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Breaking Down Banana Fish, Vols. 11-13

Hello and welcome to the sixth installment of our roundtable, Breaking Down Banana Fish!

This month, we move to our new three-volume format with volumes eleven through thirteen, beginning with Ash’s escape from a government mental hospital. Having been officially declared dead, Ash is able to reunite with Eiji and his gang without the cops on his tail, but a new scheme from Papa Dino’s corner soon has him trapped again, forced back into prostitution, this time of mind instead of body.

With Ash back in Dino’s clutches, it’s time for Eiji to step up and plan his rescue, with no little help from Chinatown’s gang leader, Sing Soo-Ling.

I’m joined again in this round by Michelle Smith (Soliloquy in Blue), Khursten Santos (Otaku Champloo), Connie C. (Slightly Biased Manga), Eva Volin (Good Comics For Kids), and Robin Brenner (No Flying, No Tights).

Many thanks to these wonderful women for their continued time and brilliance!

Read our roundtable on volumes one and two here, volumes three and four here, volumes five and six here, volumes seven and eight here, and volumes nine and ten here. On to part six!

Breaking Down Banana Fish, Vols. 11-13

MELINDA: These volumes are pretty packed, so there’s quite a lot to talk about. I’ll start by asking about the series’ newest character, Ash’s former mentor Blanca, whom Papa Dino hires to basically bring Ash back to him. General impressions of Blanca? How do you feel about a fresh nemesis being brought in at this point?

MICHELLE: I think Blanca’s code name is apt! It’s hard for me to be too interested in a character who lacks any sort of personal agenda, but I can see how his ability to carry out the job he’s been hired to perform without any impedimenta getting in the way would make him an especially formidable assassin. At the same time, waiting until now to mention a character who has supposedly been important to our protagonist for years bothers me. It’s almost as if Yoshida said, “Okay, so, Ash needs to join Papa Dino at this point in the story, but for him to do that Eiji’s life must be threatened by someone Ash truly fears. I guess I better make up a guy like that.”

EVA: Much like Michelle, I’m very meh on Blanca. There’s no there there yet and other than some vague flickers of conflicted loyalties (will Blanca stand by his commitment to Dino or will he reach out to his protege?) there hasn’t been enough revealed about the character yet for me to be invested in his existence as anything other than a catalyst for change.

ROBIN: I agree with Michelle and Eva — Blanca seems a bit too much like a convenient plot point to actually be all that interesting. His sudden appearance makes his importance to Ash questionable, and while maybe his presence goes toward explaining just how Ash got his crazy sniper skills, it’s poor pacing and plotting for that reveal.

KHURSTEN: I actually found Blanca very interesting. He’s an assasin for hire and while that tickles me in the same way as Golgo 13, I find him a little more colorful than good old Golgo. At first, his sharpshooting skills excited me, but as they open fragments of his past with both Ash and Papa Dino, I begin to appreciate the new shade he’s offered to the story. He’s got his own reasons and he protects them safely behind a shell which he refuses to open for anyone but a select few. And even to these few, he only gives away so little. A book. His experience in the past. A codename. He has layers that I wish to unravel and I’m quite sure we will in the next few chapters. I mean we’ve all seen soldiers doing their duty but Blanca seems to have more to himself than just taking hits. His conversation with Ash in the stockroom was a pivotal point for me. This guy, after years of seeing people through a view finder, understands them and their circumstances a lot more than they could imagine. I love this aspect of professional killers like him. They know and understand life on the other side, that’s why they claim life as easily as they can. It sounds crazy and amoral, but this state of clarity is just astounding.

I also find his name interesting. If only because it’s the contrary to the other Blanca that I know… which is a green orange-haired monster in Street Fighter. If Blanca means being clean and brutal, this guy embodies it quite well. Although the last few chapters just show how he isn’t as blank as what we like to think he is.

I look forward to that in the end.

EVA: As a complete aside, will we talk at all about Ash suddenly becoming one of the world’s Great Minds? If you talked about this during the last session, I’ll move on, but I’m finding this development to be immensely annoying.

ROBIN: To address Eva’s question (which we did discuss last time, but which Melinda may well have planned on bringing up again, as I think Ash’s brilliance gets even more egregious in these last few volumes), I want to point you all toward this excellent article that totally applies to this book: 5 Things TV Writers Apparently Believe About Smart People.

To quote relevant points to this series: “FBI consultant Peter Bishop on Fringe speaks five languages, has had papers published in academic journals, and is an expert in chemistry, biology, medicine, computer programming, auto repair, and pretty much everything you can name, all before time has had a chance to ravage his boyish good looks.

The Problem: Yes, it’s just TV fantasy, and yes, our entertainment will always involve action heroes who are impossibly strong or wise guys who are impossibly witty. What bugs us about this is the implication that if you are born with these supernatural smart people genes, time and effort become meaningless concepts.

This lets us to drag out our favorite and most often-quoted statistic: acquiring mastery in just one field takes approximately 10,000 hours, or ten years… even if you’re really smart. Some shows get around this by simply saying the character has eidetic (or a “photographic”) memory, but that’s a skill so rare that it’s doubtful that it even exists, and there is no recorded example of a single human using the ability to become a genius in every subject they touch.”

This really put the nose on what bothers me about Ash — not that he’s brilliant, which is plausible, but that he’s managed to master all of these myriad skills by the time he’s a teenager. Even if he was just lying back and thinking of England (or New York) with Papa Dino and listening carefully, when on Earth did he have any time or leisure to master all of these skills? I understand the Papa Dino likes to think he coddled Ash, and maybe he did offer him all sorts of education and skills, but…how many years was that true for? Certainly not more than ten years, and that would just be for one subject.

MELINDA: Great link, Robin! I’m glad Eva brought this up, actually, because it’s definitely something I was hoping to discuss again. To some extent, I think even Yoshida must have realized that she’d gone over-the-top with this aspect of Ash. Having come to a point in the story where it’s time for both Ash and Eiji to demonstrate how far they’re willing to go for each other, I think it’s notable that Yoshida realized that in order to make Ash vulnerable enough to require Eiji to step up on his behalf, she’d have to both bring in an impossible nemesis *and* render him blind.

KHURSTEN: I’m not exactly sure what I said before on this but we’re venturing into Yoshida’s fantasy. She has a knack for young geniuses (also shown in her work Yasha) and their level of genius is like “OMG YOU DO NOT EXIST AT ALL.” I know it’s unrealistic but for now, I’m riding in her fantasy and trying to see where she wants to lead me because I’d like to read this as she envisioned it. Seeing these exaggerations remind me that I am still reading a shoujo title. Had this been a seinen manga, I would be completely unforgiving of the lack of balance and care, but for shoujo, I think it’s still appropriate. I am not in the least bothered by it either in the same way that Ash himself doesn’t give a crap about it. He has a gift. It’s a shame if he doesn’t use it.

If I also consider the time that this series was born, it was at the time when stories written like this sold. I mean, we had Doogie Howser. He ain’t an assasin, but hey, we were the generation who bought and appreciated his genius.

CONNIE: I’m in agreement with most everyone else on the question of Blanca. It’s a shame to see “important” characters like Blanca introduced this late in the game. I do like the way he works in the story, and I like the advantages he has over a regular hitman. Ash would probably fight against a no-name threat without a second thought, or simply kill them with a clever trap, both are things we’ve already seen. The connections do give Blanca some stake in the story as well, especially given Ash’s reactions. Having said that, I think we don’t really see enough of him, and how he feels about both his work and Ash, to really measure him as a character.

The first time I read the series, I accepted Blanca the same way I accepted Ash knowing everything about pharmacology. It makes sense in the context of the story, so it was easy to suspend my disbelief when I was so caught up in the action. But reading back through with a more critical eye, it’s definitely tripping me up. I liked the article Robin linked, which made me laugh all the harder considering Ash is about ten years younger than all the fictitious people discussed there.

MELINDA: Like Connie, I don’t remember having a negative reaction to Blanca when I first read the series, but this time I found myself resenting his introduction into the story and wishing that Yoshida had found a means to achieve her ends with the characters at hand. I will say, though, that one thing that really struck me this time around is how much Ash actually dislikes him. Ash seems openly disgusted with Blanca’s career choices–almost as much as he is by the brand of elitism Blanca so clearly subscribes to. That alone makes Blanca at least somewhat interesting to me, though he’s so awkwardly introduced.

I’ll admit too, I do appreciate Blanca’s willingness to call out Yut-Lung regarding his insane jealousy (or whatever) over Eiji. I think I rarely like Yut-Lung so much as when he’s losing his cool.

MICHELLE: I agree 100% about Yut-Lung! I find him much more interesting as a villain because he has vulnerabilities, and I love seeing him get freaked out over things like Ash really being willing to take his own life in order to protect Eiji.

MELINDA: Speaking of that moment, Michelle, I remember being nearly as stunned as Yut-Lung was during my first read through the series, and it wasn’t a lot less stunning this time around, even though I knew it was coming. Which is not to say that I didn’t think Ash would sacrifice himself for Eiji, because I certainly did. But the fact that he would make the decision so immediately, without the slightest thought, as though it wasn’t even a decision at all, really snapped me out of my readerly complacency in a fairly violent way. It was a jolting reminder, not so much of how much Ash values Eiji, but of how little he values himself.

I think that actually may be what helps me get past my issues with Super-Ash. All that stuff that everyone else is constantly ooh-ing and ah-ing over, he doesn’t value at all. It helps keep him real for me, as I see him internally rolling his eyes , and it contributes to what the story will always really be for me anyway–the story of Ash and Eiji.

MICHELLE: I certainly found it shocking, but was actually even more surprised when he followed this up by literally begging Blanca to spare Eiji’s life. Not only is Ash willing to sacrifice his life for Eiji, he’s willing to abase himself completely. Somehow, this struck me even more forcefully than his willingness to die.

KHURSTEN: You know, when I first saw him in the manga in Japanese, he’s more often referred to as Yau-Si than Yut-Lung. So I got a little confused as to who you guys were referring to at the beginning and was just making marked notes of it. I’m not sure if it makes a difference, but in the Japanese books, almost everyone refers to him as Yau-Si. Only when he is in public is he referred to as Yut-Lung. I always felt that this is more to recognize that his seedier side’s more acknowledge that his public facade. It’s as if he has no public facade at all.

I wanna ask, is this the same for the English?

MELINDA: I want to say, Khursten, that it’s about 50-50 in the English version, but I’m not absolutely sure about that. Eiji definitely refers to him as Yau-Si in these volumes, but not everyone does, if I’m recalling correctly.

MICHELLE: I noticed an increase in the “Yau-Si” in these volumes, but since I’ve been calling him Yut-Lung all along, I just kept with it.

EVA: I kind of dig Yut-Lung’s jealousy. Yut-Lung is as ruthless and heartless and vicious as everyone (who doesn’t really know him) thinks Ash is, only Ash is so much better at it than Yut-Lung and has managed to be while still having a soul. Ash is everything Yut-Lung wants to be. Why else would he be so desperate to destroy Ash and everything he cares about?

ROBIN: Whereas I was just getting annoyed with Yut-Lung and his jealousy. It makes him all the more cartoonish to me, not more sympathetic nor more interesting. Perhaps I’m just a grumpy fan who’s read too many manga, but the “I hate you! But I actually love you! But I’m too twisted to admit it so instead I will destroy EVERYTHING YOU LOVE AND MAKE YOU PAY ATTENTION ONLY TO ME!” take on villainy makes me tired. The Joker played that song better.

I do think his shock at Ash’s willingness to kill himself was well placed, though, and broke the above pattern, which was refreshing.

MELINDA: I think I might have felt that way too, Robin, if he wasn’t being made fun of, which goes back to my few reasons for tolerating Blanca. Somehow, seeing him get called out on it, not just in my own mind, makes it work better for me.

ROBIN: Michelle and Melinda, I like your point about how these actions show how little Ash cares about himself almost more than how much he cares about Eiji.

I also take your point about Super Ash, Melinda — at least he’s not walking around with a cocky grin being like, “Yeah, that was me over there being brainy. I ROCK!” (Hee, that image is rather hilariously jarring). He reminds more of a line from the recent Sherlock reboot, of Holmes expressing frustration with how slow everyone else is: “Dear God, what is it like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring!” Ash can’t help how smart he is, and I love that he’s occasionally just like, “What, don’t you all read international politics every day?”

The other sequence that totally made me love Ash in its sheer human-ness was when he had to rush back to save Ibe and Max and had the great expression of “Really!? REALLY!? I can’t leave anyone alone for two seconds!”

EVA: That part was AWESOME.

MICHELLE: I think here were even some pumpkins in the background of that panel, and we know how Ash feels about those!

ROBIN: Oh NOES, not the pumpkins! I love those background visual side notes — it’s lovely that Yoshida just lets those rip. It shows a wonderful playfulness amid all the badassery.

KHURSTEN: I wonder if Yau-Si really was jealous… Reading through these chapters made me wonder why he wanted Eiji dead so bad but then I was thinking maybe… he… just really found Eiji irritating. I’m not exactly sure why he should be jealous of Eiji. Does he want Ash? I’m not sure. For sure he considers Ash a rival and I think if he wants to face Ash head on, he has to get that anger out and kill Eiji. Ah! I think that’s it. I see it that way more than just jealousy. For a criminal, seeing the likes of Eiji is nothing but irritating. The kid’s pure and has nothing but care and concern for Ash and that’s just… stupid. For a criminal, you might want to make sure that your best assets (Ash) stay in your grid and get rid of anything that makes your assets stray.

MELINDA: So, this is a big set of volumes for Eiji, whose relationship with Ash has slowly transformed him into someone who will seek out and walk right into the home of a poisons expert who has recently kidnapped him. (Sing’s “You lost” quip after that is a special favorite of mine.) I especially enjoy watching him meeting with Sing and rallying Ash’s troupes for the cause. And I think Yoshida has developed this part of his character really well. She’s put him in mortal danger just enough to teach him he can survive it. She’s let him watch Ash lead, over and over again, so he’s not operating without guidance. And, of course, she’s given him something worth killing for.

I think he probably could not pull off any of this without Sing’s cooperation, though, and that’s actually what makes it feel realistic to me. Because no matter how motivated Eiji is, he’s still never even shot a gun, let alone acted as the leader of a New York City street gang on a mission to rescue a guy from the clutches of the mob. As clumsy as Yoshida’s been with Super-Ash, she’s not making the same mistakes here. Thoughts?

MICHELLE: As I wrote in my review, I am torn on this issue of Eiji’s evolution. My primary reaction is, “Awesome!” I’m sure it will be immensely satisfying to see a badass Eiji effect a daring rescue and I’m looking forward to it. But I can’t dismiss the follow-up thought, “But what a shame he has to lose his innocence.” Perhaps he and Ash will be better able to relate as equals after this, but I’ll be quite sad if he’s completely lost all those characteristics that made Ash so fond of him in the first place.

(And I am really loving Sing, too. Is it just me or is he beginning to look a little older in these volumes?)

ROBIN: Melinda, I really like your point about how Eiji has now been put in enough danger to know he can survive it. Previously, he rushed into harm due to his feelings for Ash, but had not actually had the experiences yet to know what he was getting into. I feel like now in the sequence Eiji understands very well what risks he’s taking, and therefore the fact that he’s willing to risk his life means more. He’s not stupid, he’s just that committed to Ash.

Also, just to say, I don’t know that Yoshida’s Super-Ash is clumsy, just wish-fulfillment and an awareness of what her audience wants. As much as I may bitch about geniuses in TV and media, well, I do keep watching those shows. I can suspend my disbelief, most of the time — it just struck me particularly powerfully in these past few volumes.

MELINDA: I should probably clarify, too, Robin, that as much as I’ve complained here about Super-Ash, it’s not like this has hampered my enjoyment of the series at all. I’m only noticing it more now on my second read-through than I did originally, since I’m not allowing myself to just be swept up by emotions.

ROBIN: Whereas I kind of like the idea that he’s losing his innocence. Maybe that’s what initially drew Ash to Eiji, but…if Eiji never changes, then the relationship will never be really tested. I want the characters to change because otherwise there’s absolutely no progress, and I’m one of those readers who wants to see the characters grow. Hence, Eiji needs to have some of this effect him, not just be kept in the dark by Ash.

Not that I think that’s what you’d want either — zero character development — but I think that’s why I’m cheering Eiji’s change on without regret.

CONNIE: I’m not sure how I feel about Eiji loosing his innocence. On one hand, I do like Robin’s point about there being necessary character development, and he has grown and matured quite a bit as he’s been exposed to all the terrible things in Ash’s world. And yet, his innocence is one of the things that makes him most appealing. Losing it means that he’s no longer a damsel in distress, but he’s definitely gained himself a kind of haunted aura. He’s still innocent in some ways (like not shooting a gun, and not having the skills to do a lot of the things Ash does, superman or not), and that will never change, so I suppose it’s still a big part of his character.

And in response to Michelle’s comment, I find the growth of Sing to be one of the most interesting things about the later volumes of the series. He’s a lot like Eiji in his innocence. Eiji is completely removed from the entire “world” the series takes place in, but Sing isn’t, and his ignorance and growth seem to be in the areas of how people think. It’s subtle, but the underhanded schemes don’t seem to sit right with him, and it’s interesting to watch as he larns to adapts himself to the different situations and figures a way to get the result he wants. While with Ash, there is no learning process involved, it always seems that Sing is quietly absorbing everything.

MICHELLE: I think you’re exactly right about Sing’s particular area of ignorance. He also seems to see things in more a black and white way, with fewer shades of grey, than some of the others.

KHURSTEN: I doubt Eiji will be like Sing. They’re two different individuals with different motivations. Sing, from what I see, is a just kid. He’s got things he’s cool with, and there are things the really ticks him off. I see him as a younger Ash, one who knows how to play the field but at the same time, one who knows how to hold back when it ain’t his win.

I too enjoyed his comment to Yau-Si. Smug kid.

MELINDA: I don’t think I’m rooting for Eiji to lose his innocence here, and I’m not even sure “innocence” is the right word to use with him anymore. Eiji’s seen too much to be “innocent” of the workings of the world he’s stumbled into, and has made a deliberate choice to stay in that world in order to protect what’s important to him. On one hand, this demonstrates his purity of heart, but there are a lot of emotions at work in him at this point, and they aren’t all driven by pure virtue. If his only desire was to save Ash, he’d have gone back to Japan forever ago, but that’s not all he wants, even now. He wants to save Ash, but he also doesn’t want to lose him. It’s a subtle difference, but significant in my view, and it’s something that distinguishes his motivations from Ash’s at this point.

Ash values himself so little, he’s not just willing to die to save Eiji, he probably thinks that Eiji’s better off without him. Eiji is willing to die to save Ash, but he’s not so damaged as to believe that either of them is better off without the other. Because he is able to value himself, he can also value their friendship more fully than Ash can. He would always believe there was a way for them to remain together, and this helps drive him forward. I’m not trying to say this is a bad thing, by any means, and I think Eiji’s the healthy one here. But it’s not devoid of self-interest.

Also, just in terms of the value of “innocence”… I think there’s an aspect of innocence that is overrated. I think we all have to do some wrong in the world in order to truly understand what’s *wrong* about it, if that makes sense. For instance, I don’t think it’s possible to understand the the consequences of hurting someone unless we’ve actually experienced it for ourselves. I think perfect innocence also requires a level of ignorance that isn’t ultimately a good thing in the world. I know that nobody here is suggesting otherwise, but I think that’s important when we’re thinking about Eiji as a real person and not just as a symbol for something.

KHURSTEN: That’s a great point there, Melinda. In fact Ash reminds me of those really bad tsunderes who think that the person they love is a lot better without him because he’s a bad seed. Friendship, love, any relationship, takes two to function. And I think this is a friendship that Eiji is fighting for and what Ash has resolved as done deal. You’re right in saying Ash really values little of himself and I can’t blame him. As Dino puts it, “A whore is always a whore.” If you’ve lived your entire life as someone bought, sold, and played with, you wouldn’t think of yourself as someone who was worth fighting for. Yet I love what he said to Blanca when he said he found someone who hadn’t pegged a value on him, one who want him for him and nothing else.

And I think it’s beautiful that this story is taking a different turn. Now Eiji is taking reign, showing Ash that he’s worth every effort. That he’s even worth his own life.

EVA: I think it’s important to remember that just because Eiji is losing his innocence doesn’t automatically mean he’s becoming cold and jaded. It means he is more able to be an active participant in the proceedings, no longer needing his hand held or his nose wiped. To me this means he’s getting closer to being the kind of character I’d wished he was back when we discussed the first few volumes of the series. But I don’t think we need fear he is going to turn out like Sing. (It’s at times like this that it hits home that I’m one of the few of the group who hasn’t read to the end of the series yet.)

MELINDA: Also, what Eva said. :D

MICHELLE: You make an excellent point about the difference in how Ash and Eiji view their relationship, which correlates better with what I mean more than my use of the term “innocence.” In truth, the quality I am hoping Eiji won’t lose is his optimism, his belief that there is a way for things to turn out okay. Like Eva said, he can certainly become more badass without becoming cold and jaded, and so that’s definitely what I’m hoping for. Like her, I haven’t read ’til the end of the series, so I have no idea how his evolution will transpire.

KHURSTEN: For me, the evolution is like a girl in shoujo who finally realizes she loves somebody and will do something about it. It’s sudden, it’s stupid, it’s very passionate, and it’s admirable. I do not know how else to see the development given the pace Yoshida has established so far. Eiji is passionate to save Ash from the underworld. That is that. There’s no way a graze on his arm could stop him now. He’s more resolved to take a gun and bring it down just so he could take Ash back home.

I think it’s interesting and I enjoy the thoughts they have of each other which in the is generally the same “I have to protect you.” It makes my heart squee with joy.

While some worry about his lost innocence, I still believe that we haven’t lost his pure heart. The kid knows what he wants and now, he’s just accepted that he’s got to play dirty since these Golzine guys haven’t been playing fair at all.

I’m with Melinda on questioning the appropriateness of the word ‘innocence’. It might not be the appropriate word because he’s still got a lot of things to learn and if losing innocence means him finally picking up a gun, well… I don’t think it’s still the right word for it. I don’t think he lost anything. If ever, I think his experienced has made him more aware and educated of the situation.

ROBIN: Put me down for another one who wants Eiji to keep his optimism (and thus still be a contrast and a help to Ash) but also become more skilled. I think he already is, and I like it — I kind of wish it had started earlier, and I’m beginning to feel like there aren’t going to be enough volumes to get the story I want! Oh manga — sometimes way too long, and sometimes not long enough!

KHURSTEN: This might be random, but I particularly enjoyed how Ash had more cartoony and comedic reactions throughout these volumes, only to be cut short by the last. I like the idea of seeing more of “him” and not the strong tough ass whore that Dino plays him to be.

MELINDA: I think my favorite of Ash’s cartoonish reactions in these volumes are those in which he’s reacting to Eiji’s exasperation over something, only to have Eiji sort of triumph in the end, which may be some of what you’re talking about? Also, I’m fond of his dry humor here. I’m especially thinking of a scene in volume twelve when Eiji asks him what he’s doing, and he simply answers, “Whoring.” Maybe I’m inserting humor there that’s not intended, but that’s the way it reads to me when I hear his voice in my head on that line. That type of humor probably evokes more of the badass vibe you’re happy to see drop a bit in these volumes, but it really works for me. :)

ROBIN: One more thing about Yut-Lung and his jealousy and/or reaction to Eiji — I wonder if perhaps the most prominent emotion is just thinking that Ash is stupid for allowing himself such an obvious weakness. Ash is a formidable opponent except when Eiji’s concerned — if you threaten Eiji, you’ve got Ash cold. You can make him do anything. For someone as devious as Yut-Lung, that is a ridiculous risk to take especially in making it so obvious to your enemies that this relationship is the key to breaking you.

MELINDA: I think you’re absolutely right, Robin. I think the entire thing is something Yut-Lung can’t remotely fathom, and that makes him as angry as anything. He doesn’t have much to cling to in life, except for revenge and his certainty that he understands the world. I think it makes him absolutely crazy not to understand something.

MICHELLE: I think you both are very smart! Now I have an even greater appreciation for Yoshida’s characterization abilities.

CONNIE: I like Robin’s point about Yut-Lung focusing on Eiji merely as a tool to getting at Ash. There is some evidence to the contrary, but I like reading him as mostly curious about what about Eiji makes him such an Achilles’ heel for Ash. And I think Yut-Lung has trouble figuring Eiji out, or can’t really relate to him, which might explain why Eiji rattles him so much.

And I’m not really sure about his name, either. I couldn’t figure out the preference of one name versus another, but I love Kursten’s explanation.

MELINDA: So, we’ve discussed previously the series’ relationship (or not) to BL and there are certainly people who categorize it as such, due to Ash and Eiji’s close relationship. Though obviously we’re not yet finished with the story, I feel comfortable at this point saying that I think Yoshida has made it clear that Ash and Eiji love each other, one way or another. I’ll even go out on a limb and say I think their relationship approaches romantic love or is, at the very least, a bond greater than any platonic relationship I’ve ever personally experienced. While I don’t think it’s necessary to run around labeling relationships, especially when they’re being formed under such extreme conditions, I am curious if any of you have experienced a shift in your view of their friendship at this point.

KHURSTEN: To any BL fan, if they saw the thoughts of these two with regards to each other, then it’s as good as BL gold.

Of course, I’m the idiot who saw this bit of attraction at the beginning (bad fujoshi fangirl that way) but right now, I’m at that point where I’m like “Oh yeah, these two, are totally getting on a honeymoon to the Carribean after this… if this story was running in BeBoy Gold or something.”

ROBIN: In all of this discussion of love, Ash, and Eiji, I do think there are elements of love that are incredibly powerful. There’s the love you have for allies, those you fight with, that is intense and devoted. It’s similar to the bond that can exist in a military unit or, for example, between partnered cops — you’ll risk everything for them, you’ll die for them, and that is not a bond that should be lessened because it isn’t sexual or romantic as we’ve come to understand romance. That’s the emotional bond I see as most potent here. The one that says “I won’t leave you behind, I know you’ll always have my back, and I will never give up.”

With Ash and Eiji, I do think the key is that their love is love, and in particular it’s the kind of love that exists without requirements or strings attached. On both sides, neither partner is giving love and affection with any final end — it’s just love, not collateral for some other gain. That is rare and precious to both of them.

Is it BL? I would say no, but that’s because I define BL as a genre. Romance is the entire focus of BL. Ash and Eiji’s relationship is not the focus of the entire series, by my reading. Their development as characters is, and the crime plot is ultimately tangled up in their relationship, but it is not a romance.

On that note — while I can see them as in love, I don’t actually see any spark of sexual attraction between them almost at all. Do any of you?

MELINDA: I would agree, Robin, I don’t necessarily see sexual attraction, though I do see an intimacy that goes beyond what I would expect from that “allies” type of love you talk about, and a desire to be in each other’s company that feels… I guess, again, more intimate.

I got in trouble with a reader for saying something like this early in the roundtable (maybe even the first one) but I’ll try again… I think I would be very, very surprised if Ash associated sex with love, even romantic love. Sex has been everything *but* love in his life up to this point. I’s been something that he’s learned to use only as a survival tactic or a weapon. I don’t think this means he couldn’t experience romantic love, but I do think putting sex into that equation would be very complicated for him.

ROBIN: Oh, I think you’re quite right about that Melinda — that any addition of sex to the equation would be complicated and likely problematic for Ash. He may eventually be able to associate sex with positives, but I think it would be a long road to that point.

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Hawaii Five O (and Homicide: Life on the Street memories are strong!), but I guess I think cop partners can be a remarkably intimate pairing. The adrenaline and circumstances make it intense, but there’s also just the fact that you spend more time with that partner than anyone else. They often know you at least as well as your wife, if not better. It’s almost being domestic, being partners in multiple ways even if it’s not sexual.

On the other hand, I do see your point the relationship is something they seek out, and that the intimacy is more deliberate than in, say, military units. I just wanted to give props to the kinds of bonds that exist out there that ARE intense partnerships that aren’t sexual.

MICHELLE: I agree that Ash and Eiji love each other, and not in some silly hearts and flowers kind of way, but in a way where they always support each other and seek to ensure the other’s happiness. Maybe if they had the leisure to explore these feelings, they would become a bona fide couple, but the situation they’re in is not one that encourages vulnerability.

So, would I call this BL? I am not sure. Possibly. I have come across stories in collections that are clearly romantic and yet don’t end with the leads becoming a couple. In fact, those are often my favorites!

CONNIE: You know, I’m on the “I was expecting it, so I saw it early on” boat, so my first time through the series, I saw a couple in Ash and Eiji almost immediately, and was looking for romantic hints between the two for the entire rest of the series. I am the worst kind of girly girl when it comes to things like this.

But I don’t necessarily read them as a traditional romantic couple. As Melinda mentioned, I think sex and physical intimacy are difficult for Ash to deal with in the context of a personal relationship, perhaps to the point that he could be read as asexual. That’s not a bad thing, because I think it’s a lot more interesting reading the relationship in an asexual way. There’s still emotional intimacy, they still need each other and value each other’s company above all others, and neither one seems interested in sex. At least from what we’ve seen. I would definitely consider them partners, though, in many ways.

EVA: I’m still firmly in the non-BL camp, for all the reasons I talked about at the beginning of our discussions. As it is, I’ll just refer back to Robin and Melinda’s comments here and say, “What they said.”

Join us again in March for our discussion of volumes 14-16!

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  1. I’ll email later too, since I have a bunch of more complicated, long-winded things to say about the series at this point too, but for now:

    > Is it BL?

    To me the series is firmly and obviously BL, but not because of Eiji and Ash’s relationship. I do think Eiji and Ash love each other in a way that is as powerful as what we usually call “romantic love”, despite the lack (imo) of any sexual element, but that’s not really all that uncommon in shounen and seinen, if maybe in a somewhat less emotionally honest way (for example: Naruto and Sasuke in Naruto, Guts and Griffith in Berserk). Imo, shounen and seinen are often much more relationship-driven than people tend to give them credit for.

    What makes it solidly BL to me is how the author treats Ash- at least half the characters in the story want to shag him, and the story is largely about his sexuality. In that regard, what it reminds me most of is Togainu no Chi, the manga version of which is allegedly, er, “action” (shounen, I guess?), but which is taken from a BL game and still follows the same basic structure- go down a bunch of different paths and see who ends up doing horizontal target practice with the protagonist.

    I agree Banana Fish is full of stuff that BL usually doesn’t include, but imo, you can add and/or take out whatever you want- if everyone wants to rape the (male) protagonist, it’s BL.

    • Imo, shounen and seinen are often much more relationship-driven than people tend to give them credit for.


      I agree Banana Fish is full of stuff that BL usually doesn’t include, but imo, you can add and/or take out whatever you want- if everyone wants to rape the (male) protagonist, it’s BL.

      This is a perspective that hasn’t been brought up here before! I must admit I find your argument pretty compelling. I hope we get some other commentary on your point here from the others, too.

      • If we go with the idea that BL is a subgenre of romance, then I pretty firmly disagree with this argument. If the love between Ash and Eiji is ultimately platonic (and remember, I haven’t read to the end yet) and if what everyone wants to do is RAPE the protagonist, then this is not a romantic story. Much the same way Antique Bakery is not (according to the author) BL, this is also not BL. Just because a character is gay does not make the book yaoi. And just because a character wants to have sex with another character does not make a book a romance.

        • I guess that’s the real question, isn’t it? Whether or not BL is a subgenre of romance. I’ve always maintained that it was, which is why Laurie’s argument never occurred to me up to this point. But I’m definitely interested in thinking more about her argument.

          • I’d agree pretty firmly with what Eva said. Just because a male character is sexually attractive to men within the story does not make a book BL or yaoi. BL is so clearly defined by genre guidelines, as romances are here in the US. There’s a wide variety within those guidelines, to be sure, and rape is a trope in both BL and in romances (although, to be honest, I happy that’s less and less true as time goes on).

            Still, if someone asked me about the series, I would not recommend Banana Fish to a BL fan without the caveat that it’s not really BL — it’s not going to give a BL reader what they want from BL stories. There are many BL fans who totally dig it (as evidence by…all of us, I’m guessing).

            Also, isn’t it a kind of villainous trademark to want to rape the hero for all kinds of manga/anime, including shonen? I’ve seen that implied and explicitly shown tons of times — that the villain has a particularly violent sexual interest in the hero. That doesn’t mean those stories are BL, to me, just that the threat of rape is often a villain’s character defining trait.

            • I see what you’re both saying- but I think you’re defining the genre too tightly. BL as a genre isn’t just about romance; it’s also about sexuality. A huge percentage of BL stories (especially hard yaoi) are mostly concerned not with romance, but with sex. Sure, a lot of BL is fluffy romantic love stories, but a lot of it, not to put too fine a word to it, is porn.

              I do think I’d be willing to grant that there’s generally an expectation of some kind of putative love element somewhere in the story for most BL fans too, but in many cases, the “love” element is just a trope, and the story is really about sex. And in hard yaoi, even abandoning the trope completely isn’t fatal to the story (and in any event, that doesn’t apply with Banana Fish anyways, because it has both love and sex, they’re just presented as separate elements).

              I’m not saying that just because a character is gay or just because rape is included as an element of the story, it’s BL. I’m saying that if the story is significantly about sexuality (and the sexual element is primarily male/male & written for women), then it’s BL. Sure, if one guy wants to rape the protagonist, then maybe he’s the villain (or the love interest), but if 10 people want to rape the protagonist… there’s something else going on. Then it’s not about the character of the antagonist anymore, it’s about the character of the story.

              In the end, I’m a reader-response girl anyways though. And from that perspective, genre is partly what the author thinks it is, partly what the publisher thinks it is, and partly what the audience thinks it is. So perhaps Banana Fish is a case on the margins in that maybe for some of the audience it won’t fit into their definition of BL, while for others, it will.

              • I guess…I just object to the idea that rape = BL, even though I know it’s part and parcel of the subgenre. I see only a few people that want to potentially sleep with/rape Ash, not everyone or even most characters. I’d in fact say that most characters don’t want to sleep with him.

                I acknowledge and agree that a lot of BL is porn. What I don’t see is that Banana Fish itself really contains any of these elements — lust or sexuality (in terms of being aimed at titillating the audience, even if it is rape) or porn. There’s an invitation to the reader in BL to be complicit in the sex as it’s presented (which is why every single BL/yaoi cover on the planet has one of the men looking out of the cover at the audience) that is just not palpable in the way Banana Fish presents the story.

                I’m happy to agree to disagree, at this point — and I do agree that obviously whatever you find in a story is partly reader-created as they go, so I’m sure folks will find different things in the story.

                • > I guess…I just object to the idea that rape = BL, even though I know it’s part and parcel of the subgenre.

                  Yeah, I can certainly see that.

                  And I have to admit that now that I know it was originally published in a shoujo mag (which I didn’t initially), a big part of my definitional structure says “Well, if that’s what it was published as, then that’s what it is”, since genre is largely about target market anyways.

                  I do still think Banana Fish contains a lot of (maybe just barely sublimated) sexual elements- enough to make that a primary piece of the story, but like you say, reasonable people can disagree.

  2. I’ve probably slipped a few times and called Banana Fish BL, but I’m in the camp that wouldn’t consider the series a boys’ love title, or even really a romance. While a huge part of the story for me was the romantic elements between Ash and Eiji, there’s still so much that isn’t really about the relationship that I would consider it more of an action-based series. I think if you took the romance out of it, I would probably still read and enjoy it, whereas it would be much less interesting if it was missing the action/thriller elements (though the latter is a tough call to make).

    Then again, I’m also one that is really picky when it comes to drawing the line over what is and isn’t BL when it comes to titles that can be more broadly classified, and I really like the arguments Laurie made for the BL category. And I just realized I kinda dodged the question in the original roundtable.


  1. […] more on these volumes, check out the latest installment of Breaking Down Banana Fish over at Manga Bookshelf! Michelle 8 February 2011 Manga, Shoujo VIZ The Man Who Loved Books […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melinda Beasi, Melinda Beasi. Melinda Beasi said: Check out the latest Breaking Down Banana Fish, Vols. 11-13 w/@swanjun @simside @nfntrobin & @funnypages @khursten! […]

  3. […] I’ve been quite ill this week, so unfortunately I’m late in posting the newest Banana Fish roundtable where Melinda, Michelle, Eva, Khursten, Robin, and I discuss the series further and look at Yut-Lung, the new hitman/mentor Blanca, Ash, and, of course, Ash and Eiji. Check it out over at the Manga Bookshelf. […]

  4. […] At Manga Bookshelf, Melinda Beasi, Robin Brenner, Connie C., Khursten Santos, Michelle Smith, and Eva Volin continue their roundtable with a discussion of vols. 11-13 of Banana Fish. […]

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