In Goodnight Punpun Volume 4, Punpun still seems disaffected by Mama Onodera’s succumbing to cancer, as Mama was never a remedy to Punpun’s loneliness when she was alive, and was often a contributing factor to his alienation. If her death has influenced him, it is only that it precipitates an urge to split from the rest of his toxic family–his seedy Uncle Yuichi and his predatory Aunt Midori, both of whom seem to be nascent serial adulterers at this point in their lives. In other words, to Punpun they look too much like Mama Onodera.
Perhaps it is with these examples in mind that he receives Papa Onodera‘s visit as more punishment, and not a respite from it. Punpun turns down the invitation to come live with his father, and strikes out on his own, with both meanings of “striking out” fully intended, although after dozens of times at bat, and after failing to connect with Aiko, Punpun finally connects with an aspiring mangaka named Saichi.
After he glimpses Aiko, Punpun gets an efficiency apartment in the block where he sighted her, in the hope that he can reconnect with his childhood crush. He holds down two part time jobs to keep the apartment, and sleeps through the rest of his week, so that it isn’t likely that he will ever connect with Aiko, and instead it looks like his intent is simply to keep his old life at bay.
In this attitude of indolence and apathy, Punpun meets another young woman from his past, Saichi Nanjo, the artist from Volume 2. She sees Punpun as a challenge, and thinks that he can be groomed into being a writer based on the indulgent response that he wrote in the guest book at her gallery exhibit. While they aren’t an ideal romantic match for each other, they complement each other in codependent ways, with Saichi’s hollowness and neediness completing Punpun’s loneliness and libido, so that Punpun goes from being one of Saichi’s projects to her boyfriend by the end of the novel.
Volume 4 is a somewhat more optimistic read than Volume 3. In Volume 3, Punpun’s innocence was shredded first by his predatory aunt, and second by the death of his mother, who, while unloved, was undoubtedly one of the poles of Punpun’s short life (if a cold and remote North pole that would kick him out of the house so that she could get some action). Volume 4 begins in the vacuum left by Punpun’s soul annihilation. He rejects his father’s offer to live again as a dependent, and prefers instead to spin an untethered and anxious life and enjoy the few joyous accidents that come his way. Punpun begins to define himself by his efficiency, as both the young man and his residence are small, hollow, containers for pent-up libido and frustrated dreams. When he meets Saichi, we understand immediately that she is much too good for him, and that Punpun can aspire to be no better than her kryptonite in their codependent relationship, but as it is a poison that intoxicates her, she’s OK with that.
Anyone who has tried to eke out their young adulthood in a one-room apartment, or any other housing situation of comparative squalor, should sympathize with Inio Asano’s tale of meager opportunities. Punpun is not unlike other young people, that treat their few years of independence, between childhood and parenthood, as another kind of riches that they value above their material goods. And when Punpun allows Saichi to groom him to be her boyfriend, that rings true as well, as what young person, finding themselves only with enough money to be able to plan a month into the future at best, won’t succumb to despair and loneliness? We may have wanted Punpun to find Aiko by now, but as being loved is as intoxicating as loving another, we understand the appeal that Saichi represents to this young, alienated, man, who has been starved for affection and attention.
Goodnight Punpun is one of the best manga on the shelves, not only because it gives you a lot to think about, but because by the time you find yourself at the end of one of these double volumes, your heart has been wrenched countless times. Sometimes it happens after the slow burn of many pages, but sometimes Asano can slay you with a single panel in which one expression is either the payoff of numerous narrative threads or presages a new meaningful chapter in Punpun’s life.
Goodnight Punpun, Volume 4 arrived in bookstores December 20th, 2016, and if you find it sold our, you can buy it in print and digital.
Viz Media sent the review copy.