Banana Fish
Episodes 1-3

by Rose Bridges,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Banana Fish ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Banana Fish ?

How would you rate episode 3 of
Banana Fish ?

I should probably say right out of the gate that I'm an enthusiastic newbie to the world of Banana Fish. While I haven't read the manga it's based on, I'm familiar with its reputation as a major work of 1980s shoujo and BL. As a gay fan of both those genres, I'm curious to see how something that was so important to the exposure of gay portrayals in manga gets reworked for a post-Yuri!!! on Ice audience—especially since it's being produced by the same studio, MAPPA. Lastly, I loved Hiroko Utsumi's direction for the first two seasons of Free!, so I relish seeing her immense talents put toward something with a little more grit to it.

Banana Fish is a cut above many of its peers from that era, making it a strong choice for a high-profile production today. Right out of the gate, it delivers an intriguing plot and a fascinating cast of characters. Even if you're not that into the show's developing romance, Banana Fish makes a strong first impression as a crime drama. It drops question after twist after mystery that leaves you itching to learn more. Who or what is "Banana Fish"? Why are all these people so obsessed with it? What can Ash do to get out of the mafia (assuming he truly wants to)? How will fish-out-of-water Eiji adjust to the trouble he's stumbled into? It doesn't hurt that the show looks great too, boasting high production values alongside a fun and quirky soundtrack. It's a great pedigree for adapting a classic manga.

After endearing us to the characters, establishing the stakes, and knocking out some impressive action scenes, the story really ramps up in episode 3. Since Ash is in prison now, there's less opportunity for fight sequences and more time to develop the central mystery. Ash's cellmate isn't just a guy who was paid to protect him; Max Lobo (real name: Max Glenreed) turns out to have been a friend of his brother Griffin, from when he was in the army. He's spent his time since working as a journalist and obsessively searching for the secret of "Banana Fish" himself, out of guilt for attempting to kill Griffin in self-defense. The series has strong potential as a portrait of various broken people trying to put their lives back together again by solving this mystery. I hope that Ash can learn to see what he and Max have in common and embrace him as an ally, rather than continue holding him to his past.

MAPPA's adaptation moves Banana Fish into the present day from its original 1980s setting. That makes sense to a certain degree, since it was in the "present" when the manga was published, but it requires some interesting changes. The biggest one is that in the original manga, Griffin and Max fought in Vietnam, while now it's the second Iraq War. Obviously there are parallels between these conflicts (as any Iraq War protester would've told you), but it's not a complete 1:1. The drug element of Banana Fish reflects the specific role they held in the Vietnam era, from the general impact of 1960s-70s drug counterculture to their active role in the war. Griffin's story seems based on Agent Orange, a herbicide used during the Vietnam War that had deleterious effects on the mental health of people exposed to it, including many soldiers. That's just my initial impression though, and episode 3 suggests that there's more to "Banana Fish" than a simple parallel.

Another thing that feels dated about this show is the way it portrays New York City—much closer to the crime-ridden reputation it had in the 1970s and early 1980s than how it is today. Of course, anywhere will be unsafe if you're involved in organized crime, but Eiji calling Chinatown a "dangerous area" rang a little false to me as someone who has walked around it at night plenty. I don't expect pitch-perfect representation of American cities from anime, of course, but it is something that puts the original story into a stark time and place, echoing how American media also portrayed New York at the time. Both of these elements are central to the plot, making them more difficult to update in adaptation. MAPPA seems to be doing a better job of bringing Banana Fish into the present aesthetically, and it doesn't hurt that some of these bold '80s fashions are back in style!

Banana Fish also comes from a time when gay stories in manga were fraught with peril—especially sexual danger—and the relationships often ended tragically. There's still plenty of that around today, but it's eclipsed by the popularity of fluffier and less sensationalist stories by comparison. The first three episodes revolve around Ash being constantly at risk of sexual assault from much bigger men. This isn't the kind of BL that suggests that rape or child abuse is sexy, but it does rely on these threats for shock and surreptitious titillation in a way that feels distasteful today. These threats are mostly a device to beautify the leads, to prove how "damaged" yet "badass" Ash is for surviving them—sexual assault as plot device above much else. This angsty past full of assault can be common in BL, especially for the more masculine (usually the seme) character in a relationship, and while it's better than outright eroticizing assault, the show still isn't taking these elements seriously enough given their gravity. It's certainly hard to ignore the way the camera frames Ash's damaged body.

Given how important this manga seems to be to its many LGBT fans, I hope that Banana Fish improves these elements with time. The show does seem to have a realistic and empathetic understanding of how trauma affects its characters in other ways, like the way that Max's guilt over Griffin still haunts him, leading him to take it out on Ash. Perhaps over the course of the show, Ash's his history of child abusewill be explored in a similar way, beyond how it's made him into such a rugged love interest for Eiji.

Speaking of that love angle, episode 3 should banish all doubt as to whether Ash and Eiji will share something special between them. We've already gotten Ash and Eiji's big kiss—or so it seems. It's not a genuinely romantic gesture yet, so to some extent it "doesn't count". Still, Eiji is surprisingly calm about this interaction, even before he realizes what Ash is really trying to do. From the moment in the premiere when Ash let him touch his gun (yeah that's definitely not a metaphor for anything else), it's clear these two boys already have a special bond. Banana Fish's strong and twisted story strengthens it, making you wonder not only when they'll get together, but how they'll weather all the conflict, misery, and mystery around them.

The series isn't perfect, and it definitely shows the manga's age in places, but MAPPA is doing all it can to bring the material up to speed for a modern audience, and it's mostly working so far. All I feel when I finish an episode of Banana Fish is how much I want more—more answers to its questions, more info on its rich cast, more action, and more of its surprisingly sweet central romance. There's a little something for everyone here, so don't be surprised if it hooks you.

Rating: A-

Banana Fish is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Rose is a Ph.D. student in musicology, who recently released a book about the music of Cowboy Bebop. You can also follow her on Twitter.

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