Few series have made me feel as much and as strongly as Banana Fish–a work that’s full of things I love dearly, just as it has things that I either dislike or downright hate. It can be described as an action thriller, a crime drama, a story of cultural connections, abandoned children and new-found families, and many things more. At its heart, there’s a love story.
Context & modernization
Banana Fish is too much and too little, too excessive and too subtle, too punishing but also very rewarding. Its tone, sensibility, and themes have always given it a crossover appeal–which is ostensibly why it’s often sparkling demographic label debates that I doubt will ever be settled. In many ways, it’s also a product of its time, with references to the cold war, the Vietnam war, the war on drugs, gangs, the mafia’s control of New York’s gay scene, and so on. Hell, according to Frederik L. Schodt, even the fascination with New York in Japan was a very 80s thing.
However, a lot here it’s context that explains choices made in the story, rather than being something you can take away from it. In some instances, that can be a problem: the unfortunate pimping of underage boys (to put it mildly) has roots in real-world shaddy business, which is decidedly (and importantly) condemned in the story. Still, gay sexual predators having such a strong presence in the story with the only alternative being an (arguably) desexualized romance can be a questionable choice (getting back to this in a bit). And removing it from that context can understandably play its part into associating it with very harmful prejudices.
This means a modern adaptation faces challenges way before even getting into the most troubling content, challenges that simply setting the show in the 80s wouldn’t have solved–it would probably need to address the real world context that justifies some of its decisions. Modernizing a work like Banana Fish demands changes that interact with the real world in substantial ways too, which means big rewritings.
For better or worse, this adaptation follows the story faithfully, and it doesn’t really pick either of these choices. What this adaptation chooses to do makes more sense from the perspective of the nostalgia pendulum–our current media is drowning in 80s nostalgia, and well, this show’s existence is the product of love for a classic of the era. (For the media in the 1980s, that was the 1950s, meaning the manga itself is not separated from this with its “what if mk-ultra” plot and all.)
A lot of our current nostalgia presents a sanitized version of the past, and that’s how this adaptation feels in part: a good deal of casual homophobia, sexism, and racism is gone (those slurs are questionable translation choices not supported by the original text), which works heavily in the show’s favor. Being able to enjoy the presence of POC and a gay romance without being put off by racist caricatures or a throwaway line that can be read as internalized homophobia does wonders for my health, let me tell you.
Curiously enough, this “sanitization” also extends to straight-up 80s aesthetics, but I suppose it could have been mostly a matter of taste. At the same time, the adaptation partly addresses a few of its challenges with context: the Vietnam War is no longer a close memory for current audiences; the early 2000s are.
The result is a hybrid, with aesthetics that leans more towards modern than 80s without really being divorced from it, and a story that leans more towards its 80s roots than modern times. Still, some themes and criticism present (e.g. children abandoned by adult figures and left to fend for themselves; there’s always war and it always sucks), plus the way the current climate mirrors aspects that were also true in the 80s, still make relevant points for current audiences.
There’s also the issue with length. With so few episodes to tell the entire story, there’s bound to be sacrifices. This fixes issues with pacing in some places, but it also creates new issues in others by taking away tension or perhaps, a needed pause. It’s unfortunate some things have been cut or weren’t explored as deeply, but I agree with the show in something: it can’t be the heart and the human element.
It can’t be Ash, an enduringly popular and compelling protagonist, who works as the unifying force in a plot that’s sometimes all over the place, and brings an equally enduring strength to the story: a power fantasy of a survivor who fights back. It can’t be his love story with Eiji that gives the story its beating heart, his bond with Max–the best father figure in his life–and so on.
Don’t get me wrong, I would give my soul for a revised and thoroughly modernized version of Banana Fish. Because at the end of the day, what hurts the most is not Yoshida’s apparent fascination with endlessly testing the limits of human’s endurance in front of emotional distress, but the message it can send regarding the people it represents with things like Ash’s fate.
That’s not what we got here, which I realized would be the case pretty early on. That means all the highs and the joy as much as all the despair, all the excesses and questionable choices. Still, even if the show never went as a far as to change the story to deal with this, I saw it negotiate with the original material in ways I always felt compelled to, at the very least, point out.
In simple words, I largely enjoyed watching this show–and that’s putting it very mildly! While something is lost at removing it from context–in some instances, adding more to the already movie levels of fantasy part of the story operates on–I don’t really believe it makes show fall apart.
There’s a question of the necessity and value of bringing back a story that’s such a product of its time without entirely dealing with the questionable, the challenges–but there are no simple answers.
For those who can’t forgive the negative, the answer might also be negative, but there’s those who value the work’s historic importance, new and old fans who are able to take something valuable away from the show. Personally, even if I’m still angry at how it hurt, even as I despaired when it committed to some of the worse parts of the story, there’s still much I appreciate in the show.
Things that hurt
Let’s get the worst out of the way: I despise the ending for so many reasons I can’t seem to ever be able to fully explain all the reasons why. I’ve talked about it before, especially in the context of the LGBTQ+ movies the work pays homage to (in one way or another) and the parallels present, so I won’t do it again.
While Banana Fish foreshadows tragedy, it also supports an alternative, more hopeful path; one supported by unconditional love and earned trust. Ash is a character heavily rooted in resilence; he fights to break free, to survive and know a life outside of the cage, and then the story shows him there is a chance for him, there are people for him.
The idea that Ash wouldn’t fight for this after receiving a letter from the person he cherishes the most and who cherishes him just as much, urging him to do so–which is actually used as the damn reason someone was able to stab him–indulges in such cruel irony and fatalism that undercuts some of the most powerful and valuable messages the story has to offer.
The ending is not the only time a strong message is undercut in the story: Foxx’s existence itself has no sensible justification. While the show tones down certain things, he’s a terribly underdeveloped character who only inflicts even more abuse to Ash, after all he has already been through, just after Max tells him he doesn’t have to be controlled by his past. Instead, Ash is abused again specifically because of his past, and after everything is over, he’s given an absurdly contrived death without ever getting the freedom he fought so hard for.
Banana Fish operates under the same logic that enables plenty of action movies and its heroes: yes, characters kill, yet they kill nameless henchmen, 2d monsters, unquestionable evil, and if they stray from it, it’s due to inescapable circumstances. The heroes regretting this–which Ash does; the idea that he’s remorseless is demonstrably untrue–is a testament to the goodness in their hearts.
To kill Ash as an act of punishment is questioning a logic that allows plenty of Banana Fish to work in the first place. To suggest that Ash, the power fantasy that never had any choice, is deserving of punishment when characters who killed like Sing and Jessica walk away unquestioned, is daring to ask if the survivor is just as bad as the monsters he fought against.
Ash is so much more than his past, but his fate can’t be divorced from it–combined with his wish to protect and avenge those he loves, it drives his fight for a future that he’s ultimately robbed of.
Ash is not someone who is “stronger” because he was abused–when he doesn’t disassociate or keeps himself busy, it haunts him and often threatens to break him. It’s the love of those around him, like Eiji’s, that acts as valuable support when he comes apart. Arguments on the “realism” of Ash surviving are pointless when much in Banana Fish–including Ash’s character stats–absolutely couldn’t care less about it. And to validate the idea that love indeed destroys–the letter being the distractor and what that does to Eiji, seen in the spin-off–or to answer “it would have been hard for this traumatized young boy to live after this” with “he’s better off dead” is beyond harmful.
It also can hardly be divorced from what it ultimately says about queer love, even if unintentional, which I’ve also talked about and won’t repeat besides: the show uses parallels between Max and Jessica and Ash and Eiji, but at the end, Max and Jessica get another chance. Ash and Eiji do not, and while Eiji “saves Ash’s soul” (which is undeniably important), going by the manga spin-off, it frankly feels like he was punished for it.
However, in the line of the show “negotiating” with the story, I have to wonder if there was any desire to change it. When Eiji tells Ash in his letter that “they’ll meet again” a big rainbow can be seen–it’s the most notable rainbow in the entire show, actually.
If you’re new around here, rainbows have been used repeatedly to code Ash and Eiji scenes in a romantic light (the scenes I’ve discussed aren’t even all of them). (Update: here’s a more complete list.) That by itself felt cruel to me at first. Then I saw the way they handled the official character status in the character chart of the official website, which marks everyone who died in the finale as dead with the exception of Ash. (There’s also the romantic and far more hopeful official art released the day after the finale aired.) Combined, it kind of feels like a loophole, a way to challenge Ash’s fate without changing the original story. Is it good enough? No. But I feel far better with this than without it, so you can be damn sure I’ll take it.
I feel like discussing Banana Fish‘s themes and the way the show tackles them could easily take several posts. Hell, I covered the entire first cour (didn’t cover the second mostly because I didn’t want to spend so much time dealing with things like Foxx and the death flags) and I’m sure I still left many things unsaid there. (I know I’m letting many things unsaid here! Characters I haven’t even mentioned! Yet this post is still hella long!) I’ve also made a separate post to talk about the way characters like Yut-lung and Ash embody both feminine and masculine archetypes.
While certain humorous scenes were regrettably cut, something the show deserves credit for is making the tone more consistent–especially visual-wise–which also makes for a more cohesive experience. Racial diversity has also been designed and animated with care, which is a far cry from some of the dated and frankly offensive designs found in the original.
River Phoenix’s Ash has its dedicated fans, but when it comes to main characters, the show’s committed to styles that lean modern while (in some cases more than others) retaining retro vibes. The biggest strengths can be seen with characters like Shorter, who comes alive so vibrantly, or Eiji, with such an appealing cuteness that when emphasized, it makes him stick out more and works better thematically.
There are several visual choices that merit their own discussion as well (like Eiji being the sun), even when they’re apparently tame, but I won’t do that now. Overall, I can say that the show commits to the brutal, straightforward nature of the story while adding subtle more touches, heavy with symbolism. It certainly makes for an interesting contrast.
While the show adapts a lot of the manga’s original panels into its storyboards, it creates its own atmosphere (there’s so much that could be said about lighting alone!). It’s a decision I agree with, both because I fell in love with the show’s aesthetic and atmosphere from the very first episode, and because trying to imitate the magic produced with black and white contrasts on a still page rarely works out well–it’s usually better to lean on the strengths of the medium and create a new appeal.
Romance & Intimacy
Ash and Eiji’s relationship is open enough to both allow ace readings and project the desire to see Ash heal enough to enjoy a consexual relationship with someone who will be patient and kind to him if he wants to. Both are choices with value, of course, and I see that as a strength. I’ve talked about this relationship extensively including their individual scenes in every episode of the cour I covered, so I won’t go there again.
I’ve mentioned how it can be questionable that the only alternative to gay predators is a desexualized romance though, so allow me to elaborate now.
Sexual violence has a strong presence in Banana Fish, with victims being not only young boys, but women as well. However, in the manga, there’s a heterosexual alternative of consexual sex: we don’t only know Charlie and Nadia are together, we are given enough information to know for sure they’re having sex. There’s also the alternative of consexual physical affection: we see Max and Jessica kiss.
Charlie and Nadia’s relationship is entirely cut from the show, most likely because there wasn’t enough time to include it and it never really goes anywhere substantial. (It regrettably means less Nadia screentime too but well, sacrifices.) Notably, Max and Jessica never kiss on screen either. There’s that time Ash, Max and Ibe steal the doctor and nurse’s clothes to escape, but it’s framed in a comedic light, so it doesn’t really count. The result: sexual violence has a strong presence in the show, but there’s not the potential added discomfort of only straight romances being afforded alternatives. It’s not ideal, but it’s still worth to notice.
Notably, this also means that the only “alternative,” the only time we see anything “sexual” on screen is when Ash kisses Eiji. It’s a kiss that originally happens for “plot reasons” and largely gets a comedic framing. However, the show frames it primarily as an act of trust and understanding, filling it with undertones of fun sensuality rather than something to laugh at.
The show adds other details that subtly addresses sensuality and intimacy as well, like the gun working as a metaphor for consent in multiple scenes–Eiji always asks, sometimes double-checks even, and never takes before Ash says yes.
One of the most notable changes is on episode 11, when Ash jokingly asks an enthusiastic Eiji if he “wants to look at the hair down there” only to back away when Eiji follows through. It briefly gets a comedic framing before getting into the most serious matters, and the visual choices plus the narrative highlights both the steps Ash is not ready to take and the obstacles that Eiji fears will come between them.
The change comes in the position the boys fall asleep, where Ash finds Eiji when he wakes up. We see Ash open and comfortable for a moment before he moves, only to find Eiji practically sleeping over and hugging his crotch, with his only reaction being a little blush.
They’re all details that don’t exactly change the story–again, the story’s never really changed–but still makes a difference. Overall, the message is the following: Ash is comfortable with Eiji, and in an intimate scenario, Eiji is a trustworthy partner who always puts Ash’s consent first.
This all ends way too damn soon if they get cruelly separated by an ending that has no good enough reason to be, which is why I choose to cling to that small silver lining (yeah, let’s call it that) we are being offered.
Negotiations like these manifest throughout the show, and while it’s not always good enough (Skip’s fate, to give an example I haven’t mentioned yet), at the very least it makes the experience more enjoyable. And at its best, watching the characters come alive in the world this show crafted felt nothing sort of exhilarating. This show reminded me why I’m so invested in the series so many times, which, for better or worse, is not changing any time soon.
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