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Manga Review & Ramble: Banana Fish by Akimi Yoshida

A tale of teen gangs fighting organized crime in 1980s New York, Banana Fish is one of those rare manga that appeal across demographics.  When it was first published in the 1980s, it was classified as shoujo (aimed at teen girls), though it features little romance and lots of men with guns.  It does, however, center on the loving–though not sexualized–friendship between the two teen boy protagonists, Ash Lynx and Eiji Okumura.  There you have it: action, tough guys, cute boys being emotional–it’s got it all.

Story (Light Spoilers)
Weighing in at nineteen volumes, Banana Fish involves a lot of fights, chases, and imprisonments oriented around a mafia plot to seize power through the use of a mind-altering drug called “banana fish.”  Out to foil them is Ash Lynx: genius teen gang leader, super gunslinger, abused street punk, and brother of one of the drug’s first victims.  At Ash’s side is an unlikely host of allies, including a rival Chinese gang; a Vietnam vet journalist and his ex-wife; a Japanese photographer; and the photographer’s intern, Eiji Okumura.  As Ash and Eiji grow to be fast friends, Eiji becomes Ash’s chief support in coming to grips with his traumatic past and excruciating present.

For my taste, the action scenes and imprisonments become repetitive, and the series keeps Ash and Eiji apart too much in later volumes.  But when the plot is good, it is very, very good and serves to develop some of the most moving characters I’ve encountered in manga.

Characters
Banana Fish develops many of its characters well, but the standouts are the leads, Ash and Eiji.

Eiji and Ash in action

Eiji and Ash in action

Ash, it should be said, is “magical.”  He’s inhumanly good at too many things, and given the childhood abuse he must grapple with, he’s amazingly high functioning.  I’ve heard him called a Mary Sue, yet I disagree–because, although he’s a bit of a superhero, he carries deep psychological scars that fit coherently with his experiences and contribute to the self-marring of his life and relationships.  He is not perfect or even a “pretty sufferer” in Mary Sue fashion.  He is a brilliant but damaged young man who will carry some form of that dysfunctionality for life.  Thus, he wins my suspension of disbelief for his magic, and he wins my sympathy.

Eiji is a character who, through pure double standards, would be a bit annoying if he were a girl.  He is sweet, supportive, morally upright, etc.: all things that get used too often to box girls as angels in the home.  But Eiji goes beyond this.  He has his own past trauma over losing his pole vaulting career due to injury.  He can be a productive participant of the action.  And, most importantly, he’s got a damn sharp wit that occasionally makes even Ash’s eyes bug out.

The two of them gel very well in Xena-Gabrielle fashion.  They could easily be one of the best boys’ love pairings you’ve ever seen, except that their relationship–for good reasons–is not sexual.  But who cares?  They probably are one of the best boys’ love pairings you’ve ever seen even so.

Art
Banana Fish looks like a well-drawn 1980s manga.  The style is reminiscent of Akira and the clothes provoke a few giggles.  If the art is rarely breathtaking, it is always competent and conveys the story admirably.

Content Warnings
Where to start?  This story deals with child abuse, rape, violence, war trauma, drugs, major character deaths (plural), etc.  Though the story is invested in the presenting this damage seriously, it does not always deal with it wholly realistically: take that as a warning or a comfort, according to your taste.

All in All
I liked it.  Could you tell?  If you like BL, you will probably love Banana Fish (unless your main interest in BL is the sex).  If you like dark shounen/seinen action series, you will probably love Banana Fish.  If you want to check out a series that Gackt wrote a song about (“Aslan’s Dream“), you should check out Banana Fish.

More about Banana Fish:

They made a musical!  Sadly, it is dang hard to get your hands on outside of Japan.

Banana Fish musical

Banana Fish: The West Side Story Version

Boyfruit: an old site but a good intro. to the series.

Extensive review by Melinda Beasi with some scanned excerpts.

Volume-by-volume discussion by a round table of readers.

Further Ramble: Yours truly situates Banana Fish within 1980s boys’ love.

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10 Comments

  1. A nice introduction to the series, but the meant of your article is really more in your meta-discussion on LJ.

    • *sigh* meant = meat ^^

      • Arwen Spicer

        Yep, I’m still trying to figure out what will be the most useful type of post for my blogging here. So far, I’m going for pretty general. My personal blog has a lot more abstruse meta. 🙂

  2. Great article! I particularly appreciate your discussion on Ash and Eiji, and I’m in complete agreement with you over what they are and what they are not. I think Yoshida deftly avoids the worst potential pitfalls with them, character-wise, and makes the the best use of their individual magical-ness (Ash’s alarming brilliance and Eiji’s steadfast goodness) as she can. She’s obviously writing a fantasy, but she manages to make it all somehow believable in the ways that are most important.

    I’ll admit I agree with Estara–I think this article suffers a little in comparison to your LJ meta–and I hope you’ll consider crossing that over a bit more as you hit your stride here. But I do think this review/ramble stands up on its own. 🙂

    I look forward to reading more!

    • Arwen Spicer

      Thanks for the input on what you’d like to see on this blog. 🙂 And thanks for pointing out that Eiji is “magic” too. He really is and very sweetly.

  3. Thank you for informing me that they made it into a musical. That . . . made my day . . . : )

    • Arwen Spicer

      I really want to see the musical!

  4. Arwen Spicer

    D’oh! A correction: Having seen the theatrical version, I realize now that it is not a musical, though it has some nice music in it. It’s more an acrobatic play, well worth watching though only available raw.

  5. This series brought tears to my eyes. I really wish that it could have ended the way I wanted it to but life is that way sometimes :'(
    I’ve been trying to find a way to send a letter or email to the author. Is there a fan page or publisher site where I can?
    I’ve been looking on the internet for one but it may be hard to find outside of Japan…

    • Arwen Spicer

      Sorry for a late reply. I don’t know contact info for the author. As you say, it can be hard to find outside of Japan/reading Japanese.

      I’m glad the series keeps getting theater adaptations, and I still have hopes it will get an anime someday. But it will remain tear-jerking.

      (If you want an alternate ending with fewer of those tears, I wrote a long AU fic, which is on AO3 under the name labingi. I won’t link due to Geek Girl policy.)

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