by Rose Bridges,
How would you rate episode 15 of
Banana Fish ?
Banana Fish delivers a fascinating episode this week. It seemingly shifts us into a whole new arc of the story and includes lots of revelations about the latest developments in Banana Fish as a drug. At the same time, some of those reveals go to some rather silly places. This series has always shown a predilection for pulpy twists, but episode 15 may be Banana Fish at its pulpiest.
It juxtaposes those plot developments with some deepening of its characters too. The most surprising aspect may be what it does with Yut Lung. We've always known that there was more to Moon Dragon than his villainy, since he's easily the most interesting and nuanced antagonist in the series so far. Still, I like the way these last few episodes have deepened his character by exploring his connection to Ash. Yut Lung sees Ash as similar to him, super-smart and tough yet also beaten down by their cruel upbringings. He's right in the sense that he's basically Ash without a moral center.
While Ash cares about the people around him—particularly Eiji, his "one weak spot"—Yut Lung is motivated more out of spite toward his abusive older brothers. (Not that Ash doesn't have plenty of spite toward his abusers like Golzine, but that's Moon Dragon's only motivation.) That means Yut Lung has nothing to lose, which makes him "stronger" with the side effect of having seemingly even more of a death wish than Ash does. Ash's love for Eiji at least makes his life worth living. Yut Lung seems to accept the idea of Eiji killing him and then mocks Eiji for not doing the deed. It's clear he sees Eiji as weak—which frustrates him as much as it motivates Ash to protect Eiji—but he also almost seems to wish that Eiji would kill him. It makes him a tragic character and lends him a certain amount of audience sympathy that Banana Fish's other villains lack. Combine that with how much fun Moon Dragon-kun is to watch in action, and he's long past the point of no return for me.
What's weird about this character stuff is how little it focuses on Ash's supposed "death." That's largely because everyone refuses to accept it. The closest we get is the autopsy scene, with the shock of seeing his body there. The spectator characters are shocked as well, but they quickly figure out that it's a fake. (MAPPA sure drew him convincingly, though.) That kind of makes the whole scene meaningless, and while I can see the more streetwise Yut Lung and Sing knowing better than to believe Ash is dead, not getting a bigger reaction out of Eiji is surprising to me. Sure, he's upset, but he bounces back to do what he needs to do to escape—something Eiji struggles with at the best of times—pretty fast. Perhaps that's his unique way of dealing with grief. Meanwhile, he's dreaming of Ash in a way that almost suggests a special connection between the two of them. Perhaps that's how Eiji knows; he'd just feel it in a far more visceral way if Ash was really dead. I like the way that Banana Fish has used those moments of the two dreaming of each other to keep the "boyfriends" connected when they're far apart.
Ash would normally be thinking of Eiji too, but he seems a little preoccupied at the moment. He's been shuffled off to the "National Mental Health Institute," a legitimate-sounding government agency that advertises itself as helping criminals with mental health problems. Of course, it's really a place for experimenting on criminals in ways that they'd never get away with if they weren't so secretive. When Ash meets a dim-witted but calm prisoner, he's told that he used to be a violent rapist and murderer until being dosed with the latest version of Banana Fish, B1. It doesn't have violent side effects, just the mind control powers, but progressive doses do reduce the subject's intelligence, so they want to find a way to eliminate that by experimenting on Ash's genius brain.
This is where the "pulpiness" that I mentioned before comes up. There's the imagery purely designed to shock us, from the brains in vats—one of them belonging to Shorter—to Dr. Alexis Dawson now reduced to playing with blocks in his "new lab" as a victim of too many B1 doses. And the whole "reduced intelligence" side effect is right out of B-grade sci-fi, as well as wasting another character we like with an excessively cruel fate. It also puts the focus back on how unbelievably awesome Ash is; his IQ has even jumped up 20 points since the stated one last episode. None of this is necessarily bad writing per se, and it's par for the course given this conspiracy plot. It certainly had me on the edge of my seat as I watched, but it does make it harder to take the show's plot seriously. It seems like Akemi Yoshida just threw whatever wild ideas she could come up with at the wall. So often with Banana Fish, it seems like the heartfelt character writing—the stuff that really shows why this series is so influential and beloved—and the gang-focused conspiracy plots come from totally different shows. The tonal whiplash between the two can leave you reeling.
Ash's weird seduction of the guards also played into that feeling. We've seen before how Ash uses his wiles to his advantage, so that's not a surprise, but it's also a return to the camera-ogling that was a problem earlier in the series: Hiroko Utsumi really seems to want to put the audience in the same position as those guards given the way she frames Ash. (The music during those moments doesn't help either, even if it felt like it was laughing along with Ash.) It made me uncomfortable in a way that some of Ash's similar efforts earlier did not. Ash's magical ability to Turn Every Older Man Gay also feels like something out of a pulp novel or a slash fanfiction. I'm glad he's able to use it to get out of that creepy "institute" at least, presumably back in the direction of Eiji and friends.
I hope we see the boys back together soon. It's been weird to have two episodes focused on them apart with that new romantic OP and ED bookending every episode. At least Eiji got to meet Sing, who feels like a kindred spirit. For all that Sing is caught up in this criminal underworld as much as Ash or Yut Lung, he still has his good spirits about him. I'm curious to hear more about him, hopefully with less of the cheesy cliché Chinese musical flourishes, like the guzheng that accompanied his and Yut Lung's appearances these past two weeks. With those more personal scenes between Eiji and our two main Chinese gang leaders, Banana Fish revealed the meaty substance that makes it such a timeless story. With Ash's side of the story, it showed it still has a long way to go to surpass its worst impulses.
Banana Fish is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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