Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Banana Fish
by Jason Thompson, Sep 19th 2013
Episode CLVIII: Banana Fish
"I can't have a relationship with someone from the straight world. Because the people from my world just won't let it happen."
I discovered Banana Fish in Frederik Schodt's 1996 book Dreamland Japan, and I never got it out of my head. In Schodt's 1983 book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (the best book on manga ever) Schodt covered literally everything about manga, but in the sequel Dreamland he focused on his favorite titles, such as Akimi Yoshida's 1985-1994 shojo epic. A violence-packed crime adventure set in '80s New York City, full of hot young men, corrupt millionaires and hardened street thugs, it's got serious action an serious character. It has never been adapted into an anime, live-action series, or anything but a radio drama, but I've heard more than one Japanese person from that generation tell a blonde American youth, "You look just like Ash from Banana Fish."
New York, 1985: Ash Lynx (not his real name) is a 17-year-old leader of a gang. His group is one of the toughest on the Lower East Side, a mix of white and black kids, united by Ash's criminal skills and charisma. He's got platinum blonde hair and green eyes, his IQ is estimated at 200, and he's got incredible aim with a gun. Even his resentful underling Arthur, whom Ash scarred in a knife fight years ago, acknowledges his skills. Ash's past is a mystery even to many of his henchmen, but he has some connection to Dino Golzine, the East Coast boss of the Corsican Mafia. "Papa" Dino, as repulsive as he is elegant, has a special affection for the boy, and often offers him work. But Ash does his best to avoid Dino; he has no interest in mafia wealth and power.
What Ash cares about is his family. For years, Ash has faithfully tended, fed and bathed his big brother, Griffin Callenreese, a Vietnam vet who came back from the war in a vegetative coma. (In 1985, the Vietnam War was almost as recent as the Iraq War is today.) 12 years ago, Griffin went mad and gunned down four members of his own unit, before being left paralyzed, only able to mumble the words "I saw it…Banana Fish…" For years, Ash has wondered at the meaning of those words. Then, one day, Ash hears the sound of machine gun fire, and a man stumbles towards him down an alley, dying of gunshot wounds. The man falls into Ash's arms, gives him a strange pellet of a powdery substance, then dies. His last words: "Forty-two Westwood…Los Angeles…Banana Fish…" With his first clue in years, Ash sets out to find what happened to his brother, on a mission of discovery and revenge.
Picture Ciphercrossed with Grand Theft Auto. Speedlines and sexual tension and angry bishonen, back before this sort of thing became overdone and jumped the shark, before Fake and Yellow and Togainu no Chi. Like last week's manga, To Terra…, it mixes traditionally shojo and shonen elements, but Banana Fish is a much better story than that manga: more controlled, more surprising. As Fred Schodt wrote, "The story's fans included both genders…Banana Fish was one of the few girls' manga a red-blooded Japanese male could admit to reading without blushing." Myself, I swear I never blushed, but I may have sniffled, and I oooohed and aaahed (especially in that one scene in volume 12, oh, that scene…). Back in 1996 when I first saw Banana Fish, it was one of the first times I'd seen a manga set in America, or a manga with a gay/bishonen theme. But of course, concept is 5% and execution is 95%. Banana Fish has got the execution, and execution-style killings, too.
The first thing that jumps out is the art. Banana Fish looks like Kasuhiro Otomo's Akira, with its skyscrapers, guns, gangs and mysterious M.I.B.s in dark glasses. Admittedly, Yoshida's art isn't as detailed as Akira or even Cipher—early on the cityscapes look unfortunately like the product of a high school drafting class—but it improves steadily, and by the second half of the series it's quite good. (If Yoshida were George Lucas, maybe she'd go back and insert CG backgrounds, Star Wars Special Edition style.) There's also lots of action—major action setpieces, with gun battles that run for chapters and chapters. Some other, wimpier manga with crime themes keep the violence offscreen; but Banana Fish machine-guns the scenery in subways, skyscrapers, the sewers, even a fight scene in the Museum of Natural History. When Ash has to kill people, he does: no Disney Villain Deaths here. ("What do you think I am? I'm a murderer, okay? I kill people!")
Banana Fish's New York is a violent, exotic land. Otomo himself also wrote stories in New York—his famous-but-never-translated-because-Otomo-doesn't-want-it-to-be-translated collection Sayonara Nippon was published in 1981—but they probably weren't a direct influence on Yoshida because she'd already written stories set in America, like the 8-volume California Story in 1978. New York manga were just part of the zeitgeist: take for example Mad Bull 34 (ANN's description: "Two assholes indulge in nonstop violence and misogyny, then the reader realizes that this author previously wrote Lone Wolf and Cub and begins drinking away his sorrow.") Crazed Vietnam vets were also a meme, and incidentally, a disturbed World War II vet is the main character in the story that gives the manga its name, J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." (Ironically, since Ash himself prefers Ernest Hemingway.) On the surface, the story itself has nothing to do with Yoshida's Banana Fish, but on a deeper level, both the manga and the story involve life's cruelty, and traumatic experiences, and sudden death.
As guides to New York City, this alluring, dangerous, gun-filled world, Yoshida introduces two reader-insertion characters: Shunichi Ibé and Eiji Okumura, Japanese journalists. Shunichi, about 30 years old, is in N.Y. to do a story on American crime, not an easy job for him since he's intimidated just walking down the street surrounded by tall white dudes with Anchorman mustaches. ("Is everyone blonde here?") His 19-year-old assistant, Eiji, is more adventurous. When a police contact directs them to an underground bar where they meet Ash, Eiji goes right up to Ash and says hello and asks to touch his gun. "Is it real? Have you killed anyone with it?" Immediately afterward, Eiji is worried he's gone too far, but Ash just smiles and lets him handle his weapon. Later he finds out he's the first person Ash has ever let near his gun. Ash is amused by Eiji's innocent friendliness, his natural curiosity. Eiji can't believe that this 17-year-old boy, who's younger than him, is a gang leader and killer. ("He's not exactly how I imagined…in the yakuza, you usually assume the ugliest guy is in charge.") He's fascinated by Ash.
Actually, everyone is fascinated by Ash. (Random trivia: according to Akimi Yoshida, Ash was modeled on tennis player Stefan Edberg, Eiji on actor Hironobu Nomura, and Ash's rival Arthur on Sting, all circa the '80s, of course.) To sample just a few quotes about Ash, various characters tell us that:
* "That guy ain't no kitten…more like a man-eating tiger!"
* "A lynx is a lynx. He can't be made into a housecat."
* "No wonder they call you 'the lynx'."
* "One of my lieutenants said you reminded him of a jaguar. Deadly monster of the jungle, feared by all for its ferocity. And yet…its appearance is incredibly beautiful."
Tired of the lynx theme? How about this:
* "That magnetic presence of his…he's a natural leader! He commands fear and respect…and absolute power…"
* "Presence…meet him once and live, you'd never forget him. Sharp as a razor, taped under your sleeve."
* "Strength and intellect. Nerves of steel. Matchless grace and beauty. He has it all!"
* "When I talk to Alex and the guys, I can see how much they admire you. They believe in you…almost the way other people believe in God. If you were a God, you'd be an Asura…or as we pronounce it in Japanese, an Ashura."
* "I want to see Ash become the Prince of Darkness! A true Satan, with neither blood nor tears to shed!"
Yes, Banana Fish slips into the manga bad habit of having the side characters remind us how cool the main character he is.OTOH, Akimi Yoshida gets a free pass because Ash really is that cool. When Ash is targeted in a shootout and Eiji gets kidnapped by a rival gang, Ash goes out on a limb to rescue him. When Ash needs a hand, Eiji returns the favor, risking his life to save his new friend. Soon Eiji isn't just a journalist, he's an accomplice, and they're on the run from the bad guys together. Unfortunately, to Ash's enemies, his friendship with Eiji is his biggest weakness. ("When he's with the Japanese boy, he loses his wildness. He goes from ferocious bobcat to domesticated tabby, and his habitual wariness is replaced by purring contentment.")
There's another way that this manga is like Akira: they both involve young criminals who discover conspiracies involving mysterious, experimental, brain-altering drugs. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that Banana Fish is a drug, a psychological weapon…and Dino Golzine, Ash's mega-rich gangster mentor, is the manufacturer. When Dino realizes that Ash has ended up in possession of the drug prototype, he uses the full power of his criminal empire to destroy him and bend him to his will. In prison, Ash meets Max Lobo, an ex-cop and journalist who knew his brother Griffin during the war, and together they investigate the secret of Banana Fish. They travel to Cape Cod, then to Los Angeles, tracking clues. But the conspiracy turns out to be bigger than they could have guessed, stretching deep into the military and government, like The Manchurian Candidateor the real-life Project Artichoke. Corruption is everywhere. "I have intimate knowledge of what kind of sick perverts are running this country," Ash sneers.
"Intimate knowledge" isn't a metaphor. Ash, we soon discover, is a repeated victim of rape, having been first sexually abused at age eight by a neighbor (whom he later killed). Later, he was forced into prostitution and child porn, and eventually ended up as the private toy of Dino Golzine, who still lusts after his former concubine. Later, in prison, he is targeted by the other inmates, who want him to be a "princess," and not in a Mikiyo Tsuda way, either. The mid-'80s in America was marked by highly publicized child abuse scandals and child disappearances, such as the case of Kevin Collins. In Banana Fish, the ultra-wealthy frequent a hidden sex club ("Young boys are the main dish. Child prostitution."). Banana Fish has no onscreen sex, not even frontal nudity, but the intense dialogue makes the horror of the situation very clear: Ash's life has been one of continual sexual violence.
Yoshida depicts rape (always offscreen) entirely as trauma and never as titillation. In fact (SPOILERS THROUGHOUT WHOLE PARAGRAPH) there aren't any overt depictions of sex in this manga, and certainly not any positive ones. This may be confusing to some in that Banana Fish is considered influential on the Boy's Love genre and was praised by Fred Schodt for its positive depiction of gay relationships. There definitely is a relationship between Eiji and Ash, but it is essentially nonsexual, something like a platonic romance, soulmates, best friends. They spend part of the manga sleeping in a room with two single beds, side by side with a nightlamp between them. The sensuality in this manga is in Ash teaching Eiji how to shoot a gun, or Ash and Eiji's friendly, teasing, couple-like dialogue. They don't really talk about love, or about being gay (though the manga is aware of the existence of homosexuality, and makes a brief reference to gay marriage). I won't spoil whether they kiss.
Perhaps Ash's experience with sex is too negative, too tortured, for him to have a loving relationship; or perhaps, an equally valid decision, Yoshida just doesn't want to risk eroticizing the manga's heavy, bleak element of offscreen nonconsensual sex by adding an element of sex-as-love. (And/or perhaps Bessatsu Shōjo Comic wouldn't have let her show sex anyway.) Maybe most importantly, physical sex doesn't matter compared to the emotional connection between the two. Ash is the hardened gangster, and Eiji's never fired a gun, but Eiji becomes Ash's rock. Eiji's is Ash's moral compass, his emotional support. He makes him forget the crimes he has committed and suffered. ("There've been countless times in my life when I thought I'd be better off dead, that nothing could be worse than what was happening to me right then…") Of course, Ash wants to protect Eiji, too, and deep down he's scared that Eiji will die because of him. At one point Eiji tries to convince Ash to move to Japan, where they can be free from the violence of America:
Ash: "I always wanted to live a better life than this. A more normal life."
Eiji: "You can, Ash! It isn't too late. Come to Japan with me! You can do anything you want!"
When I'm typing it like this, it sounds really blunt and obvious, but luckily Yoshida is a much more subtle writer than I am.
Once Eiji becomes Ash's companion, they're in it to the end, fighting against an array of ruthless criminals, mercenaries and gangsters. Around volumes 6-7, the manga hits its stride and stays on course 'till the end. On the surface, it's an action-suspense manga, not really a romance manga at all. But maybe that just makes it more romantic, to quote onetime Banana Fish editor, Carl Gustav Horn:
"There's nothing wrong with manga that make eroticism and teasing their focus, but if you want to make character and narrative your focus, I think you have to show some self-discipline as a creator. If you do so, you may also achieve more profound effects than if you just went for the fan service and easy thrills. I think some Banana Fish fans would argue that Ash and Eiji's relationship ends up being much more romantic because Yoshida places the emphasis on the struggles they face together, not the snuggles." ^_^
Viz translated Banana Fish starting in 1997, when it was chosen as one of the launch titles for their crime/adventure/sex manga magazine Pulp. (Banana Fish is so manly, it passed as a seinen manga.) The series was left unfinished when Pulp ended in 2002, but Viz redid the first few volumes with a new translation and finally finished the 19-volume series in 2007. Several editors worked on Banana Fish over its 10-year American run; my favorite among them is Carl Horn, who now works at Dark Horse. In typical Carl style, he gave it a colloquial translation, emphasizing readability over literalism, and made the dialogue as tough-sounding and realistic as possible. If anyone looked at Banana Fish and thought that the characters were too bishi to be real gang members, Carl did his best to break that notion. Take this dialogue from volume 1:
* "He's stupid where it counts. Real smart would be to go buckwild with that gun, and just fuck who's in the way. If he did that, those assholes would cut as soon as he let two fly."
Unfortunately, Carl had to leave the series after volume 1. Compare his lines to these quotes from volume 2 and 3, when another editor was working on the series and Viz was going through their "We can't use swear words ever" phase:
* "Your little brother may have gotten himself into some deep doo-doo!"
* "I was crapping bricks, dammit!"
Luckily, like Dan Savage says, it gets better. Ian Robertson, one of Carl's successors as editor, brought back the quality and did a translation that's almost as entertaining and hardcore as Carl's. ("I'm sick of everybody makin' that little punk into the angel of death! He's just a kid who's good at puttin' them nice quarter-size holes…into guys who think they're at the god damned arcade!")
Banana Fish is a little too serious to be enjoyed as '80s kitsch like, say, The Warriors, and it's mostly aged fairly well. It's not free of racial issues. Most of the main American characters are tall, wavy-haired blondes (at first I had trouble telling them apart). There are African-Americans, some good, some evil, most of them less stereotypical than the first one we meet, Ash's friend Skip ("Call me Skip or skipper. Not that fool on Gilligan's Island, though. More like Cap'n Stubing…pimp of the high seas!"). Apart from African-Americans, white folks, the Japanese, and a few Jewish characters, the biggest ethnic group is the Chinese, represented mostly by the Chinese gangster Yut Lung and his minions, who become major players in the second half of the manga. While not totally evil, the graceful, sinister Yut Lung embodies several Chinese stereotypes: "The Chinese are taught to move quietly from infancy," he boasts, and later he points out that he is heir to the Chinese arts of poisoning, "five thousand years of Chinese intrigue." As for female characters, they're almost nonexistent. One of the few strong women characters is Jessica, Max Lobo's ex-wife, who turns out to be handy with a gun and also owns the magazine Playwoman (Jessica to Ash: "Hey, you're pretty cute. How'd you like to model for my magazine in five or six years?")
Banana Fish is a shojo manga for people who don't like shojo manga, and for everyone, frankly.It's got loathsome villains, violent deaths, cross-cultural mishaps, beautiful men and pure love, set in the violent world of America in the '80s. Of the 24 favorite manga artists and stories Frederik Schodt wrote about in Dreamland Japan, 8 have now been published, including King Terry, Kazuichi Hanawa, Suehiro Maruo, Kaiji Kawaguchi, Shigeru Mizuki, Yoshikazu Ebisu and Yoshiharu Tsuge. (Admittedly, some are listed only for novelty value; I don't think anyone's going to be publishing the Aum Shinrikyo cult recruitment manga anytime soon.) Which will be the next dream manga to be translated: Milk Morizono's sex stories? Murasaki Yamada's classic shojo manga? Or Seiki Tsuchida's Henshû-ô, "King of Editors"? Like Akimi Yoshida, I know Fred Schodt wouldn't steer me wrong.
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