by Rose Bridges,
How would you rate episode 14 of
Banana Fish ?
Tender is the Night is maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous novel after that one we all had to read in 10th grade, The Great Gatsby. It also might be his most autobiographical novel—no easy feat in his case. The story was inspired by the psychiatric struggles of his wife Zelda and their relationship. So it's not a bad choice of title for this week's Banana Fish, where Ash is stuck in the hospital and it seems that more than a few unsavory forces want to use that vulnerability to their advantage. Tender is the Night is also Fitzgerald's last completed novel, which could be some foreshadowing of this episode's very deceptive ending.
First though, we get 20 agonizing minutes of Ash and Eiji separated. After they seemed to unconsciously call out to each other before Ash's fight last week, now they're forced apart by the hospital staff and Yut Lung, who's back and creepy as ever. He gets Sing and Eiji released from the jail cell where everyone at the scene of Ash's crime is being detained, but uses it to keep Eiji behind his own bars while he figures out what to do with him. As Yut Lung himself says, Eiji annoys him just as much as he elicits feelings of protectiveness in Ash. I'm sure this has nothing to do with the fact that right before Yut Lung said this, Eiji reminded him that he's a few years older than he is. He's a shady criminal mastermind, but he's still a petty teenager, and that's why Yut Lung is so much more fun than Banana Fish's other villains. I'm glad he's back. I wish the "progress" he's made on his plan against his brothers didn't feel so sudden, after previous episodes built that up so much.
Eiji in peril basically means "it must be Thursday," and he's in considerably less danger from Yut Lung this time than he was in the past. Still, it's frustrating to watch as he calls out for Ash but gets continually stopped from doing anything to help him and vice versa. A pretty early indicator that at least some of the people minding Ash are not all they seem is how hesitant they seem to be about allowing certain visitors. Then again, telling Ash that only lawyers are allowed to see him could also be a way to spare him the agony of finding out where Eiji is right now—and why he can't see him. All of these two boys crying out for each other happens between a new OP and ED that are somehow even gayer than ever. Seriously, along with the visuals of Ash and Eiji running toward each other and giving longing glances, the lyrics literally spell out that they're in love.
Probably the most important thread this week is the explicit detailing of Ash's trauma. We see his flashbacks to Shorter's death and the deep guilt he feels about that through his dreams—and how this parallels fears about Eiji's death. In his nightmares, a vision of Eiji bleeding from the neck literally turns into Shorter doing the same, and back and forth again. Ash seems to be haunted by being forced to kill others in the process of protecting Eiji. That even includes other people he cares about like Shorter, even if we know that Shorter's death was a mercy kill. Shorter still put himself at risk out of his own desire to protect Eiji. I appreciate the way that Banana Fish doesn't just let this go, giving Shorter's death more gravity and realism than it could have had. As Banana Fish has steered away from the "shocking" rape threats, it's revealed a heart-rendingly realistic understanding of how trauma impacts individuals.
Related to this is the way the episode explores Ash's distrust of the justice system (something more than validated by this week's ending). I've seen reports on Twitter about how Japanese fans see Banana Fish as newly relevant in the age of #MeToo—how well it portrays the lifelong impact that assault can have on victims, and how Ash as a male character created by a female writer reflects women's fears and reactions to sexual assault. (That's not to say that men can't be rape victims; we've seen some high-profile male victims come forward as a part of #MeToo. But more that Banana Fish reflects a particularly "female" attitude toward the issue, through its creator. This is particularly true given how Ash feels like it's something he has to worry about around every corner, an expectation that haunts even women who haven't been assaulted.) I think the way that his traumatic history has impacted Ash can hit close-to-home for some viewers even in the best of times. But the news events of the past few weeks make that little reminder hit particularly hard for American viewers. The justice system both here and in Japan chronically fails sexual assault victims, and we've just seen an incredibly frustrating example of that in America. If Banana Fish is part of a larger cultural reckoning in Japan around this issue, that's a real sign of cultural progress for all of us.
So on to that ending. In all of Ash's battery of tests at the hospital, one that stands out is an "intelligence test." Ash gets a chance to show off his super-genius math skills in spite of a lack of "formal" schooling (although I'm sure Golzine hired lots of tutors for him), and his results show a super-genius I.Q. In the real world, high I.Q. isn't necessarily a "superpower" like that, and the test in general is somewhat discredited as speaking more to racial and class subdivisions than raw intellectual power, which we are still not sure how to precisely "test." But this is fiction, and it's a sign to Ash's enemies that he's even more valuable than they thought. After Ash fends off an assassin disguised as a nurse, he's kidnapped by "FBI agents" who are clearly more than they seem. Ash seeing through them is shown as a sign of his super-genius, but any viewer could figure that out pretty quickly. Meanwhile, they "fake" his death by sending out a news report that he died on the way back from the hospital.
Even if you haven't read the manga or don't know spoilers for it, it's pretty obvious that Ash isn't actually dead. Despite Banana Fish's high body count, Ash is the center of the story, and killing him off at this point makes no sense. Plus, we would at least get to see a moment that shocking. The offscreen nature of this incident and the focus on other characters' reactions makes it just a cruel cliffhanger. I'm sure Eiji will be in suspense for a while, and we'll see the drawn-out agony of his reaction. But the real mystery is why these guys feel the need to tell the world that Ash is gone. I guess we'll see.
It's weird how that final plot point makes the entirety of "Tender is the Night" just feel like setup for that twist in retrospect. This is another one of Banana Fish's "slow down" episodes that takes time to explore the dynamics between its characters. Unlike previous installments, we don't get tender moments between Ash and Eiji—quite the opposite, in fact. But we do learn more about who they are to each other, as well as about their relationships with other people orbiting them, like Max, Sing and Yut Lung. The fact that this episode succeeds so well is a testament to how far Banana Fish has come. It no longer just seems like nice moments in between cruel twists. Those "breather" moments are more of an end unto themselves.
Banana Fish is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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