Hello readers, and welcome to the fifth installment of our roundtable, Breaking Down Banana Fish!
This month we take on volumes nine and ten, in which Ash faces Arthur in their final showdown, Eiji is nabbed by the fuzz, Yut-Lung reveals his vulnerable side, and government conspiracy runs amok.
I’m joined this month by Michelle Smith (Soliloquy in Blue), Khursten Santos (Otaku Champloo), Connie C. (Slightly Biased Manga), and Robin Brenner (No Flying, No Tights). Eva’s taking a break this time around, but she’ll be back with us in January as we head into the second half of the series!
Just a note: We’ll be moving to three volumes per installment beginning in January, so if you’re following along, be sure to read up through volume 13!
I would like to take just a moment to thank everyone on the roundtable for working to make time for this project. Nineteen volumes is a large commitment to make, and I have a great deal of gratitude toward these women for sticking it out, especially Eva who will have to marathon five volumes to catch up next time around! Thanks also to Viz for printing this series in its entirety. Perhaps if we’re very lucky, it might receive an omnibus treatment somewhere down the line, to put it all back in print.
MELINDA: Volumes 9 & 10 are fairly action-packed, beginning with Ash’s final showdown with Arthur and ending with his attempt to escape from a creepy mental research facility. In between it all, we’ve got (among other things) an assassination attempt, false death reports, a kidnapping, and repeated demonstrations of Eiji’s new unwillingness to play damsel in distress. In all this, what made the greatest impression on you over the course of these volumes?
MICHELLE: This is a fairly unglamorous answer, given all of the riveting action that transpires in these two volumes, but I was actually struck most by the beautiful balance of the story. It seemed like every single character had something to contribute.
The politicians scheme to get Ash in federal custody, much to the consternation of a pair of sympathetic NYPD detectives. Max Lobo gets more proactive about exposing Papa Dino, and uses his swanky new Newsweek credentials to attempt to help Ash escape from the mental health facility. Eiji gets kidnapped by Yut-Lung, who fascinatingly ribs him about his uselessness so far, and later almost implores Eiji to take him out before he can go up against Ash. Sing shows at least some level of loyalty toward Yut-Lung, but at the same time is willing to listen to Eiji, and of course Eiji can tell him the real story of what went down with Shorter, because Ash sure as hell wasn’t going to make any excuses about it.
Hell, even Papa Dino receives some unexpected character development here, urging Ash to get himself out of this predicament and later deriving some enjoyment from watching his replacement attempt to square off against Ash, whom he has sorely underestimated. I’ve always found Ash fascinating, and loved the dynamic between him and Eiji, but these two volumes really show the worth and importance of the supporting characters.
CONNIE: I pretty much agree, I’m struck by the balance amongst all the characters, good and bad, major and minor. The fact that even the cops from the beginning of the story are still involved in some capacity, and still have interesting parts to play, struck me as the best example. I liked how sympathetic they are, too. Having said that, during my initial reading, I appreciated all the side characters very little since I was disappointed the momentum of the story slowed down between the fight and the mental hospital scenes. I liked these scenes better this time through, though.
My favorite part the first time through was definitely the showdown with Arthur, though. I could not read those pages fast enough the first time through, and it killed me that their fight was interspersed with so many other things going on with the gangs and whatnot. I just wanted the scene straight, with no reactions from the peanut gallery. I’d been looking forward to that particular scene since the beginning, and the longer I had to wait, the more intense I knew it would be. Plus, even after all the hype from the last volume, I wasn’t entirely sure that this wouldn’t be a half-measure, that Arthur wouldn’t slip off and be dealt with later in the series.
I still enjoyed it when I re-read the books, but this time, between the two volumes, the more intense scene for me was the confrontation between Eiji and Yut-Lung. I had forgotten about it, and perhaps it struck me as more intense because of that. It’s an amazing scene though, for both characters.
ROBIN: My first thought when I got these two volumes was, “Dude, the cover of volume 9 really smolders!”
I was anxious to get back to the fight between Arthur and Ash, and I was not disappointed one iota. I must harp on again about the art: the pacing, the action, and the editing of the panels in these fight sequences rival carefully wrought films. I wish there were more such scenes. What is the balance over the whole series between visual scenes like these and the talking heads scenes that churn out the exposition?
I agree that the slow expansion of the wide net of characters we’re following is both engaging and welcome. Were the series simply focused on Eiji and Ash, it would quickly get too claustrophobic, but with the wider cast of people that we’ve grown to care about from the thugs to the cops to rivals, the series is becoming a true ensemble with a structure to support the long storyline.
KHURSTEN: The greatest impression I have on this volume is Papa Dino’s relationship with Ash.
I am quite sure a lot of people will totally disagree with me on this and perhaps I’m pushing moral codes for a bit but I actually found Papa Dino’s selfish claim on Ash to be very interesting and deliciously complex. While I understand that it is morally wrong to commodify a person like this, but Papa Dino’s idea that Ash was his creation, that the boy is who he is because he created him was rather interesting, if not, a matter of fact. Looking back at that scene now and thinking about how I’ve always thought of Ash as a survivor makes me question again how integral Papa Dino was in his concept of survival. And it’s almost scary to admit that Ash is who he is because of the very abuse he received from Papa Dino. His own desire to bring the man down pushed him to use all of his faculties to be quite the guy who could literally, bring a house down. Does this mean that Papa Dino’s badtouching has brought out the best in Ash? While true, it is a very tough idea to swallow.
MELINDA: Michelle, your answer resonates with me particularly, because I think this is the first point in the story where I started really caring about more than just Ash & Eiji. Up through volume eight, though I found some of the other characters interesting, my real focus as a reader was on the two leads, and finding out what was going to happen to/between them.
I think what strikes me most profoundly over the course of these two volumes is a sense that, suddenly, Yut-Lung is in over his head. Here’s a guy who values control over nearly everything else, who is suddenly not really in control at all. He’s still able to play the part in front of the men who serve him, but he lets the cracks show in front of both Eiji and Sing, which is not something he would have done earlier in the story. And when a guy like that shows his weaknesses, he’s at his most dangerous. For me, the whole thing was quite chilling.
ROBIN: On another note, I had a couple of problems here:
I get slightly tired of the fact that the cops and such aren’t a bit more suspicious and intelligent in terms of realizing there’s a great conspiracy behind who’s trying to get to Ash. I feel like they should have caught on more by now. Is that just me expecting too much?
Also, the whole Ash performing a torch song number in the institution was a bit jarring to me. Partly funny, partly truly disturbing, it have a window onto what he might have been required to do in his past (and I was a tiny bit disappointed that the guard was such an ass that he took the bait, but I see that’s the way this escape was going to work.) We hear a lot more in these volumes about the specifics of how Ash grew up and was horribly used (and the outrage people feel about this treatment). In the midst of all of that discussion it was difficult to tell if this scene was supposed to be funny or creepy or both. I went with creepy, in the end. What do you all think about the balance between unnerving and humorous?
MICHELLE: I also found this very jarring! It employs the same more comedic art style used earlier when Ash is faced with the bevy of squeeing nurses back at the hospital, so one assumes it was meant to be funny like that earlier sequence, but it’s just really, really bizarre watching Ash act like that.
MELINDA: I totally go with creepy, or at least it plays for me as creepy, but I don’t know if that’s just me excusing the mangaka for poor humor.
CONNIE: I found Ash’s behavior in the hospital jarring as well, but I find all the “humor” (which I assume that was, maybe not) in the series a little jarring. Part of me knows this is unreasonable, and that a little levity is needed and usually welcome in a series like this. And often it does work for me, such as Ash’s pumpkin story a little while back. But I always trip over it a little since I’m not expecting it, and usually at best it feels really bizarre.
I took the scene with the guards as humor just because it seemed a little over-the-top to be anything else. The guards seem to fall for it more as a novelty than as a seduction technique. It is a really strange and effective distraction.
ROBIN: Finally, on Papa Dino and his bit of character development urging Ash to live just so he can take him out himself. I found this to be interesting, certainly, but also difficult to care about as a complex development. Ash is one of those guys who deserves a worthy adversary. I feel at this point the only adversary worth him is Yut-Lung, and even he doesn’t have his full heart in it (as demonstrated by his death wish opposite Soo-Ling.) Papa Dino is not, to me, a worth adversary: he’s just a monster with too much power. He’s not a match intellectually or remotely sympathetic. I’m not sure I’d want the series to fall back on the old cliche of “my best friend has become my enemy” that’s so often used in manga and anime, but I find myself wishing there was an antagonist worthy of Ash’s skills. Basically, I want a villain who I believe could possibly beat Ash. What do you all think? Maybe this is upcoming?
MICHELLE: It didn’t even occur to me that Papa Dino was going to be set up as a worthy adversary; I just thought it was an interesting development for the moment, but not necessarily indicative of a permanent change of heart or anything. I, too, see Yut-Lung as the only worthy adversary at present, but I suspect he’s going to become one of the gang at some point and that someone very high up in government is going to get bested by our hero. Indeed, we shall see. I suspect those who have read the series already are giggling at our speculations!
MELINDA: I admit I am giggling a little, but it’s fun!
Yut-Lung is very interesting to me as an adversary, because he so obviously hates his life, and perhaps life in general. He has no delusions about being on the side of right, but he’s not gleeful in the slightest about a “side of dark” either. I don’t want to pretend to speculate on things I already know will/will not happen, but I think Yut-Lung is motivated pretty much entirely by loathing (of himself and others) which makes him more compelling to me as a character than someone who believes they are on some kind of higher mission, for good or ill.
CONNIE: Papa Dino as an adversary is interesting. He does strike me more as a monster driven by obsession. Ash beats him at his own games again and again, humiliating and ruining him, but Papa Dino always comes back for more, and serves as a constant and very direct reminder of all the terrible things that Ash has done in the past. As a direct “intellectual” rival to Ash (in the cat and mouse sense), Papa Dino doesn’t strike me as a likely match, but his obsession makes him very dangerous. He will do anything and everything, clever or not, to get what he wants. He feels very much like the “right” kind of villain. You don’t know what he’ll come up with next and he has just enough resources that it could be insurmountable. Throwing faceless guys and CIA into the mix at this point is slightly less satisfying, because there’s not a personal victory at stake, but also because you aren’t really sure how far they’ll go or how much they may or may not be personally invested in the action. There’s also more of a moral victory when Golzine is brought low.
MICHELLE: I certainly found him more compelling in these two volumes than ever before. And if he turns out to be a big villain, great, but I always love a sympathetic villain ever so much more than the mustache-twirling variety (like that icky Senator dude).
MELINDA: Robin specifically brought up the balance between visual action scenes and “talking heads” scenes, so let’s talk a bit more about that. I personally enjoy both of these elements in Banana Fish. I love the actions scenes for the same reasons Robin does–the fantastic pacing and powerful visual storytelling–but I feel like the talky scenes engage the part of my brain that is interested in things like strategy and government intrigue. I also think these sections are what gives the series its vintage feel, like an old movie or stage play, which is responsible for a lot of what I find charming in the series. Is it just me?
MICHELLE: It isn’t just you! From a dramatic perspective, the conclusion of the fight with Arthur is beautifully staged and it’s almost as if a curtain falls afterwards. End of Act II, or whatever. In order to get us to the next action sequence—see Ash attempt to escape the creepy mental hospital!—we have to have the scenes where corrupt senators conspire to get their hands on him, or misguided scientists ramble on about exactly what they’re going to do to him. Plus, sometimes these talking heads reveal things about Ash that we weren’t going to get any other way, like just exactly how intelligent he truly is.
CONNIE: I mentioned earlier that the exposition in these two volumes frustrated me a little my first time through, especially after that amazing fight with Arthur, but I would agree with Michelle that it is necessary to get to the next point, and that sometimes there’s not really a better way to reveal small details. I always grow a little impatient in stories like this where the action is incredible, both visually and, in this case, because the characters really do have so much at stake. I paid a lot more attention to the side characters this time around, so I did enjoy seeing and learning more about them, and absorbing more details about the others as a result.
My first time through, though, I was more or less on the same boat as Robin. It just felt a little like the rug was yanked out from under me when things slowed down so much here. As far as intrigue and engaging subplots go, the government angle isn’t really my favorite since the implications are so ambiguous. It also makes things slightly less character-centric when you aren’t dealing directly with people who care about/are obsessed with Banana Fish. On the other hand, it makes the institution scene that much more dangerous, since you aren’t entirely sure what lengths they will go to and how well they are equipped to deal with Ash (ridiculously well, as it turns out. Sensors in the air ducts?).
One final note, I did like that the announcement of Ash’s death kind of signaled the beginning of the action again (kinda, there’s still a lot of slow stuff at the beginning of volume 10). I loved the fact that the reader was “in” on it while the characters weren’t.
ROBIN: Connie, your point about having the tension broken when the action goes away I think is quite true for me as a first-time reader. And it’s not just the action — it IS the personal stakes within the action, what’s on the line. I enjoy the internal gang politics, for example, rather more than the machinations of the various government officials, because I care a lot more about the gang members than about the officials. It’s why I’ll always enjoy The Fellowship of the Ring more than I enjoy the more epic scale of The Return of the King.
It is a little bit the problem of any ongoing conspiracy story — the exposition is entirely necessary to make the conspiracy and threat remotely believable, but the way its delivered can kill the mood. Death Note was entirely full of talking, and sometimes too full, and Banana Fish has its moments of just being crammed full of dialog there only to explain the greater plot. Thankfully, so far at least, we don’t have characters having conversations about stuff they wouldn’t need to tell each other — that’s when scripts really fall apart and jar me out of the story.
MELINDA: Robin, I’m glad you clarified that Yoshida doesn’t make her characters tell each other things, unnaturally, just to inform readers. That’s exactly the kind of writing I dislike most in any medium, and I’m grateful it’s absent from Banana Fish. And really manga in general, for the most part. If there’s one thing Japanese manga editors seem to be very efficient at eliminating, it’s that, at least from what I’ve personally seen.
Speaking of Ash’s intelligence, here’s another question for everyone. I think an argument could be made (not that I’m making it, mind you) that Ash is too spectacular to be believable, even in a setting which is clearly fantasy. He’s incredibly charismatic, brilliant with a gun, gorgeous enough to make both women and men swoon, and we’ve just found out that his IQ is even higher than previously thought. Can we still believe this Ash, or has he morphed into the ultimate Mary Sue?
CONNIE: I think he only pulls off the perfect act because he is so deeply scarred and unhappy. That he was troubled by his personal ghosts so early on in the series made it easier to swallow when it came time to reveal that he could do absolutely anything. That his skills were revealed circumstance by circumstance also made things easier to take, rather than just revealing them in one big scenario where he successfully employs all his skills and comes out indisputably on top. That these situations he finds solutions for sometimes have a human cost is significant too. The deaths usually don’t occur as a result of his own actions, but the fact that they are present at all makes the goings-down slightly less perfect.
But yes, some of what he does is extraordinarily unlikely. I think my disbelief was permanently suspended when he did all the computer hacking several volumes ago. There isn’t anything that could trip my BS meter after that, I think.
ROBIN: I agree with Connie that Ash’s arsenal of skills is more believable partly because it’s revealed over time rather than just being whipped out in one giant confrontation. Still, I definitely see your point — the breadth and depth of his intelligence is awesome for me. I always, always prefer smart, and genius smarts makes Ash even hotter! Still, his ability to out-con the con men, hack into complex programs, and unpack complex economics does make his overall ability far-fetched. Do I care that it’s far-fetched? Not too much. As you say, we all know this is a fantasy, and especially in crime dramas, I always root for the clever, good-hearted, amoral guy. And that is Ash in spades.
If anything, the damaged past and brooding is what makes it cliche to me (OF COURSE he has a deep dark wound that haunts him), but again, I don’t really mind. I expect it in this kind of tale. I’d be more surprised if he didn’t have some sort of past trauma that humanizes him. To reference another series, part of the reason I love Kubota in Wild Adapter is that he doesn’t (as of yet) have a childhood trauma that has made him what he is — he just IS a vicious bastard who indulges in the occasional moment of tenderness. That’s a more rare character, but it’s also a much harder balance to make such a character likable.
MICHELLE: I’m mostly with Robin on this one, though I don’t mind the trauma and brooding. There are a variety of things I’m picky about as a reader, but when a character has wowed me early on, as Ash has, to later learn that he’s got genius-level knowledge of computers, business and world affairs doesn’t make me bat an eye.
For every strength of Ash’s that we learn about, there’s a weakness—however internalized—to go with it. Next, he could pilot a helicopter while performing an emergency appendectomy on Max Lobo, and I’d probably be, like, “Oh Ash, you’re so awesome!”
MELINDA: You know, Michelle, so would I. :D Robin, I completely agree with your assessment of Kubota in Wild Adapter here. I do think that Yoshida goes over-the-top with Ash’s childhood trauma and though, like you, it really doesn’t bother me much in this kind of story, I can definitely appreciate Kazuya Minekura for avoiding it in hers.
Of course, as you say, it’s much harder to make a character like that likable, something I think Minekura achieves mainly via Tokito. To a great extent, we love Kubota for loving Tokito, and we trust him more because Tokito trusts him. This also applies to Sehara and Shahryar in Jeon JinSeok’s One Thousand and One Nights, in my opinion. For a very long time, Shahryar is really only tolerable by way of Sehara. I think Yoshida could have achieved the same thing with Eiji, but I don’t mind that she didn’t try to go that route.
Okay, last question from me. So, I haven’t been particularly secretive about the fact that Eiji is my favorite character. But since this sentiment is emphatically not shared by quite a few of you on the roundtable, it’s been interesting for me to watch how your feelings about him have shifted (or not) over the course of the discussion. So, as we head in to the second half of the series, where do we stand on the Eiji-o-meter? Warm? Cold? Staunchly frozen? Give it to me straight, people.
MICHELLE: I’ve always liked Eiji, but his refusal to submit docilely to captivity was definitely good to see. I probably enjoyed Yut-Lung’s pointed criticisms of Eiji more than I ought to have, though. He gets across a couple of real zingers, like, “As opposed to not staying here, and doing nothing?” It felt like I was snickering while someone poked at my friend’s sore spot.
I don’t like Eiji near as much as I like Ash, and I may actually even find Sing more interesting at the moment, but I’m certainly prepared to like Eiji more as he (and the story) develops. For one thing, I hope that his new determination means that we will be done with the “so-and-so almost goes home to Japan” scenes; there have been a lot of those lately.
MELINDA: So perhaps for now, we let Yut-Lung have the last word on Eiji, eh? :D
Thanks for joining us once again! Look for our return in January, when we will tackle volumes 11-13!