets these stories out of Punpun’s relations, Punpun beats a man to near death over petty grievances. It’s a contrast that made me feel sad, and while Punpun had done a lot of scummy things, seeing this act of violence juxtaposed with everyone’s fond memories of him made me feel genuinely ashamed of him, which is honestly something I’ve never felt before in consuming media.
However, another sad aspect of this moment is that it highlights how Punpun fails to understand himself. He believed himself to be alone, but he cultivated a brand new social circle to be there for him. He believed himself to be aimless, yet he was successfully heading into a new career. He believed himself to be a failure, all because of his belief in an arbitrary goal.
Punpun was actually in a rather good place, surrounded by people that care about him with a potentially bright future ahead. But he failed to recognize that in his depression and obsession.
And so, when I saw one of the final panels of the manga, of Punpun in his innocent bird form surrounded by his friends when everything was over, I cried. There is a lot of depressing stuff in-between this point and Punpun being the Joker, but seeing him in a healthy place at the end of it all just broke me.
Now, whether or not it’s meant to be happy is up to interpretation, though. In that interview I posted earlier, Asano meant for this to be a bad ending for Punpun. Thing is, Punpun still holds onto those suicidal ideals and just wants to disappear, but his friends won’t let him, and according to Asano, living is harder than dying. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t happiness for him on the horizon. He is likely traumatized by stuff at the end, but as sad as it is, it becomes a fading memory for him, showing that he’s no longer chained to the past, so maybe now he can finally move on to be better.
As I said in the beginning, Goodnight Punpun is a series about life, in all its beauty and blemishes. Life can be difficult and grimy to the point that one might give up. Sometimes the problems are things beyond your control. Sometimes? The problems are entirely self-inflicted. But that’s something we have to deal with. Like, yeah, maybe living is harder than dying, but there are good aspects to life that we may not immediately recognize and miss out on. We may do good in life, we may do bad, but in the end, we’re all just trying our best in whatever we’re pursuing. The best we can do is to make a better effort at understanding our place in the world and understanding others.