Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I don't get it!
"I don't understand!!"
He really doesn't. He doesn't understand any of it: God, girls, crushes, friendship, promises, life, death by environmental disaster, dreams... Why his father decided to smack his mother into the middle of next week and then blame a burglar... That was particularly flimsy.
He doesn't understand and it makes him so anxious that he frets and sweats and his little legs go jiggling about, nineteen to the dozen. Also, it renders him mute. He doesn't say a word directly throughout the entire graphic novel. His friends and relatives tend to interpret how tongue-tied Punpun is coping with the world by asking him questions for him to respond to with vigorous nodding, timorous, alarmed eyes, a hastily beaten retreat or full-on floods of tears.
On the other hand, the world as presented to him is all kinds of crackers.
His melodramatic teacher's down-with-the kids "Psych!" winks are wince-worthy and his headmaster and principal, also rendered in terrifying detail, appear to be engaged in a Vitally Important if childlike game of hide and seek. In addition, his uncle taught him an infantile rhyme about God in order to bolster the boy's confidence, but now God appears to Punpun as a sort of celebrity guru, a hipster with a beard and afro - a gormless, grinning, two-dimensional cardboard cut-out that's sod-all use to anyone. In any case, his uncle doesn't even believe in God.
"Dream big, everyone!" commands his teacher. "Because dreams are free!"
He then adds, "But don't forget to be realistic about your abilities and financial needs. Otherwise you're in for some serious disappointments in life!"
There's no shortage of disappointment here, but from this mixed message Punpun draws enough encouragement to write in his homework about studying space, becoming a professor and discovering a planet on which everyone can live once this one's resources have been drained dry. His inspiration comes from a telescope his Dad won while gambling - a bribe to distract Punpun from the family breakdown in front of him - while his motivation is to impress school newcomer Aiko whose first words to Punpun are "In a few years we'll run out of oil, the environment will be destroyed and Earth will be uninhabitable" right after "Why are you following me? I'll call the cops!"
So there's a right one to develop the most almighty crush on.
The essay would have impressed Aiko, except that at the last minute Punpun must have remembered his teacher's more cautionary note and baulked, replacing ambition with the mediocrity of "My dream is to work in an average office and have an average family". Then he ran away.
Did I mention that Punpun is drawn as a sort of cartoon bird-ghost with little stick legs..?
Strangely enough you'll get used to it quite quickly, but it emphasises Punpun's timidity, fragility, distance and alienation from the world which baffles him and the surreality of it all. His entire family's drawn like that. Perhaps it's because they're all living in a shared cloud-cuckoo-land - including his uncle whose eyes behind his glasses on occasion widen from black dots to the photorealistic when shit, as they say, gets real. However much he strives to keep it at bay. ("Whatever! I'm taking a nap! I'm napping!")
Different things seem real or credible to a kid than to an adult. At one point Aiko declares:
"If you break this promise...
"If you betray me again...
"Next time I'll kill you."
And he believes her. It doesn't dilute his adoration or his desperation to please her, but he fully believes she will kill him. Worse still, he cannot bear to disappoint her and that's largely what's running through his mind even when the kids are off to an abandoned miso-making factory in search of corpses and cash as alluded to by a murderer confessing his fratricidal, matricidal and patricidal sins on some doctored porn video-cassette they found in the street.
Sorry...? Which bit about "all kinds of crackers" did you not understand?
From the creator of A GIRL ON THE SHORE, NIJIGAHARA HOLOGRAPH, SOLANIN, and WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD comes a new series I cannot compare to any of the above, each of Asano's projects being a marked departure from the last.
In many ways it put me more in mind of SUNNY for, beyond the messed up family, the "Yup yup!" lawyer and Punpun's internalised infatuation and stress, it's another astute portrait of how twelve-year-olds operate: how they behave towards each other in a group and behind each other's backs, their body language on meeting in the street, and even how they sit or kneel on public transport, a sandal dangling loosely from one boy's foot. I loved the way some marched from time to time just to heighten the adventure of a journey as you do (or did), and the boys' expressions when caught with porn by a gang of girls is absolutely priceless!
Shimi, Seki, Komatsu and Harumi are as individualistic as you like. Seki's family fortunes are connected to those of the miso factory, Shimi's snot streams as freely as any of the orphans' in SUNNY, Asano correctly observing that within any group of similarly aged children some will still look older than others. One of the lads - not named as far as I could spot - is drawn, hilariously, with exactly the same expression in every single panel no matter what the context, snake-like eyebrows frowning away, his permanently shocked gap-toothed mouth agape.
As you may have inferred by now like A GIRL ON THE SHORE there is a certain degree of sexual exploration in evidence - albeit entirely solo, but then it's only the first volume - and like NIJIGAHARA HOLOGRAPH there is a sequence of such protracted terror that I'm still not sure how Asano recovered from it except by deploying some Terry Gilliam collages as absurd as hipster God's disembodied solo manifestations. It's a trigger for an extended sequence of flashbacks to things Punpun never understood, particularly his parents' marital breakdown, culminating in gormless God "looking unusually serious" declaring:
"Humans, as long as they live, have an emptiness inside them that can never be filled. If, no matter how much people need each other and hurt each other, there's still no such thing as perfect understanding, then what on earth can you believe in? Just kidding - lighten up!"
I have no idea where this is going - to be fair, I've no idea where some of this went - but it kept me wide-eyed in wonder at all the traumas, bottom-of-the-same-steps accidents, and complete confusion.
I think as much as anything this is indeed about isolation, for Punpun experiences everything at a remove by dint of his appearance, his reticence and his silence. Every dozen or so pages there's a single small panel set apart at the far end of a blank page depicting two-dimensional Punpun small and alone in a detailed suburban city scene.
Isolation and family as a disappointment, perhaps - one's stable refuge proving to be otherwise. There's a heartbreaking scene against a sunset later on followed by a legal manoeuvre that's cold. But don't think that cassette-tape confession is irrelevant, either.
"The suspect further testified, "We argued about work and I lost control and I killed them"."