One of the most interesting things in Banana Fish to me is how it plays with “traditional gender roles” in fiction. I’ve talked about some of the ways this is done with Eiji before, like how he’s equated to a past female love interest in a situation where Eiji’s role would usually go to a girl. In recent episodes, we also see him in “damsel in distress” situations, like when Ash’s rescues him while escaping Dino’s mansion, or when Yut-lung captures him because of his connection to Ash. However, Eiji’s not the only boy who gets roles that usually goes to women.
When I think of attractive characters who use their appearance and appeal as a weapon, my mind instantly goes to female characters in film noir, thrillers and action movies. In this case, both Ash and Yut-lung (partly) get this role, albeit in different ways. Ash and Yut-lung similarities have been visually implied since the latter’s introduction, with framing that conveys how both are caged, prisoners and victims fighting to escape the clutches of terrible men.
Those similarities are part of the reason Yut-lung is fixated on Ash. However, their differences are what mostly inspired this post. After all, Yut-lung’s destructive nature and inability to truly understand Ash (despite the similarities he notices himself) is what ultimately makes him decide to oppose him.
One notable difference is the way they fight. Both are smart and perceptive, but while Ash confronts his enemies head-on and has no problem fighting them physically in a “me vs the world” type of way–which Yut-lung considers barbaric–Yut-lung resorts to secret, underhanded schemes that take advantage of his family’s power and resources. I’ve talked about part of this before, so I won’t get into it again.
I’ve also talked about Yut-lung’s hair, which is a physical connection to his dead mother–the only thing we have seen of her is her long, black hair. Yut-lung also constantly brings attention to his hair, touching it in different ways when he talks. His hair makes Yut-lung’s elder brothers (his mother’s killers) remember her and physically embodies his intentions to get revenge.
Yut-lung’s long hair makes others assume he’s a woman, and we have seen him looking feminine when he was being presented as an “exotic” gift to Dino. A Chinese character who knows acupuncture might be just a little less typical than one who knows kung-fu, but I’ve mentioned how his manner and deceitful nature also reminds me of another stereotype in older stories, known as “Dragon Lady.”
When I say “Dragon Lady” I’m talking about the stereotype of Asian female villains who are mysterious and deceitful–just like Yut-lung. It’s a connection that only occurred to me when I saw the way in which Yut-lung came alive on the screen, which reminded me of what I’ve watched and read about Anna May Wong earlier this year.
Anna May Wong was an actress–known as the first Chinese-American movie star–active during most of the first half of the 20th century. Her race and the discrimination of her time (to put it mildly) meant that she was often advertised as some “exotic Asian beauty” and typecast in stereotypical and unflattering roles while more complex ones were given to white actors in yellow-face. Tired of playing roles that painted her people as “murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass ” she left Hollywood for the European stages in the late 1920s (it’s a long story). Her roles as a “snake lady” and part of her mannerism on the screen also bring Yut-lung to mind, who’s literally called “a venomous snake.”
While we could apply many archetypes to Ash, part of his charm is that he’s still a unique character that appeals to multiple demographics. Being a survivor who fights back offers an empowering figure, and there are plenty of fans who can relate to him, regardless of their identities.
Ash is a genius, a Terminator, vulnerable only with those he loves the most. He’s also a “Femme Fatale”–beautiful women who could “use their charms” to snare and lead their unsuspecting victims into deadly situations.
Well, that might be an oversimplification, but it’s mostly what I mean when I say that part of Ash reminds me of archetypes that usually go to female characters. In a way, Ash embodies both traditionally male and female roles in certain types of fiction: he can be a one-man army who burns mansions to the ground to save those he loves, or “the seductress” who turns his looks and past abuse as a weapon against a bunch of bastards who can’t go to hell fast enough.
Another big difference between Ash and Yut-lung–most notable in recent episodes–is how their abuse has shaped them; how they approach love and trust. Interestingly enough, this can be easily summarized with the way both feel about Eiji: Ash loves him, Yut-lung expresses hatred at (the idea of) him.
Eiji’s naivety and sweet but fierce nature it’s what drew Ash to him in the first place. Ash’s feelings for Eiji come from getting to know him as a person; spending time with and building a relationship with him.
Meanwhile, Yut-lung dehumanizes Eiji: he doesn’t know him at all, but he’s full of negative feelings towards everything Eiji represents. Neither Ash nor Yut-lung are strangers to loneliness. However, while Ash craves Eiji’s company and the normalcy he brings into his life, Yut-lung shows disdain at the mere concept of friendship.
Yut-lung also dehumanizes Ash: he’s drawn to the “fearless one-man army” side of him while projecting his own warped beliefs on him. He completely undermines Eiji and spectacularly (but understandably) fails to understand both Ash and genuine affection.
This is more notable in the scene where he tells Eiji that “Ash’s doesn’t need any friends.” While Yut-lung refers to Ash as a “beautiful and free beast,” what we see directly contradicts him: a painting of a beast with framing that clearly conveys caging.
It also stands in direct contrast to how much the affectionate Eiji understands Ash. When Eiji escapes from Yut-lung’s mansion, the latter promises that he will keep coming after him as long as he remains Ash sole weakness. A love interest being “the only weakness” of a highly capable male character is another role that usually goes to female characters.
I’m so drawn to this part of Ash and Yut-lung’s (and Eiji’s) characters because I see them as boys who reveal against “fictional convention” by adopting these roles. While there are multiple things in Banana Fish that can be troubling or emotionally taxing to discuss, this is one of the things the show continuously makes me think about without wrecking me.
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