Banana Fish and the real-world racial politics of 1980s America

By: ThatNerdyBoliviane November 7, 20180 Comments
Manga panel of a group of Black men in 1980s-style clothing, leaning against a bar

CONTENT WARNING for discussion of racism and sexual abuse; replication of slurs; and human experimentation. SPOILERS for the entire Banana Fish manga.

Banana Fish is a classic 1980s shoujo crime drama created by Akimi Yoshida and filled with gritty historical realities that are still relevant today. While the series’ positive queer themes have been discussed on Anime Feminist and OtakuSheWrote, what is not often discussed is how the portrayal of the real historical events that influenced the story can be detrimental, particularly to QTBIPOC readers (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color).

The manga is a painful read because it’s able to capture how pervasive white supremacy is throughout all sectors of society. The series also depicts how that ideology is perpetuated through interpersonal relationships and how it has an influence on real-world policy decisions.

Members of Cain's gang crowding around Ash, threatening to sell him into white slavery
Editor’s Note: The English edition of the manga frequently adds slurs not present in the original text

Akimi Yoshida clearly did immense research on the history of the United States and how major socio-political movements impacted the lives of her characters. However, she clearly did not have an understanding on certain topics, such as the representation of Black characters in the story.

She ended up perpetuating racist caricatures reminiscent of the long history of Anti-Black portrayals in media. With the exception of Eiji, there is also the issue of the few openly queer men of color in Banana Fish being depicted as pedophiles or rapists–so, while representation can be empowering, it can also be problematic.

Banana Fish is not afraid to center grim realities that impacted QTBIPOC in the forefront, but it can also be hurtful to be reminded how actively the United States government planned and enacted policies meant to destroy marginalized communities both at home and abroad.

This complex duality, combined with an engaging story, makes for both a smart and frustrating series for new QTBIPOC readers.

two of Ash's gang members telling Eiji that Ash is probably at the library, implying the two of them would be more at home in jail than among books

Gangs of New York: The racial realities of Banana Fish’s America

The series follows Ash Lynx, a young gang leader trying to survive a cruel world filled with gang violence and predatory old men who want to control him. Ash’s quest for revenge and freedom winds up tangled in a conspiracy connected to the drug “Banana Fish,” which is sought by both criminals and politicians.

The manga’s highly tense environment draws from real-world events such as the Civil Rights movements, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, which created impactful societal changes in the United States.  During Richard Nixon’s presidency, the “War on Drugs” became a priority, since a high number of soldiers in Vietnam had become heavily addicted to drugs.

This initiative both criminalized drugs and associated them with communities of color, which allowed law enforcement to raid their neighborhoods with impunity.  As a result, the mass incarceration of people of color, particularity Black people, rose dramatically during this period and would continue to rise under Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s.

The situation was exacerbated by  COINTELPRO, a program specifically created by the FBI to have undercover agents and paid civilians infiltrate and systemically dismantle many social movements deemed as threats against the American government. Due to their efforts, many communities of color were left overpoliced and marginalized.

The high number of street gangs prevalent in the manga might seem like an anomaly to new readers, but these gangs formed as a direct result of communities of color feeling disenfranchised by a country that continuously proved it didn’t care about them.  While communities of color have throughout history found alternative options to take care of themselves, given the prior historical events that impacted the mid-1980s timeline in Banana Fish, there was an extra level of urgency to protect each other.

This is the brutal reality that our racially diverse gang leaders—Ash, who is white, Shorter and Sing, who are Chinese, and Cain, who is Black—find themselves in as they try their best to survive a world hostile towards them. However, their interactions and later involvement in larger political schemes show how unequally the manga treats their leadership qualities.

Ash aiming a gun and shooting Shorter in the head

United but Unequal: Prioritizing white narratives in Banana Fish

In the beginning, there is a mutual respect between Ash and Shorter as friends and leaders. Shorter is someone Ash can depend on for the first half of the series, but he eventually becomes a side character whose leadership gets undermined by wealthy influences in the Chinese community.

Shorter’s elders saw his life as expendable, and so he was easily abandoned to appease Dino’s gang so that Dino could use Shorter as a test subject for the Banana Fish drug. Even in death, Shorter’s body is not respected, as doctors dissect his organs for the purpose of studying the effects of Banana Fish.

When Sing becomes the new boss for the Chinese gang, he’s immediately acknowledged as someone reliable and as smart as Ash. The series gives that same level of respect to Cain when Ash meets with him to discuss gang-related matters as a fellow leader and eventually convinces him to remain temporarily neutral.

While the narrative by-and-large respects Shorter, Sing, and Cain as leaders, it also regularly presents them as less valuable or important. The leadership that holds power is predominantly white, and as the series progresses, the characters of color increasingly fade into the background in favor of these white leaders and their stories.

Cain sitting on a bar counter surrounded by members of his gang

When Ash begins to rebel against his abusers, his bitter rival Arthur takes advantage of his absence to gain access to Dino’s resources so he can destroy Ash and everyone who sided with him.  Arthur doesn’t respect the other leaders of color and has complete disregard for the codes of conduct that everyone on the streets needs to accept.

The most awful example of his behavior is when he arranges a solo knife battle with Ash. He promises that he will not bring his crew to the fight, but in the end he betrays Cain and kills some of his men.  Granted, while Arthur’s behavior is natural since he is one of the main villains on the show, it does not change the fact his constant disregard for rules and authority leaves him with very few allies willing to support his personal vendetta against Ash.

In comparison, Ash is a model of “good” whiteness who respects his fellow leaders. However, as the series progresses, he becomes so focused on his plans that he eventually treats them as subordinates and grows careless about the casualties lost in the Banana Fish conflict.

Throughout the first half of the series, Ash and Arthur’s leadership are viewed as far more important than the rest of the cast, and that dramatic tension builds to their ultimate confrontation. In the latter half of the series, everyone else gets sidelined in favor of Ash’s superior intelligence and authority.

Golzine describing how enslaved children are ranked in price, with white children as the most prized
Note: this page is from a “flipped” edition of the manga and reads left to right

Trauma in Privilege: Ash Lynx and the destructive idealization of whiteness

Interestingly enough, it is through the interactions of our young leads that Yoshida depicts how whiteness is normalized and the preferred default. While likely not intentional, she explores this aspect through Ash’s character by constantly reminding the readers that Ash was special and desirable to all the antagonists in the manga.

At a young age, Ash was sexually abused and forced into sexual servitude to wealthy and influential men. The series eventually reveals that the traffickers ranked Ash and the other children based on their physical features and exploited those that resembled ideal notions of whiteness.  Even Ash’s intelligence was seen as something that needed to be studied and experimented on for the advancement of science by “medical professionals” so that more people like Ash could exist.

A sinister aspect of white supremacy is that it can manifest in nuanced ways. It is clear through the ways Ash has been sexualized that his body and looks are far more desirable than the bodies of QTBIPOC. While there is a huge discussion to be had about the ways QTBIPOC bodies are exoticized in the context of Banana Fish, the series itself primarily explores how everyone who meets or knows the idealized Ash views him as perfect and divine.

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

Throughout the series he’s referred to as a “lynx” or “asura” (fierce warrior) because he’s someone who can either be tamed or idolized as otherworldly.  Dino and every despicable man in the series constantly disregard Ash’s humanity. They try to force him to realize the privileges they would grant him if he complied to their control over him.

During the time Ash was sexually abused, he saw that most of these men had positions of power. They used their privilege to fulfil their “needs” while maintaining façades as respectable men with nuclear families and conservative (oppressive) values.

Since Ash is aware of the “preferences” of these deplorable men, he utilizes their perversion to his advantage in order to obtain confidential information from them and fight for his freedom. One inspiring aspect of the series is that Ash sees the evil surrounding him and actively fights against the oppressive role others want him to perform.

Ibe describing Ash as like a god, specifically Asura

Fouler than Fiction: Imperial exploitation on page and in the world

These men’s creepy desire for control is rooted in white supremacy, which the story further examines as it begins to slowly unravel what Banana Fish is and why everyone, including politicians, are after its contents.

We eventually learn that Banana Fish is a drug that allows others to mind-control its users. The United States government originally intended to use it to get rid of revolutionary leaders and control powerful dictators in Central America so they could have permanent dominance over the region.

In order to perfect Banana Fish, its co-creator, Dr. Abraham Dawson, began testing it on soldiers and civilians abroad during the Vietnam War. Later, Dr. Manorheim continued performing human experimentations on convicts under the guise of “rehabilitation centers.” The early side effects of Banana Fish were extremely deadly, which led to brutal attacks and self-inflicted suicides on the unfortunate victims of the drug.

These experiments are a disturbing reminder of programs like Project MKUltra, a program created by the CIA that focused on creating drugs for mind control during the Cold War. They also allude to other real medical practices, particularly in communities of color, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and forced sterilizations.

Similarly, the “medical experts” in Banana Fish did not hesitate to perform unlawful procedures on marginalized communities because they knew no one would care. Dr. Manorheim tried to justify these experiments by arguing that “medical advancement” should have no limitation if it means progress for humanity, but Ash rightfully compares Dr. Manorheim to Josef Mengele, who performed similar experiments in concentration camps.

a discussion among American politicians--Ash suggests targeting Honduras and using American deaths to stir public sentiment

The investment in Banana Fish shows how desperate American politicians were for this drug to be perfected, especially since, during the mid-1980s, the Cold War against “communism” was still in effect. They were afraid that they would lose dominance over countries that had given them access to steal their resources.

This premise is based on the reality that, during this period, literally all of Latin America and the Caribbean were under dictatorships and the American government had established close relationships with countries that prioritized U.S. interests above all else. This paranoia against “communism” and real-world fears about the United States losing their hegemony in other countries was heightened during Ronald Reagan’s administration, which used the guise of “defending democracy” abroad to intervene in international conflicts.

Eventually, in the manga, politicians discuss their fears of all the revolutionary uprisings happening down south, such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. These scenes reflect the probable callousness displayed by the real-life closed-room meetings that decided the fate of millions of people abroad.

continuation of Ash's monologue, pointing out that Americans are bitter after Vietnam

The revelation about why there was an urgent need for Banana Fish is so vile because it shows how predominantly elite white men make decisions about the lives of millions of people who have historically been through so much colonial violence. These same groups are still dealing with the legacies of white supremacist racial hierarchies that created immense socio-political and economic disparities against QTBIPOC.

Dino knew what he and these other men were doing was wrong, but they didn’t care as long as they could increase their wealth and privileges. These men were so committed to the Banana Fish project that they even hired mercenaries to eliminate anyone attempting to stop them from fulfilling their long-term plans.

Ultimately, their greed ruined whatever trust they had in each other, which leads to their demise when Ash, Cain and Sing’s crew destroy all traces of Banana Fish.  Even though the destruction of Banana Fish does not change the overall systemic violence felt both domestically and internationally, at least our protagonists prevented the contribution of further evil to the world.

Ash explaining to Cain why the latest attack against them was likely a ruse

On Point and Painful: Banana Fish and the readers’ reality

The themes discussed in the series can be triggering to new QTBIPOC readers, especially given its parallels to current ongoing struggles.

It would be be understandable if readers dropped the manga early on after the cold-hearted murder of Skipper. His death is an awful reminder of Black folks being subjected to state violence.

Likewise, people from the Central American diaspora are currently feeling the effects of the United States’ involvement in the Civil Wars, which led to the rise of unaccompanied minors, separations of families, and mass exodus of refugees from their homelands. Since the Banana Fish manga takes place in the mid-1980s when these same Civil Wars occurred, it would be understandable if those readers dropped the series, too.

Reading Banana Fish can be emotionally exhausting, since this story is a reminder that the lives of marginalized communities both here and abroad are constantly dismissed as worthless in the real world.  But even so, I’m continuously impressed that Yoshida was able to discuss how whiteness (as a social construct) influences both interpersonal relationships and systematic institutionalized practices with such care and brutal honesty.

Ash talking to his contact Shorter in front of a graffiti mural of New York's skyline

Lost in Adaptation: The missing history of the Banana Fish anime

Currently, the anime adaptation of Banana Fish is ongoing. When first announced, there was a lot of initial excitement about how the series would be updated to fit our current timeline.

While Banana Fish’s 1980s sensibilities does have a lot of charm, the manga was also extremely aware of the socio-political events that happened during that period. The fact that the anime adaptation team wanted to modernize the series was admirable, but that would mean doing immense research on our current issues, which would require the series to undergo significant changes.

Unfortunately, while the technological updates, narrative focus on getting direct revenge on sexual predators, and animation changes for Black characters to look like actual people are all great, the creative team hasn’t done anything else to address problematic aspects of the series.

A white man in a hoodie pins Skip with one hand and uses the other to lash out at Eiji, who cowers

The anime does not seem interested in creating a different adaptation that could still maintain the powerful core themes that made Banana Fish so compelling. Instead, it’s more interested in the character relationships than the main narrative. This is not necessarily a negative, since to some extent the anime experience has been much more enjoyable than the overall hopelessness of the manga experience.

Still, while it seems the major themes of the manga will be explored to some extent in the anime, they probably won’t be emphasized. This is a shame because those aspects are what made Banana Fish a fascinating manga to read in the first place.

What would a radically different Banana Fish look like for our current generation? That’s a question this anime adaptation unfortunately won’t answer, which is a hurtful thing for me to say because I really believed Banana Fish could have been a smart update that spoke about our current socio-political problems and how those issues resonate with us today.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated after publication to correct a typo and adjust the wording on a sub-header.

About the Author : ThatNerdyBoliviane

ThatNerdyBoliviane was originally born in New York City and essentially lived there until the age of 17 when they had to move to Toronto for reasons. They are currently struggling to survive in this weird-ass world that does not celebrate awesomeness enough. They self identify as Queer Quechua (Mestize) Bolivian-American and are involved with social justice work of all kinds. Aside from that, they are an avid lover of anime, manga, cartoons, (on rare occasion live-action TV shows if it’s good), and having amazing discussions with other folks about nerdy things. You can visit their blog Home to my Bitter Thoughts or follow them on Twitter @LizzieVisitante.

Read more articles from ThatNerdyBoliviane

We Need Your Help!

We’re dedicated to paying our contributors and staff members fairly for their work—but we can’t do it alone.

You can become a patron for as little as $1 a month, and every single penny goes to the people and services that keep Anime Feminist running. Please help us pay more people to make great content!

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

%d bloggers like this: