HOW BANANA FISH EMBRACES ITS OWN LIMITATIONS
And by doing so rises above them
Banana Fish is a very rare specimen among anime for two very specific reasons. There are two types of shows that are very uncommon in anime. The kind that’s based on source material that’s more than half a decade old. And the kind that takes place in an urban setting outside Japan. Banana Fish falls into both these categories. The manga on which the show is based was originally published in Japan between 1986 and 1990 and has been in print in the west since 1999. It is in fact, one of Viz Media’s best-selling series. So much so the series has already been reprinted…twice. As such, unlike most other anime, many of Banana Fish’s audience is familiar with the source material.
Compounding this problem is the fact that the original manga was set in the United States and delved heavily into socio-political issues that were pressing at the time. Yet the remake is set in modern times and so, by definition, cannot tackle the same themes in the same manner.
The anime explores many of the same themes as the manga but within the context of a more modern perspective. Moreover, it explores these themes from the perspective of a Japanese individual rather than someone who actually lives in the society the series is set in. This is made even more apparent by the fact that the series streams on Amazon Prime and so there is no English dub meaning that due to the nationality of the voice-cast every name is pronounced in a Japanese manner. So perhaps when you read the manga you internally pronounced the main character’s name as “Ash”. But in the anime he is called “Ashu”. And this goes for every name.
As a result, what you have is a show that has to contend with various degrees of alienation, both from fans of the source material and overseas audiences who are more familiar with the series setting than the staff themselves are. And Banana Fish, in every way, acknowledges this problem and uses it to great effect. In this analysis I want to explore how Banana Fish embraces its own limitations and is all the better for it.
The two main themes of Banana Fish are “abuse” and “social inequality” which it explores under the guise of a crime thriller. The story follows Japanese journalist Eiji Okamura as he travels to the United States to meet gang leader and genius hacker Ash Lynx with the intent of conducting an interview with him for the newspaper he works for along with his older colleague and mentor Ibe.
During this he uncovers a web of child abuse at the hands of various wealthy people. Young boys who have no one to take care of them are taken in by mob bosses who then proceed to pleasure themselves with these boys until they become too old and are unceremoniously disposed of. Something that has been going on for years without any repercussions because the mob owns various powerful people in the justice department who turn a blind eye. It is a world in which the rich and powerful are omnipotent and can commit the most horrible atrocities with no repercussions while those without it are subject to the whims and mercy of their cruel masters. The analogy here isn’t the subtlest but it is apt and nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States.
However, what's far more prominent than the socio-political commentary is its psychological unraveling of sexual abuse on young boys as seen through the eyes of Ash Lynx who was one of Golzine’s first victims and has never been rid of him both in a practical but also very much psychological sense. In fact, the title of both the original manga and anime is a reference to a short story by J.D. Sallinger on PTSD. Which is not just a reference to the titular drug that acts as a McGuffin for the story but also clearly indicates that the main focus of the story is on Ash and how he handles the abuse that was inflicted on him. Interestingly enough, Seymour, the protagonist of Banana Fish is eventually unable to cope with the trauma, which makes me very curious to see where Ash’s journey will eventually leave him.
This aspect will become more prominent later as I talk more about the characters and how we, as the audience perceive them. But for now, let’s go back to the more cultural aspects of the story and how Banana Fish acknowledges its own distance to western culture and uses it to convey its themes. This is something that can be found in every part of the show. Down to its opening song: Lost & Found by Survive Said the Prophet. A song with an English title but by a Japanese band and sung in both Japanese and English. In fact, the use of language as a whole and how Banana Fish uses that to elaborate on its themes extends far beyond the parameters of the opening song. Despite being set entirely in the United States the show is entirely in Japanese and there is no difference in accent or pronunciation between the voice actors who are voicing Japanese characters like Eiji and Ibe or the ones voicing American characters like Ash. Lastly there’s a whole slew of character who are neither such as mob boss Dino Golzine who’s lived in America for a long time but is originally of Italian descent. He too speaks Japanese without any hint of an accent. Similarly, news items are entirely in Japanese but sometimes accompanied by text in English while street signs, billboards and name tags are all in English. This of course makes it harder for the viewer to buy into this version of America that’s basically bi-lingual but at the same time it also comments on our modern-day society in which language barriers are fast becoming obsolete. Instead of trying to obfuscate its limitations the show lays them bare and uses them to make a subtle comment on present day society in a way that the manga never could.
Similarly, the books that Ash and various other characters read throughout the series are all classic works from the 50s and 60s rather than popular bestsellers nowadays or even when the source material came out. This provides the show with a sense of timelessness. Existing outside the time period of the 1980s when the manga came out or the present day in which the anime is supposedly set.
So where do all these points lead us? How does Banana Fish bridge the gap between both the time period in which the source material was set and the one in which the anime takes place as well as the distance between the country and culture in which the story takes place and the one in which it was conceived. The answer is: it doesn’t. Banana Fish acknowledges its own limitations and rather than being a Japanese work masquerading as an American series it instead proves itself to be a quintessentially Japanese series that offers us an interpretation of the US and its cultural issues.
This works because Banana Fish is at its core a mystery thriller series and as Eiji slowly uncovers the complex web of violence and abuse so does the audience begin to gain a greater understanding of the topics the show wants to discuss through the lens of this alternate version of America.
However, to an even greater extent, what this illustrates is the alienation we feel from the main characters. And nowhere is this more apparent than with the show’s largest enigma: Ash. In an early scene in the show Ash is beaten and raped in prison. This scene starts off as any scene in a series of this sort: building suspense and an impending feeling of dread before the big reveal. Ash’s cellmate Max runs up the stairs fearing the worst and into the library yelling Ash’s name. Then finally we get the shocking reveal as Max finds Ash bound and naked on the library floor with bruises all over his body, groaning in agony. The implication here is very obvious. It’s an absolutely gut-wrenching moment especially since rape in anime is uncommon. The audience’s expectation at this point is that this is to be a large turning point for the story and that it will impact Ash on a deep emotional level as rape always does to its victims. Yet the impact of this moment is greatly diminished and given none of the gravitas we expect by the next scene as the show barely spends two words on what happened before moving over to a visual gag in a way that only anime can do. This doesn’t just serve to lighten what would otherwise be an incredibly dark moment but far more so it’s the first time we as the audience begin to realize there is very little we really know about Ash and what he’s been through. His perspective on life and the world around him is so radically different from our own that we as the audience are as alienated from him as say…a Japanese person is from American society.
To be completely clear though: Banana Fish isn’t a harsh political pamphlet on the issues of social inequality and abuse in American society. In fact, the majority of the time the show seems most keen on developing the burgeoning romance between Eiji and Ash. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t interject its very dark romance narrative with a good amount of social commentary. Nor does it undercut the tremendous achievement that it does this in a way that makes it accessible for both Japanese and western audiences alike. By doing this Banana Fish eliminates the cultural barriers so often felt in anime that takes place overseas. Precisely by admitting its own limitations and embracing them wholeheartedly. It openly admits it’s telling a story set in a culture with which it is unfamiliar set in a time that is radically different from that in which its source material took place. And in doing so it becomes its own work. A work that, if this wasn’t obvious yet, you really should watch.
Special thanks to @Kuze for editing and feedback
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