Beautiful, Broken, and Queer: The complicated interplay of sexuality and trauma in Banana Fish

By: Sara Connor January 22, 20200 Comments
Ash beaten up but defiant

CONTENT WARNING for discussion of sexual assault, child sexual abuse, pedophilia, and queerphobia

Banana Fish is a unique work. Yoshida Akimi’s seminal 1985 shoujo manga is famous for its dense, elaborate plot and high-adrenaline action sequences that stand out among its peers, as well as the intimate, ambiguous relationship between its two male leads. Its tremendous cultural influence and status as a relatively early example of a queer manga produced before the BL genre was clearly codified makes it an enduring and important subject of analysis even today. 

In particular, its depiction of sexual violence as linked to queer and gay sexuality is a significant element of the story which continuously sparks conversation and strong emotional responses, as has been discussed by many different writers.

Author Anne McCaffrey’s infamous “tent peg” quote recounts the experience of an acquaintance who, supposedly, was wholly straight until being subjected to anal rape involving a tent peg, which over time acted as a catalyst for him “becoming effeminate and gay.” This anecdote posits gay sexuality as a corrupting force that stems from violence, an incredibly damaging idea that, ultimately, reinforces fear and revulsion of gay people and gives false credence to discrimination against gay teachers, parents, and so on. 

Ash handcuffed at a table with a crooked cop

Identifying as gay does not necessitate prior trauma, and a man’s experience of any form of sexual assault, including anal rape, at the hands of another man will not inevitably create sexual attraction toward other men out of thin air. It’s genuinely difficult to overstate how irresponsible, offensive, and hurtful this statement is.

And still. Although the effects of sexual trauma are nowhere near as simple as McCaffrey’s erroneous, homophobic statement implies, I can’t find it in me to completely dismiss the underlying question it raises. What is the relationship between trauma and sexuality? 

I am a lesbian who was sexually assaulted as a preteen. Whenever I am distrustful and anxious around men, when I shy away from sex, when I feel profound discomfort in my own body, I am compelled to reckon with this question, with the fact that violence has inescapably shaped my sexual identity. 

Manga panel of Ash and Shorter discussing Ash's past. Ash insists rape is about power, not attraction

This is what brings me to Ash Lynx, the central character of Banana Fish. Ash is a 17-year-old boy leading a gang on the streets of New York. While he is frequently branded with homophobic slurs by other characters, his internal relationship to sexuality is ambiguous at best. 

Over the course of the manga, he falls in love with another boy, the compassionate and courageous Japanese college student Eiji Okumura, but their relationship remains asexual, and Ash’s relationship to sex remains dominated by manipulation, coercion, and violence throughout the series. This complex cocktail makes Ash a problematic depiction of a queer survivor, but also one that claws open some of my most private, difficult wounds.

Early on in the manga, it’s revealed that Ash was repeatedly raped as a young child. This abuse continues until Ash kills his abuser with his father’s gun and runs away from home. Shortly after, he is caught by the Corsican mafia in New York, forced to perform in child pornography, and sexually abused for the next several years by the mob boss Dino Golzine. By the time we meet Ash as a 17-year-old, he has learned to use sex as a weapon, and to take advantage of others’ assumptions about him in order to achieve his own goals.

Ash beaten up but defiant

We see this tendency put on full, disturbing display when Ash is put in prison after being falsely accused of murder. He is subjected to a gang rape by a group of fellow inmates working under the prison superintendent in league with Golzine, and in the following chapters, it is revealed that Ash deliberately allowed this to happen. When the ringleader of the gang rape tries again to coerce him into sex, Ash tells him “I said just once” before beating him senseless.

In contrast, as Ash and Eiji grow closer over the course of the manga, their relationship becomes a place for Ash to, at least temporarily, escape the seemingly inescapable violence in his daily life. He highly values Eiji’s lack of entitlement to his body, even telling Eiji, “You and Skip saved me… that was the first time in my life anyone helped me without looking for a payback…like sex.” 

In one scene, when Eiji asks whether Ash is a natural blond, Ash teases him sexually, offering to show him “down there.” However, when Eiji responds positively, Ash immediately recoils, suspicious. This scene is purely played for comedy, but in the context of Ash’s history of abuse and his general attitude toward sex, it still feels like a deeply revealing moment.

Ash backed against a wall looking comically alarmed by EIji

Banana Fish also focuses on the aftermath of sexual violence—including the lasting internal effects Ash’s abuse has had on him and his relationships. He wakes from a nightmare shaking and sweating, and confesses his history of abuse to Eiji. He reveals that he is afraid of himself and he feels numb to the violence he’s suffered and the violence he’s inflicted. These conflicted emotions ring true as a depiction of a survivor, particularly one like Ash who is still trapped in fight-or-flight circumstances, unable to heal.

Throughout the series Ash swings back and forth between fighting to keep Eiji with him and sending him away. One moment he is weeping in Eiji’s lap, begging him to stay by his side, and the next he’s making arrangements behind Eiji’s back to send him back to Japan, far away from the dangers of the gang war and where he cannot come to hate or fear Ash. This behavior presents a pattern common among survivors of childhood sexual abuse and feels painfully real.

However, there’s also something unsettling about the constant presence of sexual assault in the narrative. Although Yoshida thankfully chooses to leave the actual act of rape off the page, the way Ash’s body is framed in the aftermath, as the camera lingers on his bruises or his bound wrists, can border on sexualizing. 

A major part of the intended appeal of Banana Fish is the angst that’s cranked up to 11: the beautiful broken boy in need of healing. Using the constant threat of sexual violence against Ash to further this narrative can easily become trivializing and objectifying.

Additionally, the framing of Ash’s distinctly non-sexual attraction to Eiji, in contrast to the other characters who express gay sexuality, is thoughtless and irresponsible. Throughout Banana Fish, we meet several adult men who display same-gender sexual interest; unfortunately, these men are, without exception, depicted as predators who only display “attraction” to underage boys. 

This is true of Golzine, his henchman Marvin, and the prisoners who assault Ash while he is wrongfully incarcerated. This effectively villanizes adult gay sexuality, intentionally or otherwise positioning the youthful, non-sexual, non-specific (and ultimately tragic) longing we see in Ash and Eiji as the only pure or sympathetic expression of queerness.

Ash resting his head in Eiji's lap, asking Eiji to stay with him. Eiji says he'll stay forever

Marvin, in particular, is the only character explicitly referred to as gay in Banana Fish and is an irreedemable, unsympathetic, utterly flat attempted rapist who exists only to serve as a source of sexual menace for Ash. This is deeply frustrating, as it serves to unfairly equate gay identity with predatory behavior, perpetuating homophobic social myths. This, in addition to the visual framing of Ash’s body in the wake of sexual violence, subtly reinforces the idea put forward in McCaffrey’s infamous “tent peg” statement: that gay sexuality is unnatural, the result of violence or moral degredation.

There is also something to be said, however, for Yoshida’s consistent tendency to leave the actual act of rape off the page. Many works in the BL genre depict rape explicitly and erotically; they often emphasize a victim’s physical pleasure during rape, frame their body sexually via tight shots of the mouth, chest, nipples, and other body parts frequently associated with sex. 

In contrast, Banana Fish includes significant use of empty space, focuses on Ash’s facial expressions, and denies us the sight of his violation. While this is of course a result of the conventions and limitations of ‘80s shoujo manga magazines—a reluctance to depict explicit sexual content—its emotional impact on the story is that rape is framed as something disturbing and serious, rather than titillating or insignificant.

young traumatized Ash holding a gun

As a woman, there is also something cathartic about media which explores sexual violence at a remove from my own experiences. Because women are more likely to be victims of sexual violence, cis women and AFAB trans people often experience adolescence as a time of profound sexual anxiety. 

We are taught to fear victimization as a natural consequence of our bodythrough cultural narratives that blame sexual violence on women wearing revealing clothing or getting drunk, as if sexual assault is not an active, conscious choice on the part of the perpetrator. Banana Fish and narratives like it speak to this fear and allow us to process it through a body that does not look like ours; a body which we are taught to associate with strength and control.

Of course, young cis men and AMAB trans people can also experience this anxiety regarding sexual victimization, particularly as all trans people are more likely to be survivors of childhood sexual abuse. While I am not equipped to discuss their experience of adolesence and how it impacts their perspective on rape in media in this piece, it is an important perspective that should not be overlooked.

Ash's father telling Eiji about going to the cops when Ash was assaulted as a child, only for Ash to be blamed because his attacker was a respected member of the community

I don’t mean to speak as an authority on sexual violence in media, and given the complex circumstances of my assault, I don’t necessarily identify as a “survivor.” But I understand the language of fear, of disassociation from your own body, and of reaching out in desperation to lean too heavily on another person. I would not love the way I do if I had never experienced sexual violence. It’s impossible to say how I would be different, but I know that I would be.

This is what draws me back to Ash and Eiji’s relationship. Watching Ash struggle with feeling that he has been dirtied or corrupted by both the violent acts he’s committed as well as the violence he’s been victimized by as if the two are equivalent is deeply painful, but it resonates.

I started writing this article because I wanted to defend Banana Fish, because it hurt too much to write off a narrative that moved me so deeply as just one more shallow story about how being queer means being fundamentally broken. But after spending this time revisiting Yoshida’s world, it’s harder, and more complicated, to keep that loyalty alive. 

Ash and Eiji standing on a balcony at sunset. subtitle: That was the first time somebody helped me without asking for anything in return

The cultural context of gay sexuality being viewed only as either warped or tragic still hangs over the series. We meet no non-antagonistic adult gay men in Banana Fish, and its tragic ending is one of many that made it hard for young gay people to imagine even the possibility of leading a happy, fulfilling life. 

But I still feel that there’s meaning in how Banana Fish gives us Ash, bit by bit: his cold, calculating courage, his fierce love for his friends, the alternately silly and shockingly raw intimacy of his relationship with Eiji. There are pieces of me there, still glittering.

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