When I have to describe the nature of Ash and Eiji’s relationship in just a couple of words, what usually comes to mind is “platonic romance.” It might sound like a silly contradiction, but stay with me.
In some ways, Ash and Eiji are unlike anything I’ve seen. In others, they remind of romantic tropes I’ve seen in my years watching and reading (hetero) romances. Banana Fish is a notable queer shojo classic, however–not unlike other queer works–its male leads can be both victims and a product of the time in which they were conceived.
Banana Fish isn’t always the best at handling its sexual abuse and sexuality. It can fall on pretty emotionally loaded tropes–like the explicitly gay characters being abusers and predators, not to mention the “gay because abused” dog whistles. So things like the main character’s sexualities can be a delicate, messy and complicated discussion. Still, despite those shortcomings, Ash and Eiji’s relationship remains remarkably touching… and notably romantic.
It could be said that their relationship is one that transcends labels, but when the story does search for one, it often settles for the more comfortable “friends.” It’s not strange for an old queer work to safely present its relationship as a close friendship while filling it with romantic undertones. It’s not exactly a lie either: they are each other’s best friend. The story makes sure you know they’re not just any kind of friends; it goes out of its way to add extra emotional weight to the word. Both are the other’s most precious person in the world, the one they care about the most. When Ash and Eiji use “My Friend” to address the other, that’s what we are meant to feel in their words.
Ash and Eiji’s relationship is indeed based on a strong friendship, but this doesn’t mean that romantic feelings were never present. Their love is multilayered, and the romantic layers in particular are different from the romances we’re used in shojo manga. There’s no kiss, no sudden realization of one’s feelings, no confession to look forward. With Ash and Eiji is all about the pure, heartfelt connection, the desire to protect and live to see another day, just to be able to spend time with the other.
They long for each other, but their love is largely framed as asexual–and for good reason. For Ash, Eiji represents all that’s good, happy and safe, and considering all the sexual abuse Ash’s had to endure, the desexualization of their relationship can be seen as a way to give Ash security.
While incredibly resilient, Ash is a deeply broken individual. After years of control and horrible abuse, he’s not really in the right mental state to healthily explore–let alone understand–romance and sexuality. Eiji is a very innocent, inexperienced boy. Ash dealing with internalized homophobia is not off the table either–maybe not the best combination, with him being the kind of person that masks how much he cares with rudeness. That, plus the fact that they meet in the middle of a gang/mafia war, doesn’t leave time or space for anyone to even attempt to understand all the facets of their feelings. It’s not what it matters in those moments. However, that doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t there.
One of the things that accurately summarizes how the relationship feels is that, by the time we’re told they are soulmates, it’s already unquestionable: we’ve been proven that enough times through their actions.
Ash could only ever act his age when he is around Eiji; he is both the pillar and the light in Ash’s cruel world. Eiji’s kindness and genuine love touch him deeply, which Ash corresponds with devotion and tenderness reserved only for Eiji. Their connection also means that they could just be stupid boys together–something Ash never really had before Eiji–, which also give us some of the funniest moments in the story.
Rooting for them to overcome all the obstacles the story throws at them, being able to cry and laugh and cheer them on whenever they survive yet another battle, and so on, makes their love all the more touching.
Banana Fish & Western Queer Movies
For most Banana Fish fans, it’s common knowledge that Akimi Yoshida famously re-drew iconic images of queer American and British movies with Ash and Eiji. Besides the obviousness of having queer character reenacting imagery from queer movies, it’s worth to mention the pattern they reveal.
One of the movies is My Own Private Idaho (1991), with Eiji and Ash replacing Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix respectively (the latter heavily inspired Ash’s looks after Yoshida’s big style change, like, seriously). The other one is Maurice (1987) with Ash in place of James Wilby and Eiji replacing Hugh Grant. The movies were released in a time when Banana Fish was still being published (1985-1994) and while I can’t say if they had any impact on the development of the story, they sure happen to have some similarities.
It can’t be denied that the stories in both films couldn’t be more different than Banana Fish: My Own Private Idaho is… it sure is a movie, and it features an unrequited love. Maurice focuses on the sexuality and the passionate romance of its protagonist with two very different men. However, regardless of the path they ended up following, both films depict relationships that are based on strong friendships.
Hugh Grant’s character loves Maurice romantically, but he does not desire a sexual relationship. Like I’ve mentioned before, in Banana Fish, Ash and Eiji’s love is not presented as sexual. With My Own Private Idaho, Ash loosely shares some similitudes with Phoenix’s character–a broken man who’s sexually exploited and longs greatly for his best friend.
But perhaps most notable is the apparent impact and influence of films like Midnight Cowboy (1969) on Yoshida. I’m about to spoil the hell out of Banana Fish and all the mentioned movies, by the way.
hella heavy spoilers start here
A Price To Pay
There’s plenty of foreshadowing throughout Banana Fish (I’ll admit that some of it was pretty neat… if you’re fond of tragedies you’ll find plenty to love here, I suppose) and external influences like Midnight Cowboy make me contemplate the possibility that this ending could’ve been conceived as early as the planning stages of the story. After all, it’s impossible not to notice how much the final moments (final page in particular) have in common with the final scene of that movie.
In Midnight Cowboy, Ricco is at death’s door when Joe, trying to honor his last wish, drops everything to take him to Miami. At the final scene, Ricco’s last words are “Thank you, Joe.” He dies on the bus before reaching his desired destination; his feelings of gratitude towards Joe giving him some comfort before passing away. In Banana Fish, Ash, perhaps too concerned with trying to run to Eiji after seeing his letter, drops his guard and gets stabbed. Like Ricco, Ash’s death is laid throughout the story as a foregone conclusion against the wishes of those who love them, and both are gone before reaching the place (or the person) they wanted. Ash doesn’t defy his fate like Eiji desired, but the latter feelings touch the former deeply, allowing him to find peace before he passes away with equally deep, warm feelings towards his precious person.
Midnight Cowboy highlights the morbidity, but also the mundanity that a total stranger passing away can bring: most of the people on the bus look at Ricco’s corpse, some whispering to each other, others immediately getting back to their business. There’s a shot of an old lady who doesn’t even bother to pay attention, she just fixes her make up. In Banana Fish’s final page, we get a full shot of the library with what might already be Ash’s corpse at the center, his head laying over Eiji’s bloody letter on the table. Someone tries to talk to him without getting any response, Ash’s smiling face giving them the impression that he’s just having a good dream. We see people around him minding their own business, talking, reading their books. Someone is gone forever and someone’s world will never be the same because of that, but for everyone else, it’s just another day. It is perhaps an act of mercy that unlike Joe, Eiji wasn’t forced to see Ash lifeless body.
It’s also notable that, although Maurice ends on a hopeful note for its titular character, the relationships in the images of Maurice and My Own Private Idaho that Yoshida re-draws don’t have happy endings either.
I don’t particularly care for tragedies, and I’ve always hated Banana Fish ending in a visceral way. Understanding it doesn’t make it any better either. For one, I take issue with how the story establishes sexual abuse as a tool of power to control and break Ash, acknowledging that it succeeds without ever really letting him challenge this. In his final scenes, Ash looks battered and worn down, as if all the pain in his life finally caught up to him, leaving him without a clue of what to do with himself. Considering the parallels with works of literature like A Perfect Day for Bananafish by J. D. Salinger–the story of a war veteran that took his own life because he couldn’t adapt to peaceful times– I hate the message this gives.
Ash only ever fought because he wanted to be free; constantly being abused and–contrasting with the war influences on the story–forced to live violently in order to survive a war of his own. Him dying before ever really getting a chance at freedom sends the message that it never gets better: you can’t overcome your abuse, your pain, your decaying mental health. It’s not even worth the struggle.
On top of that, I hate that such a beautiful relationship has to be yet another victim of Bury your Gays: a trope that allows positive queer relationships as long as they end on tragedy, which was all in the rage back then. (Heck, I can’t say we don’t struggle with that anymore.) The old notion that queer people in media have to suffer is all over here too, not only with Ash’s abuse but in Eiji’s grief as well. (Keeps me up at night, considering how many times the story establishes how much Eiji wants him alive, safe and by his side. Seriously. Make it stop.)
I don’t think that Banana Fish ultimately perpetuating Tragic Gays tropes (and all those clearly gay characters being predators, geez) is necessarily intentional. It could have been Yoshida taking things from queer media she liked without fully understanding (or maybe without even considering) the harmful things they represent. Or it could also have been her way of being tied to heteronormativity and convention of her time–but I can only speculate.
I hate this ending passionately, but very much like Eiji, I can’t seem to leave behind the story he shares with Ash and the crazy New York he saw with him. What was so beautiful ultimately becoming such a tired tragedy seems to be the price I must pay for loving these boys too much.
Garden of Light
Garden of Light is a spin-off that shows how Eiji’s doing after losing Ash from Sing and Akira’s–Ibé’s nephew–perspective. It comes with volume 19 (the final volume) and exists to bring us some sort of closure. It gives us an outsider perspective of Ash and Eiji’s relationship too, besides containing a sort of examination (or maybe, some reassurance) of its nature.
Akira comes to New York to visit Eiji after he invites her, and it’s quickly revealed that she has an innocent, childish crush on him. This is situated nearly a decade after Banana Fish‘s ending (perhaps another act of mercy, all things considered) but Eiji is still far from over him, and it doesn’t take long for Akira to start asking questions. What’s perhaps most remarkable are the kind of questions she asks (did Okumura-san love this person?) and the assumptions she makes based on Sing’s (intense) answer. Akira pictures Ash as a woman and gets jealous because she automatically assumes Eiji’s love is romantic (she’s never corrected), and for that reason, she’s also shocked when she finds out he was a man.
Sing’s perspective is even more interesting, considering he knew them both personally. He notes that Eiji’s last letter to Ash practically reads like a love letter, adding “Eiji’s yours forever” when asking (what he perceives as) Ash’s spirit to “let him go already,” so he can find happiness again. When Akira asks if Ash was a man (and later, if they were lovers), Sing instantly understands everything she’s conveying through that question, reacts somewhat cautiously and takes to place where they will have privacy to answer her.
His words are far from being the strongest confirmation of their love, but I’ve always seen that part as Yoshida talking directly to the readers. Probably because Sing says things (like their relationship not being sexual) that I doubt he, personally, could’ve known for sure, but that reaffirm what Yoshida seems to have sought and what we, as readers, are shown.
Garden of Light is full of grief and heartbreak, but what never fails to get me is the moment when Eiji, for the first time in almost a decade, can finally bring himself to look at Ash’s pictures. The pictures themselves reassure what their story already told us multiple times, which is their undeniable fondness and intimacy.
When I look at this page, I see someone who not only miss, but longs for the subject in those pictures.
I’ll admit that it’s somewhat nice to see that Garden of Light doesn’t try to downplay what happened between the boys, but a broken Eiji mourning was something that I wish I never had to see, that it never had to happen. From moving to New York, to his photography career and the subjects he picks; he surrounds himself with Ash, even when he’s unable to confront his memory directly. By the end of the spin-off, there’s some hope that eventually, he will get better. But seeing how he lives, the places he still can’t even see after so long, desperately running to a stranger on the streets because for a second, he thought he saw Ash again… He’s still far from over him. Makes you wonder if he ever will.
Angel Eyes (Art Book)
The series’ artbook Angel Eyes both fascinates me and heals me. It also slightly concerns me, but I’ll get there in a second.
Where Banana Fish tries to keep things as asexual as possible, Angel Eyes goes all out, completely unconcerned with caution. It can also be somewhat… complicated, because it highlights positive sexuality… but it also doesn’t ignore Ash’s abuse.
Again, Banana Fish isn’t always the best handling its abuse, but it always makes the effort to portray them as horrible, haunting and scarring experiences for the victims. That might be why I’m inclined to be a little more generous in my readings than some. There’s a difference, for instance, between the Ash who’s touched by faceless–or even disembodied–hands, and the Ash who is with Eiji or by himself, which is most notable on his expressions. In the former situation, he’s mostly portrayed as empty-eyed, pained, vulnerable and/or uncomfortable. In the latter he’s looser–even when he’s being melancholic–relaxed, or even cheerful.
In the darker (ostensibly uncomfortable) illustrations, the only instances where we know who is with him are when the scumbag (Dino) is standing over his unconscious body dressed as the grim reaper (pretty self-explanatory), or when Blanca’s with him: dancing, putting on his shoe. Holding him–kinda bridal style, but seemingly about to drop him–with a mask on or kissing his neck; Ash’s unconscious, vulnerable, exposed. It’s fitting, because they symbolize the power Blanca has over Ash, how unreadable he could often be to him, and how even if Ash chooses to trust him, it would still be so easy for him to become Blanca’s prey if the latter wants that–even if Blanca ultimately cares about him.
However, even if I’m… generous, I can see how unsettling it is to see that kind of content in the same book that frees both Ash and Eiji sexually. I suppose we could consider a possible intention to highlight the contrast between the position in which Ash’s abuse puts him in and his genuine, unrestricted feelings. Which brings us to the good stuff!
Angel Eyes having illustrations that highlight how intimate, how comfortable Ash and Eiji feel with each other isn’t anything new. Images blatantly portraying sexual tension, however, is… more than notable, all things considered. Sexually, Angel Eyes takes the characters and completely frees them from the limitations in Banana Fish‘s story, both individually (there are images of both highlighting sexual appeal, and Ash is notably relaxed) and together.
Some images have them being carefree, others with Ash never taking his eyes off a relaxed Eiji; all posing as if they were modeling for a photoshoot. There’s an image of a (very tender-looking) Ash biting Eiji’s ear and other of Ash kissing Eiji’s neck; the latter’s body language indicating that he completely gives himself to the former. Ash kissing Eiji’s neck while looking directly at us is a physical manifestation of Sing’s words in Garden of Light: Eiji is Ash’s, and through those actions, Ash himself tells us so. It’s also important that Ash is the one doing those things; he loves and longs for Eiji, and here, he actually has the agency (and presumably, freedom from his trauma) to act on those feelings.
There are also illustrations (some charged with sexual tension) that highlight how much Ash trusts Eiji with his body language, like the one I call the catcher in the rye one–another story by J. D. Salinger that deals with angst and isolation, particularly of teenagers–that never fails to pull at my heartstrings. And, of course, there’s the image of both of them wearing tuxedos–that suspiciously look like wedding tuxedos–while Ash is holding a bucket of red roses–which unmistakably symbolize romantic love, longing, desire–and looking at a smiling Eiji. No, you are crying.
Banana Fish existed in a time before the BL genre was consolidated as such. It was serialized on Bessatsu Shōjo Comic and well, classic shojo is no stranger to queerness. After all, some of the most iconic works of the Magnificent 49ers feature prominently male-casts and highlight complex, queer relationships between boys. Still, Banana Fish is its own beast. It can’t really be compared to the experimental works that came out in the 1970s, when the Magnificent 49ers were just taking over–and shojo as a genre was just getting consolidated–and their editors–who didn’t know what young girls liked–just let them do as they pleased, basically.
However, if I had to name things those works have in common, it would be the tragedy and the (somewhat) exploration of gender roles. Like I’ve mentioned in a previous post, in some ways, both Ash and Eiji conform to more traditionally female roles, although this is far more notable on Eiji. Ash being a superhuman, one-man army is a role that’s assigned to men more often than not (for what it’s worth, the superhuman male love interest is also a shojo trope).
Meanwhile, Eiji often stays behind, worrying and waiting for Ash’s return. Or if he’s with Ash, he has to be protected. He is Ash’s only “weakness,” which Ash’s enemies always use against them, meaning Eiji’s often targeted, kidnaped and put in “damsel in distress” situations. Eiji is the tender, caring soul with unshakeable faith on Ash; all qualities that quickly breaks down the walls of the broken boy with a tragic past. Does anything here sound familiar? Well, these might or might not be general descriptions that fail to capture all the ways in which Ash and Eiji’s relationship is truly special. Still, those are situations often seen in hetero romances (with action plots), and here, Eiji fits the traditionally female role.
The story seems somewhat aware of this, based on narrative parallels that positions Eiji as being (or representing) the same as a character’s lover, and so on.
To this day, Ash and Eiji are still one of my favorite relationships in fiction. Their fate hurts me endlessly, but there’s such a strong, genuine, loving connection between them, so many good elements, that I just can’t bring myself to leave them behind.
The Japanese promotion for the Banana Fish reprints use the word koi (恋) to describe their love, and koi fits them indeed. Koi is romantic love, a love that longs and yearns for the other–which can also be selfish. There’s a certain (understandable) selfishness in Ash and Eiji deciding to be together, even if Ash couldn’t guarantee Eiji’s safety, even if Eiji’s inexperience could slow down and get Ash in even more danger. But there’s also undeniable tenderness and purity in just wanting to be together and be able to act like boys their age.
There’s definitely much that can be said about this relationship, after all, is what gives Banana Fish its heart, and it shall always be close to mine.
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