Exploring Banana Fish’s Violent, Bizarre World

When there’s color, Banana Fish is filled with black and yellow. It dominates all covers of the series and most of 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 pages) and again in 2004 (all volumes with a re-translation). (Censured vocabulary varies, sometimes they say fuck, others ding-dong or doo doo.)

Banana Fish is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Its uniqueness is 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.

ash eiji
Ash and Eiji

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).

The Look

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.

banana fish

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.

banana fish

The Story

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 antagonists 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.

ash and the scumbag

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 uncomfortable or 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.

ash shooting his pursuer, blood spills on his and eiji's faces

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.

banana fish

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 is 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 made Banana Fish fitting for a shojo magazine–besides being basically Yoshida’s home–it’s the nature of the incredibly emotional relationship between its two main leads (and perhaps, the beautiful boys. The late River Phoenix inspired Ash’s looks, after all. This doesn’t mean there’s never action in shojo, though!).

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 funny scene

NEVER FORGET

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.

i'll protect you, eiji
aren’t we subtle

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.

stay-with-me-bf-e1529292184222.jpg

Days since Banana Fish made me cry: 0

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. (Edit: I wrote about their relationship including external material and influences here. Big spoilers are properly marked, but proceed at your own risk.)

Banana Fish is 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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8 thoughts on “Exploring Banana Fish’s Violent, Bizarre World

  1. This is a great article I’ve been a fan of Banana Fish for years and can’t wait for the anime to come out later this year. Whilst the romantic relationship between Ash and Eiji it’s never explicit stated it, their love story is one of my favourite found in manga. Its seems 2018 is a great time for 80/90s queer manga with Devilman, Banana Fish both getting an anime, hopefully Silver Diamond will get one as well completing the list of my favourite “sort of gay” Manga. Hopefully the BF anime will due the works justice and give you something new to write about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. [WARNING: BIG SPOILERS]
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    I’ve just finish reading it after 1 and a half day and I can’t stop bawling my eyes until now. I can’t believe I missed out such a great and amazing story. I’ve read Silver Diamond so I can’t believe I didn’t manage to notice this amazing piece. God. I still can’t over Ash’s death. I can’t get over the fact that they didn’t get the happy ending they deserve. I’m so pissed that rather than Yau-Si who has done nothing to try and attempt to change his destiny, Ash was the one who ends up dying when in fact he was the one who tried his best to break the lifestyle he was in. I mean sure Eiji’s presence is a factor but let’s be honest, if Yau-Si has just given Eiji a chance to befriend him then this whole mess wouldn’t even escalate this further. If only he had just given up at least a little, I mean just a little bit of his pride or whatever it is needed for his bit**in ass to listen and give Eiji a chance to show that he too can change then it would have been avoided and he would have been a greater help for Eiji and Ash to escape from Dino’s ass. TBH, I’ve tried my best to give him a lot of chances all throughout the story but GOD help me, he just keeps making a lot of trouble and it’s making me lose whatever sense of pity or understanding for him. Even as he tried to explain to Blanca his back story I was feeling nothing, probably the most neutral feeling I’ve felt all throughout the story. I neither felt pity nor angry at him. I just don’t mind anything regarding him anymore. Afterall, no matter what happens it’s not just him who had a fuck up childhood. ASH HAD IT WORST TOO. I’m not too sure which is worst as they probably find both their lives hard for both of them as a child but ASH CHOOSE TO CHANGE HIS DESTINY OR AT LEAST ATTEMPTED TO CHANGE IT RATHER THAN TRYING TO KEEP HIMSELF COVERED AND DROWNING IN HATRED. UNLIKE YAU-SI HE HAS THE COURAGE TO TRY AND FACE A DIFFERENT FUTURE RATHER THAN LICKING PEOPLE’S ASSES. God, right now I am so spiteful of Yau-Si and as much as I want to give him the second chance I can’t. I just can’t. Not after what happened to Ash. Not after what the damage he has done to both Eiji and Ash who only wanted for God’s sake to be happy and live a peaceful life. I am so sad that this has to end like this and I am more importantly frustrated that no one has bothered seeing someone bleeding like that and yet not doing anything. I mean are people blind at some point??? I mean sure at first few minutes blood probably cant be seen but hello after a quite some time I’m pretty sure there’ll be at least drips of it. How come people has not noticed it? They COULD, I mean like at least 10 0r 5% at least of survival when he’s being escorted to the hospital. GOD. I don’t know. I am so bitter that my babies.. In the additional short story, you could actually see how much heartbreaking it was for him that Ash is no longer here but he also knows that Ash will always be with him and look after him.
    In all honesty, I want the author to at least make another short story about them. Eiji and Ash, living in a peaceful lifestyle this time and happily enjoying each other’s company. This would put my heart on ease. I keep on thinking if Ash was here I’m pretty sure Eiji would be smiling all more happily. Or if only Eiji and Ash had meet in early age.. Would this have changed Ash’s future? Would he have more time to think about wanting to start anew? Would he have spent much more time with Eiji happily?? God. I am so traumatized, happy, sad.. Reading this manga was a hella rollercoaster ride for me. I had my heart break, put back again, only to be broken all over again and reading the short stories only crushed it into tiny pieces. I’m afraid I’ll never be able to recover from this once I start watching the anime. I’m excited tho how they’ll play it all out given that it has shorter episodes..
    Anyway, this is totally different from Silver Diamond in where even though I had my heart broken at times, the ending was just plainly perfect as it is. They were happily together and it was not forced either.. I guess sometimes in life you just gotta know that there are bad endings. I just hope there’ll be a short story where they’ll all be alive and happy all together. That is all I wish especially for my adorable and cute babies (Eiji and Ash). Thank you so much for this opportunity to rant about my feelings.

    Like

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