2018 is probably the Year of Classic Anime Revivals. On the heels of the Cardcaptor Sakura revival and the Ashita no Joe 50th Anniversary tribute anime Megalo Box comes a whole slew of older anime being retooled for a modern audience. Among them is one I have been eagerly anticipating, the cult classic shoujo manga series by acclaimed mangaka Akimi Yoshida, Banana Fish!! It’s been over 30 years since the manga graced the pages of Betsucomi back in 1985 and yet despite its shoujo roots, Banana Fish is anything but a typical shoujo series. This is a story with grit, delving into the bloodthirsty world of the New York gang scene. It’s not pretty, and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but at its core, Banana Fish offers a rather human look at a world plagued by violence and death, while still retain an overall message of hope. So before you sink your teeth into the Summer 2018 anime retelling of the cult classic let’s take a look at the manga that started it all!!
Set deep in the dark underbelly of 1980s’ New York, Banana Fish follows Ash Lynx as he attempts to bring down the crime empire of notorious crime boss Papa Dino. Amidst the chaos of gang wars and back alley deals, Ash meets and befriends a pure-hearted Japanese photographer, Eiji Okumura, and the two embark on a dangerous journey that will take them to the very depths of hell.
Plot & Story
On paper, Banana Fish is a shoujo manga, and yet anyone that has ever cracked open the pages of Akimi Yoshida’s 19 volume epic will tell you that it is about as far from the roses and romance of traditional shoujo manga as a story can get. Banana Fish gets dark in its complex narratives and nuanced characters. Yoshida’s classic would seem better suited alongside seinen series like Akira rather than among the pink tinted covers of Viz Media’s other Shojo offerings. Everything from the covers to the synopsis on the back of each volume scream epic crime thriller, and perhaps that is why the series has been lauded by critics for its crossover appeal. Banana Fish is without the romantic overtones that permeate its genre and that is what attracted me to the series in the first place. I was looking for something dark and edgy, something that I could really sink my teeth into and Banana Fish was just the series I was looking for, and even after several subsequent readings, I still find myself falling in love with the characters and the story Yoshida created over thirty years ago.
The story is a snapshot of a very specific period of time surrounding a group of characters that represent a particular subset of the population. It’s not meant to be especially groundbreaking, nor is the story meant to meant to be construed into some sort of thinly veiled social commentary. At its core, Banana Fish is a merely a glimpse into the past, to a time in which two boys met, became friends… and took down an entire criminal organization.
Of course, like most older series, Banana Fish is not without its flaws, most of which can be attributed to the time period in which the series takes place; the series spans from the mid-80s to the early 90s. So, expect a lot of references to dated technology and events from that period of time, which will undoubtedly be updated for a more modern audience in the upcoming anime series. But, there is a kind of charm to the dated references that give the story much more validity, because it was written in the same time period during which the story takes place. I will admit, however, that the series as a whole is plagued by some of the shortcomings of the time. Some of the characters are little more than outdated racial caricatures, particularly many of the Asian American and African American side characters. They use 80s’ slang a lot in their dialogue, which does not always hold up so well or perpetuates racial stereotypes that should stay lost to the sands of time. And don’t get me started on the pacing; it is clear that Yoshida had to stretch out the story a bit in some places and the pacing suffers for it. But, where this series really shines, is in the complexity of the characters, namely the main cast, and the relationships they share with one another.
The most intriguing aspect of the story is the relationship between the series’s main characters, Ash Lynx and Eiji Okumura, two very different young men, who despite everything, manage to strike up an unbreakable bond that transcends all reason. Some readers tend to classify their relationship as romantic in nature, pointing out the BL undertones that permeate many of their interactions with one another. However, Yoshida never specifically clarifies whether their relationship is romantic or simply platonic. Rather, she toes a thin line between both camps, which, for hardcore BL fangirls is frustrating and more than a little off-putting. But, by not defining the true nature of their relationship, Yoshida actually adds more depth to the characters, because while their relationship is an integral part of the narrative. It isn’t necessarily the driving force behind their motivations.
When most people learn about the series, their biggest reason for not reading it is the art style. I will admit that it is a bit jarring at first. It is very 80s, and for that I say, keep reading! It gets much better about midway through and the action scenes get much more fluid. Since the series takes place between the mid-80s to early 90s, the character designs reflect the fashion of the times: oversized shirts and jackets, skinny jeans, and of course, fluffy hair!
I should mention that before Viz published it as part of their Shojo line of manga, it was first serialized in their monthly anthology magazine, Pulp, in a flipped format. For those unfamiliar with flipping, it’s when a publisher will flip the pages of a manga from its original right-to-left orientation to a left-to-right format, so it is easier to read for western readers. The practice has fallen out in recent years, but, at the time it was all the rage. Thankfully, when Viz updated the series for its Shojo imprint, they restored it to its original right-to-left formatting. But, that was not without its shortcomings, in the Shojo imprint, Viz took to translating all of the sound effects into English, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, they took a page from Marvel and DC and decided to go for over the top, flashy sound effect fonts that detract from just about every single frame they’re in.
Themes & Trivia
Meaningful Title: The title of the series comes from the title of J.D. Salinger’s 1948 short story, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’.
Genre Fluid: Banana Fish is unsurprisingly enough often miscategorized as a Boys’ Love (BL) manga due to the ambiguous nature of Ash and Eiji’s relationship with one another. Though, this is nowhere near as surprising as the series’s actual shoujo roots, since the series features a much grittier and darker narrative than your usual shoujo manga series.
Darker and Edgier: This series is not for the faint of heart. It features some pretty dark themes and situations, including but not limited to the following: Death, Rape, Child Abuse, Violence, Guns, Gore, Drugs, and Profanity.
Dated Setting: The series takes place between 1985 and the early 90s, amidst the gang wars of the New York City underworld. The character designs and dialogue also reflect the time period, which may be a bit off-putting to modern audiences.
Sexual Violence: I decided to separate this out because a big part of the story focuses on sexual violence, specifically rape and child abuse. Yoshida doesn’t sugarcoat these issues in any way shape or form. They are on full display and at times painfully so. If you are uncomfortable with any and all sexually explicit violence, this is not the manga for you.
Banana Fish is hands down my absolute favorite manga series of all time. When I first picked it up over 8 years ago, I was floored by how engrossing the story was and still it. The characters are all fleshed out and the plot, while at times kind of slow, keeps you flipping page after page. I could not put it down! I managed to read the entire series in the span of an entire weekend and while my eyes hurt like hell, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction, the likes of which no other series has been able to recreate. I fell in love with the characters! I was invested in their struggles, and damnit, I cried when everything was all said and done (I still can’t bring myself to read the last volume without bursting into tears).
Don’t Judge a Book By Its Genre
- The relationship between Ash and Eiji is rather progressive, presenting an ambiguously romantic relationship between two male characters that isn’t reliant on physical intimacy.
- A general fluid story that will appeal to a wide range of audiences.
- A nice balance of drama, angst, humor, and wit; there are highs and there are lows and Yoshida does a great job of transitioning between each
- This series is long and can drag at times
- It’s dated, like really, really dated. Many of the references will be lost on younger readers
- It’s a bit confusing at first, the manga just kind of drops you into the action with little or no setup.
Banana Fish is a seriously underrated series that until recently was buried under some of the more mainstream classics. However, my hope is that with the new anime series more people will decide to check out this truly fantastic series. Akimi Yoshida was ahead of her time with her masterful genre fluid narratives and flawed, yet nuanced characters and storytelling. So, if you haven’t guessed already, I highly recommend giving this series a chance. It’s kinda long and old, but it’s a story that sticks with you long after you turn the last page and that’s more than worth picking up a volume.