Japanese LGBTQ+ fans talk about the legacy of Banana Fish

By: Vrai Kaiser September 26, 20180 Comments
A manga drawing for Banana Fish. Eiji and Ash lounge on opposite sides of the frame with a variety of objects, many of them American-related (ike the status of liberty) between them. Text in the middle says "Akimi Yoshida presents Banana Fish"

CONTENT WARNING for discussions of pedophilia, victim-blaming, and sexual assault. SPOILERS for the Banana Fish manga.

Banana Fish has been quite the subject of discussion now that the new anime is out, with many Western viewers discovering the series for the first time. That discovery has also sparked a maelstrom of discussion around the chaste love story between Ash and Eiji: should the series be talked about as proto-BL? As a crime drama? A romance? How does the history of censorship and queercoding affect all this, both in the manga industry and the Western films Akimi Yoshida was drawing from?

While the language we choose as English-speaking fans to talk to one another is its own sphere, particularly with works that draw inspiration from western works, we here at AniFem wanted to highlight how Banana Fish has been received in its own country, particularly by LGBTQ+ fans.

The following two interviews were conducted in English and have been lightly edited for clarity; however, we’re still welcoming responses from Japanese LGBTQ+ readers and would happily publish a second article of responses if they come in. For those who would prefer, we also have the questions available in Japanese.

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

Kageyama Makoto (30, Bisexual, FTX/Non-Binary)

What are your first memories of Banana Fish? If people around you talked about it, what kind of things did they say?

KM: When the anime was announced, I was shocked but not surprised since it happened before with Parasyte (another old manga from late 1980 turned into an anime in the 2010s). And honestly, the things I’ve heard from the people around it were mixed…

My Japanese friends were thrilled about the idea since there was a big hidden fanbase surrounding it, especially among middle-aged women and also some of my Western friends who are into “retro manga” were happy about this. But then… I admit there is also the new people who are either loving it as it is or comparing this to a darker Yuri!!! on ICE because of MAPPA. MAPPA’s animation for Banana Fish is very similar to Yuri on ICE and the whole “homosexual relationship between a Japanese man and Caucasian man” doesn’t really help this case. Which makes me sad but at the same time, it is something to be expected from this kind of thing.

Still, I am happy that some of my Western friends are giving a try to the manga because of the anime and are enjoying it beyond the “gay” and “Yuri on Ice comparisons.” Thank you guys, seriously.

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

Did you read the manga, or is the anime your first exposure? What are your impressions?

KM: I started with the manga like a loooooong time ago, oh man. The manga began serializing before I was born, but one of my uncles (who is bisexual and has been dating his male partner for over 26 years) owned this manga. He was my babysitter for the longest time and he had this huge library of manga and the funny thing is that I began reading this manga from his library because I was young and silly… And it was funny to me to find a manga called “Banana Fish.” Imagine being like eight and you read those words and you imagine a… Banana-shaped fish.

Then I began reading it and it was totally different than what I thought it was (well, of course, you silly child). But honestly, since my Mom was working in journalism back then, it was very intriguing to see in manga all those things you hear about from both my uncle (in the LGBT+ community) and my Mom (working on writing dark articles). It had drugs, it had crime, it had child abuse… It had many things that you read in words, but then seeing them actually drawn, you can actually feel those things and they become real to you as a child since you have a graphic way of seeing them.

My Mom actually read it as well and she liked the darkness from it but the softness as well. The darkness of the situation but the softness of the interactions between some characters, especially Ash and Eiji. Of course, I asked my Uncle if Ash and Eiji were like him and his boyfriend and he said “Yes, but they have it harder than us because they are dealing with shady people.” It was a really funny situation.

I did re-read the manga when the anime was announced so I could rremember things because it’s not the same thing to read a serious manga when you’re eight and reading that same manga again when you’re thirty.

Discussion of Ash and Eiji's relationship later, saying they weren't sexually involved but loved each other, "maybe the way lovers do"

How is Banana Fish remembered as part of manga history?

KM: Honestly, Banana Fish is a favorite and a classic among women and LGBT+ people in Japan, and there’s even cisgender males that enjoyed it. Because it was a serious plot with “homosexual romance” in it. I don’t want to say “subtext” because that would be downgrading the relationship between Ash and Eiji. You don’t need two characters showing a lot of affection or them having sex to actually be in love with each other. Especially considering the personality of both characters (and then, Ash’s past).

In fact, we are looking forward to the future reprint of the manga in better quality that is coming out because of the anime!

What part of the story stuck with you the most?

KM: I admit that one of the things that stuck out to me the most, but mostly out of shock, is the scene of Ash being raped as a child. I say this out of child memory, because when you’re “a girl” (I’m NB, FTX like we say in Japan, but I was born biologically female), they tell you to be careful of going alone because you could be kidnapped and raped by men. So it was a shock to me to know that little boys my age could actually be victims of this kind of thing. That predators exists that will take anything that is vulnerable as prey, regardless of gender.

But on a positive note, another thing that stuck out to me the most is seeing Ash showing the most fragile side of him to Eiji in private, which made me have a more positive image about masculinity per se. You can be strong and carry burdens, but at the same time have your moments where you can rest from that with someone you care about and [show] who you really are. In the end, all human beings are needy but most of us deny it, let’s be honest here. Especially in Japan where you have to put this mask all the time. Even if Ash is a foreigner, he’s a good example in this sense even with his faults… But who likes a character without faults?

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

How would you describe Ash and Eiji’s relationship?

KM: A comfortable relationship of trust, understanding and love without having to be explicit about it. Like I said before, you don’t need constant physical displays of affection or sex to build a strong romantic relationship, it’s those little things that [make] them a good power couple. I would elaborate more on this but that would be spoiling things from the manga to viewers of the anime currently, so I’ll rather not say more. But seriously, in the crazy world of crime and drugs that is Banana Fish, the relationship between Ash and Eiji is the most pure thing in here and you’re in for more emotional rollercoasters between these two.

What genre would you categorize the series as?

KM: Seinen, for sure. Because there’s two characters that are LGBT+ in a story, it doesn’t make it automatically a BL. Let’s take the example of the anime No. 6. It’s clearly sci-fi even if there’s two male characters in love with each other, but even if their relationship plays a big focus on the story, there’s a bigger plot than two gay characters. Same goes with Banana Fish.

Ash and Eiji in tuxedos, Ash kissing Eiji's neck; taken from the art book

How do you think the series holds up?

KM; Because I began with the manga, there’s some things that make me go “eh?!” with the anime. But mostly the stuff that is suddenly added to modernize it a little like technological advances or character design changes… But honestly, anime has done that before with Parasyte, so I shouldn’t be surprised. There’s some new things that were added into the anime to make the plot richer, which I admit I like. But after all, I am liking this so far and it’s holding up well.

I just hope they don’t rush things up, but as far as I know, the anime will have 24 episodes so I think (and hope) that is enough to cover everything properly and not botch things up by the end. Or change things in the plot for the sake of catering to the so-called “fujoshi public.” Readers of the manga, you know exactly what I’m talking about! *laughs*

Is there anything else you’d like to discuss that these questions haven’t covered?

KM: Honestly I’m pleased with Banana Fish being an anime, I would have preferred it to be animated in another time earlier, but honestly? It’s better now than never. Especially because there’s unexpected things like merchandise of Banana Fish that didn’t exist before that is coming out. Yes, I’m looking out for those Ash and Eiji nendoroids, for example.

But still, disregarding the sudden rise of popularity of this manga classic as an anime, I hope that people are enjoying it beyond the whole “gay thing” because this series has to be watched without the “fujoshi glasses” on and enjoy things as they are. And I repeat, please do not compare or turn it into “dark Yuri on Ice” because of MAPPA and the romance between two characters of different races. And if you want to explore other anime with rich stories with LGBT+ main characters, please check out No.6 or Shin Sekai Yori (this last one also contains relationships between two girls).

Ash helping Eiji aim a gun. subtitle: Pull the trigger lightly

Anonymous (27, Gay, Male)

What are your first memories of Banana Fish? If people around you talked about it, what kind of things did they say?

A: I actually ended up picking it up fairly early in my senior year of high school, so some time ago, because of the prologue’s relation to and reoccurring use of the Vietnam War and trauma. We had been assigned to read some works exploring the Vietnam War and the impact of America’s occupation on both the citizens and soldiers. At first I thought maybe it had some relation to J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” when I stumbled across Banana Fish—which it does have some very loose similarities. I actually continued reading it because of the prologue since it seemed in line with some of the works I was reading for school at the time.

I was pretty surprised about the rest of the manga and the turn it took regarding the main characters of Ash and Eiji, along with the plot twist about the namesake of the drug itself. No one else I knew was reading it at the time. However, I have seen a lot of people talk about it now because of the anime. I see a lot of praise for Banana Fish and not much criticism of the series itself or its themes, but acknowledgement of how mature and dark it can definitely get. So mostly people are very positive, at least the new readers in the West. In Japan there has been some discussion too, but from what I see the general popularity of the series has increased again.

Did you read the manga, or is the anime your first exposure? What are your impressions?

A: My first exposure to Banana Fish was through the manga. It was really surprising to me not only in how it addresses trauma and PTSD in relation to war-time events, but also regarding sexual assault. This was a first for me reading something with an LGBT+ cast where the protagonist fought back against his assailant, and it left a very strong impression on me. Until then I hadn’t read anything remotely similar and this was probably the last thing I had expected at the time. Not because of the themes of the manga itself, but because that’s just not something I had come to expect in manga that had romantic or sexual relationships between men.

How is Banana Fish remembered as part of manga history?

A: That’s hard for me to say because by the time I had read Banana Fish it was already established. It was held in pretty high regard, which I think is very important since this series does feature LGBT+ leads. A lot of people do consider it very formative for the BL genre as well, and I think this is ultimately what it is remembered for—primarily the relationship and chemistry between the two central characters, Ash and Eiji. I haven’t seen much acknowledgement of how it subverts some of the more problematic tropes in this genre however, but this is based on my personal observation.

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

What part of the story stuck with you the most?

A: For a scene? I think it was when Ash physically fought back against Dino Golzine, the man that had groomed him into being his sex slave and had abused him most of his youth, stabbing and killing him. Looking back on this as an adult it’s a very empowering scene. I was a victim of sexual abuse and revisiting that moment recently was very powerful to me. It’s very raw, like much of the series is, but not without purpose.

Outside of that, it was how the series addresses trauma or even acknowledges it in relation to sexual assault. Most of the time sexual assault, especially rape, is turned into some kind of fantasy or even a “positive” experience in works that have same-sex relationships between men. Given how old Banana Fish is, I wouldn’t say it’s a first, but it was very rare to me when I had read it. I hadn’t come across anything like that yet so it was very different from other manga I had read at the time.

How would you describe Ash and Eiji’s relationship?

A: I would say it’s quite soft, and almost natural. It doesn’t have a lot of the typical elements you find in a lot of LGBT+ works that involve same-sex couples, at least from around the time of Banana Fish‘s release and eventual completion. It lacked the usual power dynamics you see as well and that was very refreshing. Both seemed to be on fairly even ground and the moments between them that were intimate were very tender. The way their relationship grew throughout the events of the series made their bond stronger as a result too. There was proper development between the pair.

It isn’t the perfect example of an LGBT+ relationship in manga or anime (especially given when Banana Fish came out and how other works have improved upon the representation of sexual minorities in these genres), but it didn’t feel forced or rushed in any way.

Ash and Eiji in tuxedos with red roses, taken from the art book

What genre would you categorize the series as?

A: I was living in North America when I encountered Banana Fish and it was labeled as seinen, and I agree with that. It probably seems strange that I wouldn’t categorize it as BL or feel like it falls within that genre, but this is because it subverts a lot of the negative elements that are fairly common within the BL genre and because of the history of the genre itself.

I feel like it’s also important that LGBT+ relationships can exist within other genres than the specific categories they’re often placed into based on the relationships present in them. In turn, it helps normalize them so perhaps we’ll see them in series that aren’t explicitly catering to one demographic or the other.

How do you think the series holds up?

A: I would say so, yes. I think it still has a lot to offer [that] other mainstream manga (or anime) don’t. Banana Fish is a story that discusses a lot of very hard topics that most series don’t tackle head on. Even now it’s quite controversial that Banana Fish offers commentary on the lingering effects of trauma in relation to sexual assault since this is something not openly spoken about in Japan. Not only that, but the series itself does briefly explore the camaraderie between men in gangs and the violence often perpetuated in those circles. (Note: I apologize if this isn’t phrased super well.)

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

Is there anything else you’d like to discuss that these questions haven’t covered?

A: While the series does address trauma in relation to sexual assault and is probably one of very few works that actually tackle this head-on in relation to same-sex relationships between men, the only type of sex shown between men is rape. No acts of consensual sex is shown between male characters. Banana Fish is a very powerful and formative work, and does have LGBT+ characters present within the narrative, but this is hard to ignore and something that can’t outright be excused either.

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