REVIEW: Banana Fish (Episode 1-4)

If you are a gay anime fan who had never heard of Banana Fish until 2018 – join me in pretending to the smug BL connoisseurs clutching their gay 80’s shoujo manga that you totally fucking had. Because that’s what this is, in case you haven’t Wikipedia’d the shit out of MAPPA’s new series yet. A gay 80’s shoujo manga, because #diversity means that violent New York City drug smuggling crime syndicate dramas are for everyone, and that includes teen Japanese girls.

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BANANA FISH: where “can I touch the gun in your pants” is both literal and sexy

What is the elusive titular “Banana Fish”? Will gang violence irreparably destroy the very fabric of society? And is it gay?

IS IT CANON GAY: 10/10

Yes, there’s gay, and yes, it is explicit. Before you manga readers tell me that the lead relationship is never clearly confirmed, there is already buttloads of canon homosexuality, or at least homosexual acts – if not feelings.

ASH AND EIJI

19-year-old Eiji Okumara treks from Japan to the crime-ridden streets of New York City as the assistant of a photojournalist, Shunichi Ibe, who is putting together a report on American street gangs and apparently thought it was a good idea to let a teenager tag along. (Spoilers: it isn’t – Eiji has predictably gotten kidnapped twice already, and we’re only four episodes in.) Eiji is naive and gentle-hearted, going so far as to ask a gangster if he can hold his gun, then simper in embarrassment that the gangster admits point blank to having killed people before.

The gangster in question and target of their investigative report is 17-year-old gang leader Ash Lynx (you’d use a snappy fake street name, too, if your real name was Aslan Jade Callenreese). Though young, Ash is the groomed heir to the larger syndicate of mob boss Dino Golzine. In stark contrast to Eiji, Ash is conniving and brutal – and, for the record, an accomplished martial artist and excellent sharpshooter (as though you had any doubt). Victimized from a young age and forced to navigate the sludge of mobster politics, Ash isn’t fucking around. He wants to avenge his catatonic brother and figure out what the fuck “Banana Fish” is, but he’s a good(-ish) guy. He’ll stoop to protect people he cares about: a status Eiji ostensibly acquires the moment he touches the gun in Ash’s pants.

Ash knows Eiji doesn’t belong, and deigns to not murder him in the face the moment Eiji asks to touch it (which is quipped to be the routine reaction). If anything, Ash is amused, and warms up to being interviewed after listening to Eiji’s fish-out-of-water fumbling. Cue a sudden attack by a dissenting mob faction, where Ash obliterates everyone with roundhouse kicks and Eiji is abducted, along with Skip, a cheerful young plot device. Ash pursues, purportedly to rescue Skip, and confronts the kidnappers with a gun (remember, he’s a sharpshooter). But when Eiji’s life is threatened, Ash throws down his own weapon and surrenders, allowing himself to be captured. Ash isn’t much of an asshole, for being a gang leader, nor particularly pragmatic.

A short stint in captivity allows Eiji to not only establish his gratitude to Ash for saving his life, but appreciate up close what a badass son-of-a-bitch Ash is. Ash mocks his kidnappers while being tortured and honeytraps them before beating the shit out of them when they get close. How can the innocent and sheltered Eiji ever win Ash’s admiration back, you ask?

Pole-vaulting, of course. A mangled escape attempt is 1/3 realized when Eiji, who had the common sense to excel at sports in school, pole-vaults into the air and soars over an alleyway’s dead end to freedom – leaving behind a starstruck Ash, who is arrested instead of rescued and left longing for the ability to fly.

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“I envy you. You know how to fly.”

The metaphor of flight isn’t a one-off cliche. Ash is a self-aware prisoner: metaphorical when not literal (though to be clear, it’s mostly literal, too). Whether as a ward of an abusive mobster, entangled in crime syndicates, or locked up in jail, Ash is bound by circumstance to the dredges of society, and is unable to shake free even with his astounding capabilities. Conversely, Eiji is a tourist. Even if he stumbles through gangster territory, he is an outsider, an ephemeral entity that can leave the slums as suddenly as he entered them. It wasn’t lost on me that Eiji’s introductory scene in Episode 1 is his arrival by airplane.

bf-5The interest between Ash and Eiji is mutual, but for different reasons. Ash envies Eiji’s freedom, whereas Eiji is fascinated by Ash’s street finesse and beholden to his heroism.

Now, gun metaphor aside, that doesn’t mean sex. Non-BL shoujo and shounen titles featuring close male friendships are 10 yen a dozen. Even when us gay anime fans are certain, absolutely certain that the homoeroticism is intentional, creators have long gotten away with hints and subtle nods. Why alienate less open-minded audiences by slapping your series with homosexuality?

Well, Banana Fish doesn’t give a shit about your delicate sensibilities.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Those looking for a soggy romance, be warned. The explicit homosexuality largely involves violence and rape. Ash is revealed to have been kept as a sex slave from childhood by an older gangster as he was groomed to be his heir. Though nothing explicit is shown in that regard, its presence is chilling and definitive. When Ash is arrested, the cop interrogating him for evidence that he murdered another gangster plays a video that allegedly would have provided a motive: a video of the gangster raping a child Ash, who is suggested to have been filmed in a number of child porn videos. Ash has also been raped at least once within the first four episodes, and deals with the threat of rape a number of times. Eiji is similarly kidnapped and threatened to be turned into a drugged up sex slave. If that backdrop disagrees with your sensibilities, Banana Fish is not for you.

Those familiar with the BL genre may scoff at my humble warning – after all, sexual assault is a popular trope, invariably portrayed erotically and a popular bastion of romantic fantasy and kink. But while the anime is certainly invested in crafting a sympathetic backdrop for Ash, Banana Fish has so far not demonstrated any interest in framing sexual assault as either a romantic or erotic device. The rapists are not the BL genre’s trademarked silky-haired bishounen who rape only out of pure overwhelming love for their victim, but rather ugly, vile mobsters. And while the anime is equally invested in emphasizing Ash’s physical beauty, we are (mostly) spared from erotically-motivated shots of his victimization. So far, we’ve only had a tasteful cut-to-black rather than a graphic depiction of rape.

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WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ASH AND EIJI?

As of four episodes in, we have no idea what Ash’s sexuality is. We know he has had numerous homosexual experiences. All are forced or compelled, though Ash will actively use sexuality as a weapon or taunt if need be. Perhaps from a narrative perspective, the inclusion of explicit, if violent, homosexuality is serves to alert the audience of the possibility of romantic homosexual themes. Perhaps the rape is only intended to unsettle and establish motivation for its revenge-driven protagonist – but this is a shoujo manga, above all, and the story is framed around the contrasting relationship between Ash and Eiji. It’s therefore more prudent to suggest that this violent homosexuality between Ash (and potentially Eiji) with others is a deliberate contrast to the positive romance between themselves.

In episode 3, a guilt-ridden Eiji forgoes returning to Japan when it is clear that Ash’s scheming has mixed him up in a dangerous conspiracy. After Ash bites the hand of his master, so to speak, mobster Dino pulls a few strings and has Ash thrown into jail without trial to be tortured by inmates in his employ until Ash reveals the location of a stolen LSD-esque drug. Recognizing Ash’s willingness to talk with Eiji, the police invite the Japanese journalists for visit.

Ash perks up at Eiji’s arrival, and they share a few words. Then, Ash kisses Eiji in front of everyone, before parting with a wink and a playful slap on the butt.

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It’s a ploy, of course, though Eiji doesn’t realize it right away. Shunichi remarks that it was probably Eiji’s first kiss – Eiji’s wide-eyed blush says enough, but he catches on when he feels a capsule on Ash’s tongue. Ash secretly transfers him a slip of paper encased in the shell of a pill, and the paper reveals a personal request for Eiji to investigate something on Ash’s behalf. Less romantic, perhaps, but an on-screen kiss is an on-screen kiss.

We know Ash is willing to use his sexuality as a tool and a weapon, so his initiation of the act has to be discounted. But more importantly is that he addressed this note specifically to Eiji, which elevates Eiji to the position of confidant, and someone whom Ash feels comfortable to reach out to for help.

Banana Fish is slotted for 24 episodes, so we still have quite a ways to go. It seems safe enough to predict that Ash and Eiji’s relationship will continue to grow closer, but whether or not this relationship will be explicitly established as sexual and romantic is murkier. But regardless of the potential subtleties of gay romance, Banana Fish has not shied away from its portrayal of homosexual acts.

NOT-GAY REMARKS

Animation: Coming into this anime with the expectation that it was a BL, I was immediately impressed by its beautiful animation. It’s clear that the series is trying to achieve something beyond the low-budget constraints of the BL genre, and is pulling it off. The character designs are beautifully adapted from the dated designs of the 80’s manga, particularly Ash’s updated look that will appeal to modern young audiences while still pulling in key facial features from the original design. In particular, the fight scenes are a snappy and smoothly-animated delight, especially watching Ash roundhouse kick mobsters all over the place.

Music: The opening sequence is fully animated, and solid without being particularly artsy. Both songs are good, if not catchy. The show shines best in its background music, especially in piano sequences.

Characters: While Ash especially is surely an unbelievable character, he plays the lead so well it’s hard to remember. If Ash is captivating, Eiji holds his own as a foil. His weakness isn’t helplessness, nor is his ignorance cowardice. There are a few honorable mentions among the cast, but so far, none of them have been the established villains.

OVERALL SCORE: 9.5/10

Having no background in this series and completely unfamiliar with the manga, these first four episodes were wild. The pace is fast – we have a lot of manga to cover in a measly 24-episodes – but so far, the visuals and pacing have provided ample clarity in moving the plot along while still leaving precious seconds left for more emotional and reflective moments. It’s hard to assess how seriously to take the series. It is clearly not a researched documentary of New York crime syndicates, but it runs a more developed and thoughtful plot than your average anime starring teenagers. I am told to care about the mystery of Banana Fish, and though I’m not yet sure I do, I already know I’m in it to the end.

AWARDS IN THE RUNNING

Best African-American kid in a 2018 anime award goes to Skip.

bf-2Yes, let’s be upfront: he’s a young black kid shown entrenched in a life of crime: drinking, hanging out in seedy bars, smacking around gangsters, and ultimately getting shot to death by episode 2. But he is a charming little dude and portrayed from the beginning as the only person Ash Lynx seems to care about besides his unresponsive brother. Skip’s untimely death may have been a pretty obvious fridging, serving to give Ash a burst of angsty impulse required to fuel the story to the next wing of the plot. But to be less cynical about tropes, the anime takes the emotional impact of the death seriously, and both Ash and Eiji have brought him up in guilt instead of immediately sweeping it under the rug.

WHERE TO WATCH IT (LEGALLY): Amazon Prime

Next: Episode 5

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