by Rose Bridges,
How would you rate episode 11 of
Banana Fish ?
If the last few episodes of Banana Fish were a bit much for you, episode 11 acts as a breather. Ash resettles with his gang in New York, he and Eiji get "comfy", and the focus shifts from plot developments to character revelations. Stuff still happens, but it's largely set-up for the next arc. After lots of action and tragedy the past few weeks, it's nice to relax for a bit and watch these boys comfort each other. And if you're along the ride because of the Ash/Eiji relationship—which I'm guessing is most of you—"The Beautiful and the Damned" is a real treat.
For all the seedy fascination its drug plot demands, this show keeps plugging along because of its characters. The heroes are so likable (even when they're doing awful things!), the villains despicable but (at least in Yut Lung's case) fun to watch, and the relationships between all of them so strong. Nowhere is this more obvious than its central pairing, which this episode seems set to explore. First, in a hilarious sequence at the beginning, we see the wildly different way that Ash treats Eiji from everyone else around him. Ash's gang is terrified of his temper, enough to refuse to wake him up from his two-hour nap on time. This surprises Eiji, who is used to the softer side of Ash. The gang members are likewise surprised when Eiji literally slaps Ash awake, and their boss reacts with little more than grumbling and this priceless face. Later, in a conversation between Ibe and Max, Max thinks it's curious that Ash and Eiji have gravitated toward each other when they seem so different. Ibe sees that Eiji has brought out the part of himself that's in Ash. Ash can only really act like a teenager when he's around Eiji.
Ash and Eiji also get some moments alone, where Ash allows himself to be vulnerable with him in a way that he can't with anyone else. He confesses a really silly childhood fear—pumpkins—which gets Eiji howling with laughter, given how incongruous this seems from Ash's hardened attitude toward everything else. It's yet another reminder that Ash is still a kid deep down, even if that only comes out around Eiji. Then there are some more physical moments between them that the show doesn't hesitate to hover over longingly. (For the record, this framing is straight out of the manga.) "Two bros chillin' in the hot tub five feet apart 'cause they're not gay" don't hold each other like this or fall asleep in each other's laps like this. Ash and Eiji may never explicitly state the nature of their feelings, but it's evident through their actions in a way that would never be in doubt if they were a man and a woman. Plus, there's the fact that Eiji gets more than a little excited at the thought of Ash dropping his pants.
Frankly, this central relationship is most of what makes Banana Fish work. The conversations about rape and abuse are better than some others in its subgenre, but I can think of plenty of other anime that handle these elements leagues better. (Granted, most of these have come after Banana Fish, so I can see why it stood out in the 1980s.) The drug plot, violence, and gang elements feel kind of silly and juvenile when you stop to think about them for too long. ("MK Ultra but For Real" sounds like a plot from a creative writing high school class.) It's the character relationships that elevate this show beyond its genre trappings, and Ash and Eiji form the show's beating heart. Their bond transcends even their other friendships and familial-esque relationships in the series. Love and desire don't need kisses or sex scenes to communicate themselves. Ash and Eiji show their love in everything they do. It's obvious if you've watched much romance anime how much the language evokes imagery of devoted couples. Denying the romantic implications makes Banana Fish as a show less interesting to me, and it also makes many of their interactions nonsensical.
I want to come back to the way that Banana Fish discusses rape and abuse, especially in these private conversations about Ash's history and trauma. There have been times when the story's really stretched my suspension of disbelief, as in the revelation about his rapist baseball coach when he was a child. The kind of victim-blaming he receives from the small town really doesn't feel like a believable reaction to an 8-year-old boy being assaulted by an adult man. (When people do take the perpetrator's side in child rape cases, they tend to blame whatever adults they think are "coaching" the kids, not the kid himself.) His homophobic dad's advice to "just take it" feels even more unbelievable. Banana Fish makes a lot more sense when you see it through the lens of its adult female writer and audience, reflecting and processing their female experiences with sexual assault through a male character. This is yet another thing it has in common with other BL genre works and a lot of slash fanfiction in general. There's been much ink spilled about how BL is a way for women to process their feelings about men at a distance, usually in the context of romantic fantasies, but I wonder how much that can be said about women writing about sexual violence against men as well. It's something I've started thinking about over the last few weeks, but I definitely want to explore further in future reviews as I see how Banana Fish further handles this topic.
Regardless, we get to see Ash be vulnerable in Eiji's arms. This makes it all the weirder in the later part of the episode when he transforms back into his precocious, super-hacker, genius mob boss self. At least the spyware is one of the more believable technology updates. (Though it begs the question, if Ash has had spyware on Dino's computer this whole time, why wasn't he aware of some of the mob's other plans? People put everything on computers these days, after all.) The theme of the episode seems to be how Ash can show so many different faces to so many different people. With some, he's the criminal mastermind, steepling his hands Gendo Ikari-style as he walks them through his latest airtight scheme. With Eiji, he's a normal, sad, hurt teenage boy, who can joke and sob and confess silly childish fears like pumpkins. It's the many sides to Ash that make this story so fascinating, giving viewers the hope that he can find a more authentic self underneath all that trauma one day.
Banana Fish is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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