by Rose Bridges,
How would you rate episode 22 of
Banana Fish ?
This episode is a weird mixed bag that reflects what a weird mixed bag Banana Fish has become as a series overall. Granted, there have always been ups and downs with this show, but the last few episodes have been more of a rollercoaster ride than usual. Episode 22, "As I Lay Dying," showcases the story's best and worst tendencies.
One of the most unfortunate parts of this episode comes right at the beginning, with an ultra-sexualized assault scene. Ash gets beaten up badly, and it's clearly taken a strong psychological toll on him—shown by his reaction to Cain checking his injuries once he returns. However, the camera ogles him during this scene, undercutting the weight of his trauma. It's just not a good idea to linger on a character's ripped muscles while he's being physically or sexually assaulted. There's a big difference between framing a character's body in a sexy or voyeuristic way and fetishizing their weakness or pain specifically. While it's more common to see female characters depicted this way in shows aimed at men, usually stuff featuring male characters aimed at women puts them in positions of power or views them neutrally. That's part of what made Hiroko Utsumi's work on Free! so much fun. So it's frustrating to see her embrace this more uncomfortable angle in Banana Fish.
That's especially true when the narrative acknowledges how horrible this experience is for Ash. While he tells a shocked Jessica how quickly he's learned to recover from assault, we know that this takes a deeper toll on him than he's willing to admit. He slaps Cain's hand away in an obvious trauma response. Only Eiji knows what to do, holding Ash in order to comfort him. There's a lot of "aww, Eiji really understands and cares about his boyfriend" content in this episode, which is still heartening, but it's belied by the way the show treats Ash in the scene beforehand, during his battle with Colonel Foxx—who remains a completely unnecessary character.
It's notable that Max gets similarly beat up later when he's captured by the National Mental Health Institute, along with a bunch of other guys from Ash, Cain, and Sing's gangs—and yet he's never sexualized like Ash was. As a young attractive protagonist, Ash is seen as a character that fans would want to view sexually even when he's suffering, while Max—an older father figure—is not. It really hits home the framing choices, especially when we know what that moment means to Ash. I've heard from manga readers that the anime does this significantly more than its source material. So for as much as I'd like the anime to be more adaptive, this definitely isn't what I meant. All these choices do is amplify the story's existing problems rather than diminish them.
All that said, there were still many things I enjoyed about this episode, namely the interactions between Yut Lung and Blanca. I felt like the last episode shortchanged them in order to focus on creating a far less interesting new villain (Foxx), so episode 22 felt like making up for lost time. Blanca is the only antagonist with a significant conscience, and Yut Lung is the only one with a sympathetic motivation. (Plus his brand of devious scheming is just fun to watch.) The push and pull between them this week is gratifying, with Blanca slowly realizing the pointlessness of Yut Lung's vendetta and just what Eiji means to Ash. There's a mood of "evil cannot comprehend good" pervading these interactions, with Yut Lung resenting Eiji because he holds Ash back, keeping him from becoming the evil crime lord Yut Lung wants him to be, the "ultimate challenge". But the real challenge to Yut Lung comes from Ash's conscience, which Eiji has strengthened through his emotional support. I don't know if that's exactly what Blanca realizes this week, but he does figure out that Yut Lung's plan to hurt Eiji is pointlessly cruel, based on some twisted personal vendetta.
Blanca also seems to be coming around in terms of Ash's "potential." The overarching theme with Ash's character arc has been whether it's possible for him to build a life outside of the crime world. Part of why Eiji has such a strong hold on him is he's one of the few people who insistently believes that Ash is capable of being more than a top gangster. I've talked about how Ash and Eiji have grown to emulate each other more, with Ash feeling more conflicted about all the violence he's had to commit and Eiji becoming more eager to commit violence in defense of Ash. (As of this episode, he seems pretty good at using a gun; I guess he takes after his boyfriend's ability to learn new skills quickly.) We finally learn that Eiji has taken to Ash's lifestyle in order to protect him from it. Eiji hopes that in learning how to kill for him, he can keep Ash away from violence—ultimately to the point of being able to take him to Japan to "start over." Ash deserves more than this cruel hand Dino has dealt for him.
I agree with Eiji on this, and I think it makes sense that other characters are coming around to his thinking. (Some may have already, like Ibe, who had taught Ash some rudimentary Japanese.) Frankly, the evidence is overwhelming that Ash can do whatever he wants with his life once he gets the Corsican mafia and Yut-Lung off his tail. The boy is super smart and knowledgeable as well as physically strong. He could use his skills to become whatever he wanted, given the opportunity. What's weird about Banana Fish is that its own plot keeps working against it. Every time Eiji and Ash have a moment of peace and hope, there's still danger lurking around the corner. It's a never-ending vortex of tragedy that inevitably sucks in Ash and everyone who cares about him, no matter what they do.
So the episode ends with Lao's guys—who were indeed secretly working for Yut Lung—betraying them by shooting Eiji on Yut Lung's orders. Everything suggests that Eiji is gone, from his dramatic last gasp before closing his eyes to the way the last shot lingers on the word "sayonara" on the practice scratch paper. I don't actually believe Eiji is dead, but it's the latest temporary tragedy in such a long string, and frankly, I'm getting sick of this cycle. With two episodes left, Banana Fish should be building toward a dramatic confrontation with the villains who actually matter: Dino Golzine and Yut Lung. Instead, we just keep getting new villains that take us further down more plot cul-de-sacs, mining more emotions for temporary thrills rather than building up anything larger or more meaningful. Banana Fish's character writing is still a huge step up from last week, but its pulpy plot and exploitative framing choices keep threatening to undermine the show's higher peaks.
Banana Fish is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
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