Inio Asano interview — “Reality is tough, so read this manga about cute girls and feel better”

Warning: This interview contains serious spoilers to Goodnight Punpun, is very long, and will answer an alarming amount of the questions you had about that fucking manga. Also, if you like this interview, might I also recommend Matt Thorn’s debunking of the myth that Asano is transgender?


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–Congratulations on finishing Goodnight Punpun. How does it feel?

Inio Asano: It’s good to be finished, at long last.

–It’s your longest work yet. A kid could have entered elementary school and graduated by the time you’d finished.

Asano: Almost seven years. I’d had the outline of Goodnight Punpun laid out from the start and I’ve known for years now how it would all end, so it’s felt like it’s been finished for a long time, for me. But I couldn’t let myself slack off. I had to see it through to the end, or else I wouldn’t be satisfied with myself. So I stuck with it, and in the end it came out as double the length I’d planned it to be (7 volumes). So, yeah, it really is good to be done, at long last.

–I interviewed you back when volume 3 came out, and you said at the time that you made up the overall plot of the whole manga in about 30 minutes. What was the story that you’d come up with at that point?

Asano: What I had planned at the time I’d finished the first chapter was that it’d tell the story of this boy named Punpun as he grew up, spanning roughly ten years.

–I see.

Asano: The heroine was Aiko, and if you were to label it by genre, it’d be a love manga. A romance. The turning point of the story was to be some sort of incident that happens partway through, after which Punpun and Aiko go on the run, and then the second half of the story was supposed to be like a road movie.

–So the gentle tone of the story back when the characters were in elementary school was always going to be violated.

Asano: I’d known from the start that an incident would happen later on, and I wanted to make it as absolutely shocking as possible, so I decided I would take the time to fully draw out their silly childhood.

–Was that the idea behind how Punpun and Aiko first fall in love?

Asano: Well, after all, I started with him falling in love at first sight with a transfer student, which is as cliché as it gets. In the history of manga, there’s almost a format of how you’re supposed to make a manga. This series was in part my attempt at seeing how much of that I could destroy — which is why I started off with a romantic comedy trope, just to see how chaotic I could make it from there.

–After Punpun graduates from high school, the aspiring manga artist Sachi Nanjo appears. Was she always part of the plan?

Asano: I’d intended on making a love triangle between Punpun, Aiko and Satchan from the very start. In chapter one, there’s a scene where Punpun’s dad looks through a telescope and talks about the summer triangle, and I put that in there so that, reading back, I’d remember that Punpun was supposed to be about a love triangle.

–You were foreshadowing that in the first chapter!

Asano: Vega is Orihime, Altair is Hikoboshi — and then with the addition of Deneb, it becomes the summer triangle. Satchan similarly creates the triangle with her and Punpun and Aiko — or Hikoboshi and Orihime. The horns Punpun eventually grows (volume 11) aren’t devil horns; Hikoboshi is also called the cowherd star, so those horns are supposed to be bull horns.

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–Why did Punpun become a pyramid, then?

Asano: I was trying to make him the simplest object possible, so I went with a tetrahedron, which is the most basic of the polyhedrons.

–He also transformed into things like a hyottoko when he was joking around…

Asano: There’s no real meaning behind that. (laugh) I like traditional decorations, so that’s what I felt like drawing. That’s all. The manga is a blend of things that have meaning and things that have absolutely none.

–So, basically, the first half is a series of episodes meant to remind the reader of memories of his own life and bring him to identify with Punpun, and from there the reader enters a story about a life they’d never experienced before — killing someone for his love. At what point had you decided to make murder the turning point “incident” in the plot?

Asano: Around the start of volume 3, where Punpun’s started junior high school, I’d decided the incident would be a 20-year-old Punpun killing someone, after which Punpun and Aiko would run away together. It was also around volume 3 that I’d decided that Harumin, the old friend from elementary school, would appear in the final chapter, too.

–The boy who moves away in his fifth year of elementary school meets Punpun again, both of them grown up now, in the last chapter.

Asano: The story’s been written through Punpun’s eyes so the readers know all about what kind of life Punpun has led, but a stranger looking at him would have no idea, right? Harumin’s a morally decent person and the most normal character in the manga, really, so I thought it’d be interesting to have him show up and contrast him with Punpun.

–The scene Harumin sees in the final chapter is one of Punpun surrounded by friends. Looking at that one scene on its own, it’d seem like a really happy one.

Asano: Exactly. But in reality, Punpun never had anything go his way in his entire life. Not once.

–Right.

Asano: After Aiko died, what he really wanted to do was just live a lonely life mourning for her, but in the end he gets caught by Satchan and it all gets sort of muddled. Punpun is broken at that point. When he talks with Aiko in his dream (chapter 145), he says something along the lines of wishing he could just disappear from everyone’s memories, but even that wish isn’t granted.

–The phrase “Good night, Punpun” recurs multiple times throughout the manga, but in the end, when Punpun himself finally chooses to mutter “Good night”, it gets overturned by Satchan. You could say it’s the story of someone who chooses eternal sleep by his own will, but gets woken up anyway.

Asano: That’s true. Also, I might have made it a bit less than obvious, but Satchan is making Punpun into a manga. She’s digging up Punpun’s life, which he wants everyone to forget, and turning it into something permanent — manga.

–Considering Punpun’s personality, that’d be a living hell for him.

Asano: Right to the very end, I wasn’t sure how to go about doing the last chapter. Among the possibilities I’d considered, I’d thought up an ending in which Punpun dies.

–How?

Asano: Satchan’s child falls off a train station platform, Punpun goes down to save him, dies instead. It’s a very clean way to end. But I wasn’t sure if I wanted to end on such a clean note.

–What do you mean, “clean”?

Asano: It’s too clear-cut an ending for the story. It wraps it all up a little too well. Living is harder than dying, see, so I thought this was the most painful, worst possible ending for Punpun, and that’s why in the end I went with this final chapter.

–The worst ending is the truest ending for this manga, you’re saying.

Asano: Yes. But there are also some people out there who say it was a happy ending. It’s fiction, after all, so I’m all for people making of it what they will. It’d actually be pretty boring if everyone had the same opinion of it. The way people were so divided on the final chapter was exactly what made reading their opinions interesting for me.

–The most striking feature of Goodnight Punpun has to be the protagonist’s dove sablé-like appearance. But while Punpun looks like a cookie to us, the other characters all see him as if he has a normal human face. Have you made a design for Punpun’s real face?

Asano: No, I haven’t. I want to leave it to the imagination, so I figured there’s no reason for me to put any thought into it. I have never once imagined his face.

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–When volume 10 came out, I got to write up a little review for it: “His face doesn’t look like anyone’s, and that’s exactly what allows any reader to identify with him and freely imagine his facial expressions. That’s what I thought the purpose behind his caricaturized face was at first, but then with the start of the murder story, I realized something: his unrealistic face is what allows us to observe his words and actions head-on, without looking away. It allows us to do so as readers, and I suspect it’s true of the artist as well — it was thanks to that face that he was able to make those scenes.” What do you think?

Asano: It’s true, if Punpun had a normal face, there are probably a lot of parts in the manga that I couldn’t have done. For example, I suppose I could draw the face of someone killing another person if I were to try, but I don’t think that’s a manga people would want to read. The goal is to keep people reading, after all, and I think Punpun’s face plays a big role in that.

–You said you’d decided he’d kill someone around volume 3. When you gave him his dove-sablé face, did you somehow instinctively grasp that it’d be useful in this way?

Asano: Maybe I did. I always knew things would get dark, anyway. After I finished Solanin, when my editor started asking me what kind of manga I’d be doing next, what I always told him was that I was finished with feel-good stories.

Solanin was a big hit — it even got adapted into a movie.

Asano: I don’t think Solanin was actually all that happy a story — the book sort of betrays the reader and only leaves off on a pleasant note — but I didn’t even want to do that anymore. To get readers to pick up a book like that, though, I figured I’d have to at least give the characters some pop appeal. In other words, if I made it into something pop, I could pull it off.

–The dove sablé protagonist is almost a gimmick to draw people in, then.

Asano: I wanted to take the readers coming to the book because they thought Punpun was cute, and upset them. (laugh) I wanted to say to the reader, “Here’s a different kind of manga. Look at what kind of depths of reality manga can plumb.”

–You often hear about manga artists falling in love with the medium because they find it exciting drawing things they’d never drawn before. In this case, you’ve drawn murder. Did you want to try to challenge yourself like that — depicting murder up close, head on?

Asano: Well, this will sound strange, but I’m really drawn to the idea of murder. I’ll probably never experience it in my own life, but there has to be a part of me deep down that has that urge, and so part of what I wanted to do was depict it as relentlessly as possible so that the reader could experience it as realistically as possible. I wanted an “it could happen” kind of murder.

–What do you mean by that?

Asano: I wanted to make a murder that just sometimes has to happen. It’s not killing out of seething hate, or for revenge, or for sport, or out of principle. Sometimes people kill because of really spontaneous circumstances.

–So basically, by an “it could happen” murder, you mean something that could happen to anyone, not just psychopaths. That’s one of the messages Goodnight Punpun hits the reader with.

Asano: Yes, that’s right. I’ve been frightened for a long time now by the thought that I could be killed by someone, or even become a killer myself. Punpun came about when I decided to make a manga out of what would happen if that fear became true.

–Has that fear of yours changed at all now, having made this manga?

Asano: It can never be completely erased, I think, but as I made the manga it felt like I managed to put it behind me, little by little.

–I see.

Asano: One of my reasons for making manga is to resolve my own personal doubts and fears. If you compare the me who started Punpun and the me I am now, I’m a lot better now. A lot of the irritation and fear I had back then is gone now, and I think it was creating manga that helped me through it.

–How was the reaction to Punpun’s murder scene?

Asano: What I was scared of before I did that scene was that people would start calling Punpun a “depressing manga” (“utsumanga“). It’s a pretty new term people use now, and I felt like it was pretty dangerous to have people labelling it that — I really hated to be lumped together in that category. But even as Punpun‘s reputation as depressing spreads, people just read and enjoy it as such. The whole “depressing manga” thing is coming around to being accepted as just another form of entertainment. I guess now the shock of the protagonist committing murder might pack less of a punch, though.

–I’ll bet people were just too scared to enjoy the manga in all its chaos — that’s why they label it a “depressing manga”, so they can quarantine it.

Asano: It’s a bad habit of young people these days, I think, all this giving names to things so they can stick them together as a genre. It teaches them to read things very narrowly, and everyone’s opinions become skewed to one side. Another word I hear people throwing around a lot is “surreal”, which encompasses just about everything. I feel like they’re missing a lot that way.

–You’re right. If people would stop pouncing all over these label words and start embracing their complicated feelings about the work in all their ambiguity, we might see some interesting chemistry happen.

Asano: But then… I reread the entire series about a month ago.

–And what’d you think?

Asano: There were so many parts that made me think, “Of course not everyone is going to say they enjoy reading this!” (laugh) And then there’s the stuff Punpun says — it doesn’t make any sense. It made me realize what a screwed-up manga it is.

–What I found myself thinking after rereading the series before this was that it has a very fundamentalist world view, best exemplified by the promise between Punpun and Aiko.

Asano: True.

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–The words you’ve said in the past remain in the world, and the manga is very strict about whether you’ve lived up to those words or not. Of course, if one actually lived up to them, you would go crazy — every word you utter would become a curse.

Asano: Right. At first, Punpun is very pure and honest, and he takes things too seriously. He’s a character who thinks he has to follow through with whatever he says he’ll do. There’s no grey area for him. That’s what I was like when I started Punpun.

–He clings to that regret that he couldn’t keep his promise — regardless of whether he was ever actually able to even keep it or not — and it just gets worse.

Asano: This is something I think I’m ready to talk about now, about how manga artists themselves actually become bound by the things they put in their manga. There’s this line in chapter one of Solanin, about how adults are just walking, talking “oh, whatever”s.

–The line that Aoi Miyazaki (playing Meiko, the main character) says at the start of the movie.

Asano: Solanin is a story about rejecting that. It’s about how adults who go around thinking “oh, whatever” are losers. And because I’m the one who said that, I couldn’t ever let myself brush anything off with “whatever”. I wrote it, and now I’ve got to live up to it; I can’t just tell myself it was something I said a long time ago.

–Just like Punpun!

Asano: Yes. That’s the state of mind I was in when I started Punpun, which is why Punpun the character became similarly unforgiving of grey areas, and also why I forced myself to stick with the series to the end.

–Has the curse lifted now that you’ve finished the manga?

Asano: Yes, it has… is what I want to say, anyway. (laugh) My next series is going to be the one that I allow myself to be messy and lax. You could say that Solanin allowed me to do Punpun, and Punpun allowed me to do this next manga.

–What caused the original plan of seven volumes to expand to thirteen?

Asano: Part of it was that I wanted to make sure to draw out every scene with care, but the main reason is that all sorts of unplanned characters kept popping up, and the different stories all got bigger because of them.

–Could you give me an example of someone who was unexpected?

Asano: Yuichi (Punpun’s uncle) appears in the first chapter, but I had no idea that I would end up devoting an entire volume to his past. Also, I never thought I’d use God so much, either. I just stuck him in the first chapter because I thought it was funny.

–You put them in for fun, and they end up taking on lives of their own.

Asano: It happened constantly. (laugh) Seki and Shimizu, that strange Pegasus man that shows up in the middle of the story: all characters that just showed up out of nowhere.

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–Toshiki Hoshikawa and his Pegasus Orchestra take up a puzzlingly large number of pages in the latter half of the manga. What was that all about?

Asano: Yeah, I suspected people wouldn’t be able to make sense out of it. Pegasus shows up in the middle of volume 7, where Punpun has graduated high school and is living on his own. It’s the point in the manga with the least going on — it’s just Punpun brooding in his tiny apartment. Now, I had that part of the manga there because I wanted to do it, but I also knew that it would be pretty dull on its own, so I thought I should add another story happening on a whole other axis.

–Okay, right.

Asano: That’s when I decided to use this character I’d put in earlier — Pegasus — to do a parallel story. Just as the Punpun and Aiko story is a homage to romantic comedies, the Pegasus Orchestra is actually a homage to shonen manga. I’m pretty sure no one understood this at all from reading the manga, but Pegasus was assembling a team that really was doing battle with evil.

–He was?!

Asano: Totally unbeknownst to Punpun, superhumans were battling to the death with forces of evil. That daruma doll that comes out of nowhere in the last volume? That’s, uh, kinda what that is. (laugh)

–I had no idea that was going on.

Asano: If it weren’t for Pegasus and company, a meteor or something would’ve crashed into Earth and driven mankind to extinction, just like Punpun and Aiko wanted. The Pegasus crew saved the Earth at the cost of their lives, but nobody knows it. That was the concept.

–This might be the most shocking news of the day.

Asano: So there’s that, and then plus I wanted to use Pegasus as a mouthpiece for the sort of things I couldn’t make Punpun say, because Punpun was already defined as a character. Like, in his Tokyo gubernatorial election broadcast, Pegasus goes on about how the world is ripe for the picking, and it was right after the Tohoku earthquake that I was writing that stuff.

–Chapter 92, volume 9. An almost entire chapter of Pegasus doing his policy broadcast for the election, in which he says that “science, religion, civilization — they’ve all reached their peak at this very moment. In other words, the world is ripe for the picking.”

Asano: We’d had this disaster and a lot of people were complaining a lot, but what I was thinking was, “This is pretty much as good a world as there is, though!” I guess it was me letting off some steam, but in order for me to continue doing Punpun, he was a terribly important character.

–You said that the extra characters and their drama kept getting bigger as the series went on, but I think at root they’re all coming from the same place as the relationship between Punpun and Aiko. Each of the side stories is a variation of that central conflict about belief and disbelief, and about promises.

Asano: That’s true. The main characters in Punpun always remain children in the way their purity leads them to fail and become social misfits. Aiko, Punpun, Pegasus, Seki, Shimizu, all of them. Pegasus especially is pure — he advocates humanitarianism to such an extreme that he believes in everyone. Punpun, meanwhile, is the exact opposite, believing only in Aiko. In that sense, they’re contrasting figures. I do consider Pegasus to be this manga’s other protagonist. (laugh) The problem is that his character is a little too unique, so no one reads him seriously.

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–You went a little overboard with his character design. (laugh)

Asano: But the fact that he looks the way he does while acting the way he does is what I like about his character, and there are a lot of lines that only Pegasus could ever have said. He’s always going around saying all that stuff about how the Earth will become more beautiful, and I don’t think there are too many characters who could plausibly deliver that sort of line.

–Giving cool lines to a cool character would be…

Asano: Embarrassing. (laugh) I can’t make a cool character. Punpun’s certainly not cool.

–He’s a deeply uncool character.

Asano: That’s what I had in mind as I made him. I didn’t draw this manga thinking that Punpun’s actions were right — I was thinking the whole time that he was in the wrong. But with most manga that do well financially, what people are moved by the protagonist — how earnest he is, how hard he tries. If you get used to that sort of manga, you might start to think of protagonists as role models to follow. Seinen magazines, though, are where that doesn’t happen.

–So you’re aiming to draw something with different values from the shonen magazines.

Asano: I believe that seinen magazines are for manga readers and artists who are mature enough to accept immorality. Punpun was entirely made in that vein.

Goodnight Punpun was running in Young Sunday at first, and when that magazine was discontinued, it ran in Big Comic Spirits, right?

Asano: I think both Young Sunday and Spirits both had a sort of “unwholesome fun” vibe to them. Urban salarymen saying foul things, that kinda stuff. The times can be pretty strict on unwholesomeness now, but that’s always been what I like, so I intend to hang in there doing whatever I can to preserve that vibe and keep doing the things I like.

–Hang in there how?

Asano: I’ve gotta make sure we don’t lose Big Comic Spirits. I was still a young artist when Young Sunday went under, so I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but now I understand the circumstances better, and I feel the danger a manga magazine faces.

–You’ve gone through that harrowing experience of having a magazine disappear when you were in the middle of a series, after all.

Asano: There are all kinds of seinen magazines out there — for example, you’ve got the Kadokawa and Square Enix ones, which I think of as manga made by manga enthusiasts, for manga enthusiasts. It’s a specialized kind of entertainment. The general seinen magazines, on the other hand, deal with subject matter that’s actually connected to society, so you don’t have to be a manga enthusiast to enjoy them. I really do like the manga Shogakukan puts out.

–Which is why you want to keep drawing manga there.

Asano: I did briefly consider doing my next manga somewhere aside from Spirits, but Spirits was my goal from back when I got my start as an artist, so if the editors there ask me to work for them, I will, and I also want to work to make sure we don’t lose the magazine.

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–As you were working on Punpun, you also put out a manga called Girl by the Sea, which is also a story about first love.

Asano: At first I’d intended to make it a very innocent love story about a couple of kids in their early teens, but as I was making the rough draft, I just couldn’t get a handle on the story, so I decided to make it a love story in reverse.

 –Starting with sex, and ending with the admission of romantic feelings.

Asano: I might add that Isobe, one of the main characters, was a character I made after learning about the term “eighth-grader syndrome” (chunibyo). I’m an adult now, so I just think it’s cute when boys act like that. I see them as through a parent’s eyes. I was trying to depict that cute feigned maturity from a slightly distanced standpoint.

–I felt like Girl was another take on Punpun and its core theme of young love. Do you by any chance have some sort of trauma from your first love?

Asano: I did fall in love with a girl who transferred to my elementary school, but she didn’t leave much of a mark on me, so she wasn’t exactly an Aiko. The girlfriend I had before my wife, though — she might be an Aiko. I was with her when I was doing Solanin. I thought she was helpless and it was up to me to save her — but really, she didn’t need me at all.

–What do you mean?

Asano: I was convinced that she was helpless without me, but it turned out that she’s surprisingly responsible after all, so after we broke up she just started working like a normal person. When I saw that she didn’t actually need me, I realized that it was actually me who depended on her, and I felt really embarrassed.

–Wow.

Asano: I think I wanted that girl to be in an unhappy position like Aiko, so I could save her.

–And things got pretty ugly when you inserted that desire into your manga.

Asano: It did indeed. One of my regrets about Punpun is how I alienated so many of my readers. With every dark turn the manga took, sales dropped. The first brutal image comes in the Uncle Yuichi flashback, and sales took a dip there, hard. And then Punpun kills someone, and it takes another dip. It’s a story that I really worked hard for to reach the end, so I wish people would try reading it all the way through. It might not leave you in a great mood, but hey. (laugh)

–It’s worth mentioning that you were working on Ozanari-kun, a gag manga parody at the same time, too.

Asano: Ozanari-kun is my worst-selling manga, but I also consider it to be my most complete manga by far. I can’t think of anything more fun to make.

–Didn’t expect that — coming to Ozanari-kun‘s defense! (laugh) It’s the first work of yours to really feature gay love.

Asano: It just kind of turned out that way. (laugh) I wanted to structure it so that the first half is a surreal gag manga, and then out of nowhere it becomes something with a story. With Punpun, the only manga iconography I was using was Punpun’s character design, but in drawing Ozanari-kun and applying manga icons to the entire manga, I realized how fun and easy to read that can be.

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–It’s true, Ozanari-kun is the most manga-like of your manga.

Asano: I fully intend on making use of it in my next series. My art style is going to really change with this next one — I’m not going to be constantly striving to make things realistic anymore. You’re going to see more manga-like elements in my art.

–You went for a very extremely high-definition realism in Punpun, the main character aside. Especially in parts like the fire during the manga’s climax, for example.

Asano: The fire was really hard to do. When I’m drawing something I’ve never done before, I can’t explain it to my assistants without having ever done it myself before, so I ended up doing the fire scene almost all by myself. I really like working on improving my technique because you can actually visually see it getting better, but the background work for Punpun became routine, because I could already visualize the finished product once I had a photo for tracing. It’s not any fun drawing a picture that you’re already able to visualize, and I started to feel like I was ruining these pictures I’d done in pen by digitally processing them, so I really hated it. I stuck with the same method the whole way through Punpun for the sake of consistency, but my next series is going to be pretty different.

–Another thing I really wanted to ask you about is the Great East Japan Earthquake, which occurred as your series was running. Did it affect your manga in any way?

Asano: It hit when I was around the middle of volume 9. I debated whether or not to put it in the manga, and honestly, I easily could’ve gotten away without putting it in, but I did. The reason I did wasn’t because of the disaster itself, but because I absolutely had to put in the gubernatorial election because I wanted to give Pegasus that opportunity to shine, and I’d decided to end on the year 2011, so given all of that, it was only natural that I include the fact that the earthquake happened.

–How did you come to grips with the earthquake as a writer, then?

Asano: I found that the earthquake exposed the morals that people normally hide. I didn’t use Twitter at the time, so I was totally silent because I didn’t have any tools to express myself, but I did follow what everyone was doing and saying, and it was really ugly, watching people attack others and getting so holier-than-thou about the whole thing.

–I see.

Asano: Maybe it’s bound to get ugly given the accident at the nuclear plant, and really, I get on my high horse all the time in my manga even when there isn’t a calamity to get indignant about, so I’m hardly one to talk, but I decided that I didn’t want to ever be preachy after that. That’s what I’m talking with my editor about all the time now — how to make my new manga without being preachy.

–What do you mean by “being preachy”?

Asano: I really like to put my own thoughts and opinions in my manga. Up until Punpun, all my manga was absolutely chock full of scenes where I’m just talking about myself, or these dialogues where characters go back and forth just to show how right my opinions are. I’ve had enough of that stuff. I just want my characters to say whatever silly things they want, living in whatever silly way they want.

–That sounds like a major break from your previous work.

Asano: The truth is that I really hate that stuff, but I just wanted people to understand so badly and I’d get so irritated that I’d start preaching anyway. After the earthquake, though, I don’t care anymore. I’ve become able to accept other people’s opinions as valid opinions, but I’ve also stopped expecting anything from them — I don’t care if I sympathize with their opinions or if they sympathize with mine. It’s a load off my mind this way, though I also realize that it makes me a pretty cold person.

–If you had to say you were a humanitarian like Pegasus or an individualist like Punpun, you’d call yourself a Punpun, I take it.

Asano: I suppose I would. As long as I live according to my ideals, that’s fine; I don’t need to hold anyone else to them. That’s something that Punpun and I have in common. Punpun’s monologue at the end is where I ended up after thinking really hard about a lot of things after the earthquake. Which is all to say that, yes, I’d say the earthquake had a big impact on me.

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–Your news series has finally started. The story takes place in a city somewhere, three years and two months after a UFO comes and starts looming in the sky. The main characters are Ontan and Kadode, two girls in high school.

Asano: I’d been thinking about what to do for my next series since a year or two before Punpun ended. This manga is the result of taking a bunch of ideas I’d had and sticking them together almost like a jigsaw puzzle, so it’s difficult to explain exactly how it came to be what it is. I originally wanted to do a manga with some creature living at the protagonist’s house, like Doraemon; the manga at the start of the first chapter is a vestige from that.

–You mean Isobeyan, with his secret tools that he keeps in his four-dimensional pocket. Is there any chance this manga-inside-a-manga seep into reality in the story?

Asano: It might. The UFO over Earth probably came from space for some sort of reason, too. In order to force me to keep the story moving, I’ve prepared a lot of things like that, but those things aren’t the focus of the story, so you’re not going to see it turn into a really hardcore sci-fi manga. My focus here is keeping these characters doing fun things.

–This really fantastical thing is happening, but the pages are mostly filled with teenage girls and their giddy conversations. There’s some monologue in here, but it’s really not much at all compared to your previous work.

Asano: The way I have it planned, it’s going to keep on going like this. This isn’t like Punpun, where I started with an outline from the start and had this big overall plot ahead of me; I just want these characters’ day-to-day lives to continue on and on. Part of my inspiration for this came from when I met Hikaru Nakamura, the artist of Saint Young Men, a while back.

Saint Young Men, the short gag manga about the heartwarming lives of Buddha and Jesus as they share a run-down apartment in Tachikawa, Tokyo.

Asano: I asked her why she makes manga, and she told me that it’s because she wants to enter the manga world that she creates. It made a real impression on me. I envied her for being able to think that way. She’s got these happy characters who are great friends, and they’re so fun for her to draw that she even wishes she could join them — and then that’s fun for the reader, so her manga sells. It seemed like such healthy, happy work.

–Isn’t that the complete opposite position from what you were doing with Punpun?

Asano: Well — needless to say, I want people to praise my work. With Punpun, I used to try to make people say “wow!” by doing new and exciting things with manga, and getting that reaction was my connection with the reader. But in fact, readers will praise you anyway so long as you’re making something fun to read. That’s all I want. I want to do a fun manga. Something people can causally read.

–The backlash against Punpun might have something to do with this too, I suspect.

Asano: I feel like I saw the reader as the enemy back when I was doing Punpun. (laugh) I knew that some people would be annoyed by it, and that some of them would even start hating me. But then when I went to fight back against that criticism and hate, I started to think about how I could annoy those people and make them hate me even more.

–A vicious circle! But then, maybe that’s exactly what a manga like that needed. (laugh)

Asano: I would never have been able to finish Punpun if it weren’t for that twisted pleasure I got out of it, but I would really rather not have to do that anymore. For this next project, I’m going to make it about positive things that people want to see.

–Things people want to see… Well, the girls you draw are really cute. (laugh)

Asano: Something I realized as I drew Punpun was that drawing cute girls might be what I’m good at, which is why I thought I’d focus my next series on that. It’s a lot of fun for me to draw right now — nothing but girls, hardly a single male character. (laugh) I’m giving the characters a really round look to them too, and the overall art’s really different — I’m doing it more by analog now. It’s really fun for me at the moment, getting to draw things I’d never drawn before.

–Your work until now has had a “calm before the storm” feel to it, like the end of the world is right around the corner. With Dead Dead Demons De-De-De-De-Destruction, we’ve entered war. Do you feel like you’ve crossed some kind of boundary, personally?

Asano: The overall theme for the 2000s felt like stagnation, but it’s obvious that at this point we’ve entered the end of the world. The world isn’t going to end soon; it’s already starting to end now. The question is how to live in an age where the whole world is spiraling down, down, down.

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–Maybe your manga can be something that helps toughen the reader up so they can face that reality?

Asano: Hmm… nah, I don’t think so. Up until now I’ve been saying that escapist manga is bullshit and that I want to make a manga that actually creates impacts reality, but now all I ask is that people read my manga to be entertained.

–This debate came up in Punpun, too: Should manga be a diversion from reality, or a weapon to be used in it?

Asano: What I’m shooting for this time is the former, one hundred percent. Reality is tough, so read this manga about cute girls and feel better. I realized how important that is after watching K-On! (laugh) Girls having fun is cute, and cute is something that needs no explanation — that’s what’s so great about it. That’s all I need, I’ve decided.

But to people who know Punpun and read that, it all sounds like one giant build-up: make them think it’s an Asano version of K-On!, and then partway through the series…

Asano: The K-On! characters kill someone or something, yeah. (laugh) Now that’d be a shock. Even I would hate that. But then again, my personality is still basically what it’s always been, so if people start going on about what a fun manga it is and how I should keep it going forever and ever, I could always just make it all come falling down like that. (laugh) But I feel like maybe this time, I won’t do that sort of thing if it’s not what the readers want. That’s where I stand right now, in any case.

–I’d like to hear what you have to say about it by the time you’re at volume 3. (laugh)

Asano: Punpun was a manga where I wasn’t thinking at all about the magazine readers, but I want this next one to be readable from chapter to chapter in the magazine, because I want it to sell. I need to do my best to help the magazine sell, because if it does well financially, the editors can allow for some leeway and put out ill-advised stuff like Punpun. Also, I’d like the bragging rights. (laugh)

–You totally deserve those bragging rights.

Asano: The biggest difference from Punpun is the lack of a predetermined plot. I’ve chosen to work away at it chapter by chapter, deciding my next move as I go along. I don’t know how long the series will continue for, either — it could be really brief, or it could continue forever as my life work, in the mold of a Danchi Tomoo. What I make this manga into will really depend on the response I get from the readers. That’s how I want to approach this new series.

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22 thoughts on “Inio Asano interview — “Reality is tough, so read this manga about cute girls and feel better”

  1. interesting..it’s sad to hear the lackluster response when the twists started to pile up. to me, that was when the manga’s plot really started to become compelling and memorable. without that ‘incident’, it might have ended up just being a series with really ground-breaking techniques, but no plot to back it up.

    i remember the sales of the final volumes being in the top 15 for japan when they were released, but i guess the japanese comics industry is insanely competitive. even ‘indie’ creators like inio are focused on the bottom line. well, i do hope he eventually gets to do another ‘labor of love’ series like punpun.

  2. well….asano inio is def…cute

    i’m guessing you translated this? it’d be cool if you provided your own thoughts on it and the matt thorn article you referenced which i also found interesting and just left my own reply on it.

    first off, thanks SOOOOOO much for the translations. damn it must’ve taken a while. i think it was interesting to read, esp after the samura hiroaki one you did since they’re so different in that asano puts a lot of his own personal thoughts and agenda into his writing.

    a lot of things make more sense now! i like how honest he was. i’d have loved to hear on his inspiration for seki and shimizu who were my favorite characters. now i’m very interested in reading ozanari-kun. after finding out hikaru nakamura is a woman, i promise to no longer be surprised when i learn the genders or mangaka.

    his willingness to change his approach to writing and drawing is noteworthy. his growth is pretty cool.

    • Yeah, the translation is mine. Did it in my down time during a dull weekend.

      My thoughts on the whole Asano-as-transgender thing are that, if anything, Matt wasn’t as strongly dismissive in his blog posts as I would’ve been. The “news” of his transgenderness broke in a jokey interview in a very trashy magazine, where Asano goes on about how he wishes he were a girl because he never really felt a desire to be masculine and he thinks it must be nice to be a cute girl. It’s not a serious conversation — the interviewer mostly responds to this stuff with laughter, and I think Asano also talks about the romantic potential between him and Kengo Hanazawa. It’s odd how the story took off on the English-speaking side of the internets. I don’t have that much of a grasp on the LGBT culture in Japan, but I gather that “I want a sex change” just isn’t really seen as a serious thing that people say here in the way it is now in the West, and I suspect that’s how the whole misunderstanding started to begin with.

      As for the interview in general: One of the great things about Asano is that he keeps doing interviews. Most manga artists just really don’t seem to do that many at all, but Asano seems to really like talking about anything, including really juicy revealing stuff about his own work, which I really like in an artist. I think this interview in particular really changes the way I understand Punpun, as well as confirms some suspicions I already had about it. The way he describes the initial idea for the overall story — something bad happens and Punpun and Aiko go on the run — and the decision to devote volumes to their adolescence in the meantime so that the emotional impact of that eventual climax hits even harder definitely throws it into a different light. It almost cheapens the middle volumes — it makes them sound like they were all just there just to give us time to get attached to Punpun, so that Asano could use that as fuel for the story he actually wanted to tell in the final section. It worked, though — it IS the last few volumes that people seem to respond to the most, including myself, and I suppose it wouldn’t have had the same impact if we hadn’t spent so much time with the characters up until then.

      Also, Asano talks about Punpun as a manga that had a firm structure from the start, at least compared to his current manga, but I’m more struck by how it was almost all just made up as he went along. I was convinced that he must’ve at least had the ending to the Seki and Shimizu story planned from the start, but he at least makes it sound like he didn’t when he refers to them as characters that came out of nowhere. The whole Pegasus thing was dreamed up midway, because he thought it’d be boring to just follow Punpun around the whole time! I think it’s great how Asano is bluntly asked what the point of that whole sidestory was, and he admits that he kind of botched it.

      I read Ozanari-kun a while back — it’s pure Ren and Stimpy-level silliness. Won’t ever go back to it, but it was fine for what it is. I guess my favorite thing about it is that it’s printed entirely in color, which he’s very playful with throughout.

      His growth as an artist IS interesting. What he says about his motivation behind Dead Dead Demons’ Destruction reminds me of the end of Sullivan’s Travels, except with K-On! instead of the old Disney cartoon. Who the hell knows how long it’ll last, though.

      Basically, it’s a great interview, and I’m really glad that I found it.

  3. good read, thank you. with this i can sleep easier at night. still, no light was shed on aiko’s suicide. was it result of painkillers, inevitability of punishment, post-traumatic stress or maybe just out of silly and shoreless love? i’m a little bit confused right now.

  4. Hello, under what license is the photo you took published? I would like to use it for a wikipedia article. I am sorry if I got it all wrong and you only made the translation or just didn’t take the photo. Thanks in advance.

  5. It might come rather late as of when this article was publised, but I want to leave my thanks here for the good work done translating this interview, it was a good read and it definitely shed some light on Punpun’s story and on Asano Inio as an artist. I’ll go check now his other works, I really want to see more of this guy.

  6. i just wanna say thanks for the translation. asano is a genius and punpun is his true masterpiece and it was a delight to read such a deep interview about one of my favourite mangas of all time. thanks.

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