Trigger warning due to mentions of sexual assault, but I won’t be going into explicit details.
I’ve been ignoring everyone
I’ve been wandering around
I’ve been deceived everything
At that time
Then you appeared in front of me
Ignited my pale heart
We’ve been looking for each other from now on
- Opening lyrics to Banana Fish’s second opening theme, “Freedom” by BLUE ENCOUNT
The above lyrics pretty much sums up what Banana Fish is about: a traumatized kid meeting someone that heals his heart with love, thus leading the two of them on a quest to protect each other.
Banana Fish is not an easy anime to talk about, not least because of its mature content about rape, child trafficking, and pedophilia. In spite of its lack of blood and gore that many anime viewers mistakenly associate with “maturity,” Banana Fish can still be an uncomfortable anime to watch because it explores the effects of the trauma the characters endure. Yes, the effect of it, not the trauma itself.
Something unique about Banana Fish that separates it from similar anime about rape is that it doesn’t really show the act itself in any exploitative manner. It shows just enough for the audience to know what happened, but it’s more interested in showing the aftermath and the way horrific acts like these would change a person.
Based on an ’80s shoujo (young girls) manga of the same name written by Akimi Yoshida, the title of the name comes from the J. D. Salinger novel, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”. The usage of this title would make a lot more sense upon its ending, but for the naming of every episode, the anime has also borrowed the titles of other famous literary works by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, and Salinger once again, featuring episode titles like “The Catcher in the Rye”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “Islands in the Stream”, and “The Beautiful and Damned”. I tried comparing thematic similarities between the books the episodes are referencing and the episodes themselves, but I only found surface similarities that are superficial. I could be wrong though, as these allegories and symbolism could sometimes prove challenging to analyze during the first viewing.
The anime is about a young gang leader in New York named Ash Lynx who becomes involved in a conflict over the eponymous drug, “banana fish.” He meets a young Japanese pole vaulter named Eiji Okumura who has come to America to recuperate from his injury. Over the course of the anime, Ash comes to appreciate Eiji’s innocence free from a world of violence like his home, and he would confide in him his past trauma of abuse that turned him into a cold-blooded killing machine. Eiji feels sympathies for Ash and seeks to save his soul from damnation, and Ash in return wants to protect him from the ugly world he’s familiar with.
Beyond the gun action and urban warfare, Banana Fish is a tragic but endearing tale of two kindred spirits who find a greater purpose of living than their own trauma. Even in 2018, it’s uncommon for mainstream anime to feature romantic relationships between two men, though “boys’ love” was far more common among ’80s manga. However, Yoshida has stated that Ash is not gay, and there hasn’t been any explicit evidence that Ash and Eiji share a homosexual relationship. There is a kiss in one episode, but its context is technically not a romantic one and is done out of necessity.
The anime also features other colorful characters like Shorter Wong, Ash’s closest ally prior to Eiji’s arrival; Sing Soo-Ling, a young 14 year old forced to take up the role of a gang leader in Chinatown; Lee Yut-Lung, the youngest son of the Chinese mafia; Max Lobo, a war veteran and freelance journalist who was in the same platoon as Ash’s elder brother, Griffin Callenreese; Blanca, a Kazakh assassin and former KGB responsible for training Ash into an effective killer; and last but not least, “Papa” Dino Golzine, the American mafia crime lord who bought Ash as a child, grooming him to be his right-hand man. A number of these characters turned out to be quite morally ambiguous, including Golzine, whose viciousness and threats of enslaving Ash belies his twisted love for him as a surrogate father. Yut-Lung is your basic “dark reflection” character for Ash, having endured the trauma of witnessing his mother raped and murdered as a child and growing up seeking vengeance against the perpetrators. In fact, a number of the characterizations in the anime are in relation to Ash, such as Frederick Arthur, a former member of Ash’s gang who’s jealous of Ash’s purity and perseverance in the face of trauma, or Blanca who, even during his employment under Golzine, has a soft spot for his former student and his newfound Japanese friend.
There are less significant characters that feel more like a typical boss in a video game one has to defeat, such as Eduardo Foxx who shows up in the last few episodes of the anime without much development or build-up. His existence and the gang war storyline of the anime are some of the things I’ve found to be superficial compared to the more interesting development between Ash and Eiji. In fact, during the second-half of the anime, instead of exploring the dynamics between the two and how they affect each other’s lives, the story becomes more of a tug-of-war with one party kidnapping or attacking another party’s members, becoming something of a generic crime drama that’s so ubiquitous on American television. In its defense, some parts of this gang war are utilized to develop Ash and Eiji’s character, in that Eiji is shown to be Ash’s one weak link in spite of being this overpowered and seemingly invulnerable protagonist.
And that’s another thing I’m bothered by: the super-human skills of the characters that sometimes break my suspension of disbelief, particularly Ash and Blanca. While I could buy that some of these people were specially trained armed forces equipped with top-notch military tactics, the characters sometimes feel like they’re protected by plot-armor and couldn’t die until the plot allows them to. Having seen my share of military anime like “Black Lagoon” and “Jormungand” (not to mention the many, many American military media), this familiar trend of superpowered soldiers does get a little stale over time, becoming the equivalent of a Dragon Ball character who lives and dies as the plot dictates. But to be fair, characters are written realistically enough that they do still die, and if they do survive, they become overpowered by the suppressing fire of the opposite party who has a lot more guns and bullets. They don’t really utilize the kind of brilliant strategies seen in other anime like “Death Note” or “Legend of the Galactic Heroes” (with other characters often attributing their moments of brilliance to some magical talent they have), but that’s probably expecting too much from an ’80s shoujo manga.
A more minor detail that caught my attention is that, unlike the manga, the anime sometimes exclude details that would make viewers aware that a character has been raped, which undercuts Yoshida’s intention of focusing on the effects of such trauma. For example, when a certain female character was attacked, the aftermath of the assault wasn’t animated in a clear way what actually happened until she mentioned it several episodes later (unlike the manga, which actually portrayed her in her undergarment). It’s a more minor flaw because it still feels true to the spirit of the manga in its avoidance from showing such horrific acts in any exploitative manner, even if it overdoes it to the point of excluding the audience from the conversation.
The biggest controversy, however, has to be the ending, where a certain bad thing happens to a certain character whom I shall not name. A lot of fans were left confused and even infuriated by such an action, but Yoshida’s defense was, “Because he’s a murderer that deserves to be punished.” (I’m paraphrasing to avoid spoilers) It’s an odd way to write a character that way, as if it’s some sort of propaganda to impart a moral lesson on its readers, but it makes a lot of sense in the context of Japanese culture, which encourages its citizens to put up a positive image, especially towards foreigners (and presumably media that would be accessible to foreigners like Banana Fish). On an unrelated note, it’s also where the myth of Japanese politeness comes from.
For what it’s worth, I wasn’t as bothered by how the ending turned out until I found out the context behind its execution. I thought that it made a lot of sense, that the character couldn’t have easily achieved happiness because of what he went through, and his choice appropriately mirrors Salinger’s novel, calling back to the title of the show. It wouldn’t have ended any other way. I knew of that the moment I found out what the novel was about.
When it comes down to it, Yoshida wanted to tell a story of heart, something that would appeal to female audiences. She admitted so when asked about writing it for a male demographic, claiming that “boys have such simple tastes as opposed to the complex emotions of a girl.” Ironically, the anime at least would seem to be more appealing to a male demographic with its many action sequences that overshadow the more intimate moments Yoshida speaks of. A story about healing one’s heart from years of sexual trauma can be a powerful and timeless tale, especially when paired with the loving friendship between two men, something that’s exceptionally rare compared to the more naïve ideals of friendship in anime catered towards the younger male demographic (commonly referred to as “shounen anime”). Friendship is more than just about platitudes of courage or loyalty; it can be something far deeper and personal even among children. It can be two people learning to accept each other through the worst imaginable circumstances they have to endure.
Banana Fish could’ve been something more.
Final Rating: 7.8/10