When there’s color, Banana Fish is filled with black and yellow. It dominates all covers of the series and its variations, it’s on guidebooks and merchandises, and now, it’s everywhere on the promo materials of the upcoming anime TV adaptation.
Like a warning sign, the meaning behind those colors alone tells us plenty about Banana Fish’s world: poisonous, dangerous and obsessive.
Created by Akimi Yoshida, it was originally serialized on Bessatsu Shōjo Comic, running from 1985 to 1994. It was licensed and published in English by Viz Media, first in 1999 (seven volumes with flipped covers and censured vocabulary) and again in 2004 (all volumes with a re-translation).
Banana Fish is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Its uniqueness it’s part of what makes it one of my favorite series; I can’t think of any other manga that truly resembles it. When I think about it, I’m mostly reminded of American crime shows and movies, but those still never gave me everything this manga did.
Banana Fish it’s queer, undeniably problematic and certainly a product of its time. It’s dark, gritty and tragic: it features gangs, drugs, murder, several instances of rape, child abuse, mind manipulation, political corruption, and so on… And it doesn’t always handle them in the best way. There’s much to question about Yoshida’s depiction of the messy, violent 80s New York, most suited to be considered a fantasy world, and it’s absolutely not safe from racist stereotypes. The more I read, the more bizarre and ridiculous the pacing and the stakes got, and the series will often ask for your suspension of belief… but I was never not entertained. It can get repetitive both with relatively harmless and with its worst elements, and it’s probably longer than it should be. But at its heart, is so full of raw, visceral emotions, and incredible characters. Which means that even if some scenes were quite over the top, it was never not fucking me up (in good and bad ways).
Over the course of the series, Yoshida changes her art several times. It’s not uncommon for an artist whose works run over the course of more than one decade. Banana Fish’s style doesn’t conform to any shojo art trend (it doesn’t look like a shojo manga at all, actually). There are no sparkles, no flowers: only action lines, guns and blood. It does conform to general trends of the decades though. Just look at bulky, round-faced mid 80s Ash; and the slimmer –more “refined,” if you will–, late 80s/90s Ash.
In my experience, Yoshida’s art in the manga is rarely as striking as some of her work in the series’ artbooks –or even some of the series’ covers. Backgrounds aren’t her strength, but I was somewhat charmed by her use of graffiti.
Yoshida struggles with same-face (mostly with the side characters) and I often found scenes to be visually average. Still, I never really had a problem with her style while reading it, and there are times where she gives us some truly memorable pages… and panels.
Once the story picks up its beat, despite all its flaws, it was almost impossible for me to put it down. It engrossed me, it captivated me and it completely destroyed me. It always comes back to haunt me once in a while, long after I’ve finished reading it.
The protagonist is Ash Lynx, a charismatic teenage boy with incredible intelligence and overall combat –and survival– skills, fitting for his role as the leader of one of New York’s gangs. Everything starts when Ash older brother comes back from Vietnam in a catatonic state, courtesy of banana fish. The conflict it’s driven by his desire to solve the banana fish mystery and break free from “Papa” Dino Golzine.
Dino is, in short, absolute scum. He’s a mafia boss, a powerful influencer, and a child molester, who sees little boys as if they were nothing but toys meant for his own pleasure. Ash himself was nothing but a child sex slave, until his incredible smarts and resilience, among other qualities, became impossible to ignore. When Dino sees his potential, he “promotes” him and starts to train him as the heir of his criminal empire. Through each passing arcs, different antagonist come and go, but everything comes back to this scumbag. Dino’s intelligence, resources and sickening obsession with Ash –he either wants to own or destroy him– makes him a truly threatening, detestable antagonist.
Sexual assault never truly banishes from the story –or Ash’s life. It’s not exactly easy to talk about the way it’s used (I’m still unsure about how to feel about some parts) without dropping big spoilers. I can say this much though: Banana Fish always makes the effort to frame the abuse as the horrible, scarring, traumatic events they are. We never see it when it happens, but the times you can tell something happened, it’s always disturbing and chilling. (If depictions of sexual assault are triggering for you, I would advice to completely stay away from the series. It happens too many times.)
Death is the one thing Banana Fish doesn’t shy away from. Death is everywhere, sometimes haunting and heartbreaking, sometimes quite over the top. Sometimes quick, just for the sake of survival. It’s an action-heavy series; when it’s not entertaining us with violent rampages, it’s either a battle of wits or running away from the antagonists. It rarely ever stops to take a break.
Aiding Ash in the quest to solve the banana fish mystery it’s Max Lobo, a war veteran, and a journalist. He is a key player in the series –either when he’s discovering harsh realities in Ash’s life, when he’s being part of some of the funniest moments or, of course, through his own character arc.
Taking place in New York means that we get to see different ethnicities. Plenty of the key players are white, but we also have Japanese, Chinese and African-American characters. As I mentioned before, I’m afraid that Banana Fish it’s not free of racist stereotypes. Still, we do get some damn good character, particularly with the gang leaders, like Shorter –leader of the Chinese gang and one of Ash closest friends– and Sing Su-Lin, his second in command.
And then there’s Eiji. Sweet, sweet Eiji. But I’ll get there in a second.
Ash & Eiji
As much as I am into gritty, crime stories, the relationship between the two main characters it’s one of my favorite parts of the manga –and one of my favorite relationships, period.
As we can see in a lot of the Magnificent 49ers‘ works or other classics like Utena (to give some examples), historically, shojo can be a progressive genre when it comes to gender and sexuality (regrettably, it can also have its own case of Gay Panic…). So I’m inclined to think that one of the things that landed Banana Fish in a shojo magazine it’s the nature of the incredibly emotional relationship between its two main leads (and perhaps, the beautiful boys. Ash is partially inspired in the late River Phoenix, after all).
Eiji is a Japanese college student, two years older than Ash, but far more innocent. He comes to America as a cameraman assistant at first, but ends up entangled in Ash turbulent life. He’s an extremely kind soul whom I absolutely adore, and he’s not above being a little shit when they test him enough.
Ash and Eiji, in some ways, conform to more traditionally feminine roles. Other characters often underestimate Ash because he’s “too pretty.” Eiji, who’s pretty much a normal boy unexpectedly trapped in a world of crime, it’s often a “damsel in distress.” Perhaps I’m alone on this one, but they sometimes reminded me of some romantic tropes I’ve seen, mostly in American cinema. Like the hardass, one man army dude, whose only real weakness is the woman he loves. Or the wore down, highly capable film noir hero (or anti-hero) who cannot help but have a soft spot for that one lady. Here, Eiji fits the woman’s role instead.
Although they reminded me of those tropes, they’re still something unlike anything else. They have a deep, multilayered relationship that’s built throughout the series slowly, and with a surprising amount of care. They’re each other’s best friends, the one person they care about the most in the world.
The only times Ash is truly able to act his age is when he’s around Eiji. He’s the one beacon of light in his dark world, and for Eiji, Ash is a source of strength and inspiration, among other things. They don’t really need to tell us that there’s nothing they wouldn’t do to keep the other safe and happy (even if they do): their actions often tell us that much. Their love might be asexual, but it has plenty of romantic layers.
A couple of paragraphs is honestly not enough to convey everything those two mean to each other (and to me) and the role the relationship fulfills in the story. But I’m not here to spoil y’all the ride, so we are going to have to settle with this.
Banana Fish it’s a milestone of shojo –no, of manga for damn good reasons. It’s a crazy, bizarre ride from start to finish; it’s grim, haunting, occasionally funny and unexpectedly touching. Will it make you cry? Absolutely. It is flawed? Hell, yes. Would I still recommend it? After a nice, long list of content warnings (presumedly this post), yes, absolutely yes. What a story, folks. What a story.
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