The fanbase for Goodnight Punpun is incredibly passionate. Every review of the series that I have read showered it in praise, it’s the 10th most popular manga of all time on AniList, and tens of thousands of people have listed it among their personal favorites. It has been recommended to me by many different people now, from total strangers at cons to personal friends.
This puts me in an awkward position, because my final take on the manga is that I just feel ambivalent towards it.
Goodnight Punpun is a coming-of-age drama about the life of Punpun. He is a shy little kid whose once-happy family is now falling apart. His jobless father and terminally-unstable mother are always fighting, which one night spirals out into domestic abuse. His father instantly vanishes from his life and his mother is hospitalized, leaving Punpun in the care of his cynical uncle.
It’s a fascinating story about watching a young kid experience traumatizing events and how that comes to affect his life going forward. Punpun is an endearing protagonist, but the adults in his life are too self-obsessed to notice his problems or—worse—misinterpret them for maturity. The manga offers a confronting depiction of childhood depression, which becomes extra painful as Punpun grows older and small traumas turn into deeply-rooted psychological issues.
In particular, he becomes obsessed with a girl who he fell in love with as a kid called Aiko. He one day makes a promise to her that he ends up breaking due to his mother’s hospitalization, which fills him with intense feelings of guilt and regret. It’s a tiny event that he nevertheless struggles to let go off. Even as he grows older, his memories of Aiko and the way he failed her keep haunting him; keeping him stuck in his past.
But the story is not all doom and gloom. Watching Punpun have fun or overcome hurdles in his life is very cathartic, exactly because you get such a deep understanding of his personality. The manga is also renowned for its surrealism, which leads to some incredibly bizarre side-plots that I don’t want to spoil. I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
At the same time, Inio Asano is also a masterful artist. It’s crazy to see how much detail he puts into his backgrounds or how every single extra has a unique design to them. Each volume is full of beautiful panels where Asano shows off his intricately-designed inner cities; all of that effort for a manga where the protagonist is a weird doodle with a goofy face on it.
There is a lot that I want to praise the manga for. I have rewritten this entire piece 5 times just because I kept changing my mind about what I should and should not include in it. The problem is that, like with so many other stories, Goodnight Punpun loses its luster as it keeps extending itself further and further.
What drew me to the series was its story of growing up with depression. The tragic hardships of a misunderstood kid too young to deal with everything that is being thrown his way. But it feels like that part of the story flashes by in just a few brief volumes, after which we move on to Punpun as an adult. This is where developments begin to slow to a crawl and a lot of the appeals of the early story begin to fade away for me.
Goodnight Punpun steadily loses its more wondrous and surreal elements. Many of the characters also vanish from the plot or only occasionally show back up to remind the audience that some half-forgotten side-plot is still totally relevant. I won’t say that the perspective of a 20-something man restrained by his childhood trauma isn’t interesting—that’s the initial draw for ERASED after all—but Goodnight Punpun just worked so much better as a story about a little kid. Yet this adult stage of the story takes up half of the manga in spite of having far less to tell within it.
The story gets caught up in long-winded side-plots, like one meta arc where Punpun tries to write a manga about depression. This ends up consuming several chapters and just isn’t that gripping at all. My interest in the story fell away completely; I was only continuing to read it just to sate my curiosity and to be able to wrap it up without any regrets on my part.
This part of the story also exarcabated my biggest grievance with Goodnight Punpun, which was already an issue in the early volumes too. Asano often gives up on the character-driven storytelling to instead feature the kind of soap opera melodrama you’d expect from season 17 of a TV show for housewives. Punpun gets caught up in all kinds of crimes, cheating scandals, and sexual misadventures; complete with graphic imagery and barely-obscured eroticism.
While it’s somewhat funny to see how awkward Punpun looks in sex scenes due to his stylized design, the frequency with which these twists dictate the direction of the story was just jarring. It felt like a cheap attempt to maintain the audience’s interest and to have an excuse to draw some detailed pictures of moaning women. Spoiler/trigger warning: I knew that I was definitively no longer on-board with Asano’s storytelling capabilities when
I didn’t outright hate the manga in the end, but I do feel like the expectations it set in the earlier volumes is eventually betrayed. The story loses its appeal and, in desperation, grasps for anything that’ll be dramatic enough to prolong its lifespan for a few more chapters. I struggle to emphasize just how much that infuriates me. I was so engrossed in the story and dearly wanted to see it fulfill its potential. I can faintly stare into the alternate timeline where Asano stayed focused and wrote that version of the manga instead.
Alas, we’re stuck in the one where it’s 50 chapters too long and has a juvenile obsession with sex scenes. Where all its most engrossing plot threads peter out on lame conclusions. Where its protagonist never faces consequences for their actions because everybody just pities him too much. What a shame.