by Rose Bridges,
How would you rate episode 21 of
Banana Fish ?
Is one sweet romance at the center of a story enough to redeem a series packed with dated, problematic, and pulpy clichés? That's the question I keep asking myself when it comes to Banana Fish. Few episodes put this in quite as stark relief as episode 21, which features some sweet moments between Ash and Eiji, and between Max and his ex-wife-who-still-carries-a-torch-for-him, Jessica. Yet everything else about the episode fed into its worst impulses, including some that really undercut Banana Fish's potential impact as representation.
The most obvious issue is the way the show depicts textually gay men. Ash and Eiji's bond was ahead of its time in some ways for the genre, even given its largely subtextual nature. The strength of the emotional connection between these boys overcomes a lot of frustrations about their lack of explicit gayness. Romances are more than a checklist of milestones, and I've also seen asexual viewers talk about how they find the chaste gay romance validating. And it's certainly realistic that someone with as much sexual violence in his past as Ash would take a while before being ready for consensual sex with someone he actually cares about. He needs room to process his trauma. All of that is fine, but unfortunately the series repeatedly suggests that all gay men who do want sex from other men are sexual predators.
I don't expect queer characters in anime to use specific labels to identify themselves, which is less important than the emotional honesty in their personal journeys anyway. I certainly don't expect on-screen sex; most good romance series have ways of conveying the connection between their characters without actually showing the consummation. But I just can't get over how the chasteness of Ash and Eiji's relationship is repeatedly contrasted with a world where gay bars are fronts for child sex trafficking, where straight men can't go in without being sexually harassed, and where every gay-identified man is also a pedophile. Whether intentionally or not, Banana Fish does seem to be guilty of pandering to the taste of fujoshi while making it clear it doesn't think too highly of real-life gay people. The manga reflects a viewpoint that sees gay experiences as pulpy tropes to toy around with for maximum melodrama, not harmful stereotypes that have real-life consequences for LGBT people.
That's not to say there aren't things I like about this episode, from the way that Ash and Eiji seem to be growing closer to the way the episode explores Sing, and even Yut Lung and Blanca's brief scene. Their relationship has a lot of fascinating potential that I wish this series would dig into more, with Blanca seemingly trying to act as Yut Lung's conscience—and being repeatedly rejected on that front. But I feel like it's hard to keep making excuses for a series with this constant background radiation of disrespect for marginalized groups of people. It's not just about LGBT characters, either; Cain's gang is treated as disposable, with increasingly lurid scenes of black men being brutally murdered. That's generally been true for the non-white characters who aren't major players like Eiji, Yut-Lung or Sing; and there seems to be a reckoning coming for Sing's gang as well.
On a broader note, there's also a frustrating tendency for Banana Fish to treat conflict as an end unto itself, without giving viewers a reason to care about the repercussions. There's no need to introduce more bad guys with so few episodes left, while shortchanging the more interesting villains we already have. Even the two-dimensional Golzine is miles more interesting—if only for his history with Ash—than any of these new guys like Froggy or Colonel Foxx. They're basically just more of the same evil child molesters we've already seen mowed down repeatedly in this show. Digging into Golzine or Yut Lung further would be the better choice, but instead Banana Fish chooses to throw more wild twists into the plot by adding more villains to the pile. It feels repetitive and boring at this point. How many times have we seen Ash dramatically surrender only to beat his way out by the next episode? Shouldn't the story be narrowing down to a final confrontation between the villains we already have? There's an overwhelming sense of "AND THEN!" to this show that keeps it from creating more meaningful conflict and character development.
Anime fans like faithful adaptations, and MAPPA is likely hamstrung by this expectation. I'm pretty new to Banana Fish, so I get that I'm coming from a different place than a long-time fan of the manga, but this episode more than anything makes me wish that the studio had gone for something more transformative that really brought the story into the modern day—not just the same story with smartphones. That includes engaging with the parts of Banana Fish that haven't aged so well. While a lot of its pulpier elements are essential to the plot, some of the crass stereotypes and wanton murder of sexual and racial minorities could be diminished with without fundamentally changing the story. Maybe if this anime is a big enough success, we'll get another reboot in ten years or so.
Banana Fish is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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