Hello faithful shojo fans, and welcome again to our roundtable, Breaking Down Banana Fish!
This month we take on volumes seven and eight, in which Ash brings his war straight to Arthur’s doorstep and Papa Dino’s bank account, playing both cutthroat businessman and cold-blooded killer, while Eiji does his best just to keep Ash human. Blackmail, introspection, and an epic subway battle ensue.
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).
MJ: There’s so much in these volumes I’m anxious to discuss, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The first time I read Banana Fish, these volumes were the point at which the series evolved from being simply engaging to utterly addictive for me. After the last roundtable, I feel a little nervous about asking whether this transformation occurred for any of you who are new to the series. Perhaps instead of going quite that far, I’ll address just one point to start.
One of the major complaints aired in July’s roundtable was frustration with Eiji’s increasingly passive role in the story. Something that changes here in volume seven, is that we begin to see Eiji expressing frustration with this as well. Sure, he’s able to create a sort of domestic comfort zone for himself, playing “Chinese houseboy” with the neighbors in Ash’s swanky new apartment building, but his anxiety is palpable, and the domestic busywork seems more like a distraction than anything else. He spends sleepless nights worrying. He fights with Ash, whose cold-blooded killing sprees are freaking him out, and then backs off and apologizes when he hits too close to the mark. Then, just as he’s about to give in entirely to the easy passivity everyone expects of him, something shifts and he’s able to finally take action.
Did volumes seven and eight offer the rest of you some relief from your Eiji frustrations, or do you still feel like he’s “all tree stump, all the time”?
MICHELLE: You know, even though we mostly see Eiji staying inside in these two volumes, whether in the safehouse at first or Ash’s apartment later, I never thought of his role in these two volumes as passive. He engages with Ash on a more personal and meaningful level, for example, and though that isn’t on par with plotting the financial ruin of one’s enemies, I got the feeling that he’s starting to feel a bit more like Ash’s equal and like he has something to offer this killer who will turn around and sob into his lap. Because of this evolution in their relationship, the fact that he was laying low just seemed practical to me rather than irritating.
CONNIE: Maybe I was only more comfortable with his “role”, but it almost felt like there wasn’t really a place for Eiji in all the action that was going on this volume. It felt more like Ash’s business directly than the previous volumes, since it dealt less with banana fish and more with gang politics and the conflict between Dino and Ash, or Arthur and Ash.
And I would agree with Michelle, that the role he does play is much more satisfying. The fact that Ash can open up almost completely to him is invaluable. It’s not to the level that it feels like Ash wouldn’t be able to do any of the gang stuff without Eiji’s emotional support, but he’s still clearly providing an important refuge for him. And both characters benefit from it, since we begin to see a side of Eiji that makes him far stronger, and Ash would seem awfully cold-blooded and cruel through these parts if Eiji wasn’t there to humanize him.
EVA: I have to say, MJ, that we may finally be on the same page when it comes to Eiji. In volume eight, he finally becomes a true supporting character. Your description of him as creating a domestic comfort zone fits beautifully because I’m not seeing him as becoming an equal to Ash, or even really becoming a part of Ash’s war against Golzine or Arthur. At least not yet. Instead, he’s becoming a maternal figure: making a home for Ash, comforting him, listening to him cry out in his sleep. He’s giving Ash a reason to want to stay alive for the first time — or I should say that he’s giving Ash a reason to stay alive that for the first time seems worthy. No, I don’t think Eiji is “all tree stump, all the time” anymore. But we won’t find out until volume ten if he stays interesting or if he fades into the background again.
KHURSTEN: I’ve always been a firm believer that there’s always something interesting about Eiji even if he takes a passive role. As a character, he felt as a good contrast. The dialogue at the end of volume 8, before he hears about Ash fighting it out with Arthur, is a reminder of the different worlds they are in. He did take a rather domestic (and I might agree that it was rather hilarious) role in these past few volumes but even if he was shoving tofu down Ash’s life, the beautiful contrast of their lives and still the deepening friendship between them is just a lovely read. I may not be flipping tables here but I love how we’re seeing the subtle and maybe even unconscious pieces of Ash’s emotions. Of course, we owe all of this to Eiji.
ROBIN: My initial reaction in volume seven was divided. I liked that Eiji was more present in the story, even if he’s not as cunning or active as Ash. I still felt distanced from the story in this volume, and ashamed to be callously thinking “enough with the weeping!” to Ash’s breakdown. It’s not that I didn’t believe it but I was pushed out of the story by the melodramatic pacing. I blame this on my own issues reading the volumes far apart — it’s hard to get back into the mindset of this series when my reading is broken up.
As I went on into volume 8, however, I saw more of what you are all discussing: that Eiji is providing Ash with a sense of home and love that he’s never had before. It’s alternately sweet, heartbreaking, and charmingly domestic.
All of this is exemplified for me in volume eight, on pages 88-90, when Ash wakes up after falling asleep next to Eiji on Halloween and we see his resignation at his confrontation with Arthur. It’s a beautifully paced, short sequence. It gave me what I really wanted: less infodumping, more quiet observation. I am most drawn into the story when actions speak louder than words, and Yoshida really shines as a creator when she lets loose the action, whether it’s tension filled silence or a breakneck speed chase. The end of volume eight gave me that in spades.
MJ: Robin, I admit I like both the action and the infodumping, or at least I like it the way Yoshida does it. It always makes me feel like I’m watching an old movie. Let’s talk a bit more about this, though. I’m a sucker for the kind of personal drama we go through with Ash in volume seven, so I was drawn in pretty easily when I first read the series. Reading through it a second time, though, I’m struck by how much more deeply I’m affected by the small moments of humor between Ash and Eiji in this volume than I am by Ash’s tearful confessions. In a way, I think I’m reacting to that the same way as you are to that moment of quiet observation late in volume eight.
I’m specifically thinking of scenes around pages 25-26 and 35-37, which also happen to be part of the sequence I chose to try to draw in new readers in my old post, Making the case for Banana Fish. To me, these moments of humor reveal more about the characters and their growing friendship than any of their heartfelt conversations, and I think Yoshida shines here as much as she does in the scene you describe.
MICHELLE: Oh, I loved those scenes very much—for some reason “My hand is slipped again” kept cracking me up—and I love how comfortable they are together there. It means a lot that with Eiji Ash is free to act like a kid, even if that includes pouting when he’s teased. That said, it’s not just the sobbing or the confessions themselves that move me, but the fact that Ash felt he could reveal that side of himself to Eiji. This reminds me of Fruits Basket in a way… “I’m a very broken person, but I know that you accept me and it brings me peace.”
ROBIN: Humor is all-important in making characters seem honest and human — especially when characters indulge in the kinds of ribbing and fond teasing Ash and Eiji do in these volumes. That’s when you glimpse a familiar feeling amid all of the abuse and malevolence. I can never claim to have experienced trauma or been a BAMF in a gang war, but I can completely relate to poking fun at my friends.
The two panels that made me laugh out loud were on page 71 of volume 8:
Max: “How come you’re so up on geopolitics!”
Astounded and offended look from Ash, “I read the papers!”
I loved his WTF face, and I loved that Ash is vaguely appalled that everyone isn’t as brainy as he is. I do love that Ash is both smart and thirsty for knowledge, and that a lot of his power comes from research and the ability of to know when and where to use information. A gang leader after a librarian’s heart.
He still looks just like lovely, John Hughes era James Spader to me, now, with all those geometric patterned sweaters and duffle coats. Swoon!
MJ: There’s another facial expression I love from Ash as well, on page 63 where Eiji’s ranting at him in exasperated Japanese and Ash asks him to stop making “clicking sounds” at him. It’s an exchange that in another context between different characters might be pretty offensive, but is just plain cute here.
And I’m totally with you on the 80s James Spader vibe, though with reduced sneering, which is a plus in my book. :D
MICHELLE: This isn’t a funny one, but I love Ash’s guilty expression when he realizes he has worn his blood-stained t-shirt in Eiji’s presence.
EVA: First, I have to admit that I googled BAMF — I couldn’t figure out why we were suddenly talking about Nightcrawler. Heh.
Second, I’m glad you brought up the art, Robin. Through both volumes, but particularly in volume seven, I was struck by how much more solid the art has become. Her lines are becoming more solid, the expressions on character’s faces are easier to read, and even something as basic as character design is becoming more consistent. Yes, Arthur still looks like he’s walking upwind, but I’m no longer depending on the hairstyles to tell the difference between Arthur and Ash — and for a while there that was all I had to go on.
MJ: Maybe he’s got underlings following him around with a wind machine. :D
I do agree, the artwork has become much more solid over the course of the series so far. I think her vision and her visual storytelling has been strong from the beginning, but she’s able to execute it all more effectively by this point in the series.
ROBIN: Just FYI, when I first read BAMF myself, I had the same progression of thoughts, “Nightcrawler, WTF? Wait….oh. OH.” Then it was a useful acronym. :D
I spent a while in these volumes trying to figure out which manga memory Arthur’s upswept ‘do and crazy face was triggering, and I finally realized it was Tetsuo in Akira. This made me realize once again how much the art does remind me of shonen/seinen style than anything else. Ash’s prettiness and the general emo do mark this as more shojo, but visually it sure is more seinen.
Counting on hair is a tried and true convention for telling characters apart, but I think you’re right, Eva, that I finally don’t have to do this as much. I don’t have to worry about who’s who, and the expressions are precise and subtle. Just what I want from a compelling manga artist.
MICHELLE: I thought Akira, too! Except in my case the comparison was prompted more by Sing, Shorter’s very young successor.
MICHELLE: I’m glad to see I wasn’t the only one to go to a Nightcrawler-y place! This reminds me of how much I need to read Excalibur.
I definitely noticed a marked improvement in the art in these two volumes. Probably it has been quietly improving all along, but it sure was nice to actually finally agree with characters who comment on how handsome Ash is. I must admit I particularly liked his looks in the glasses and designer clothes he donned to further his hiding-in-plain-sight disguise. I’m still a little sad at the way black characters are drawn, but I am happy that we get such a strong new character in Cain.
ROBIN: I was going to bring that up as well — as much as the African American characters reflect the incredibly unfortunate minstrelsy-style design, I actually gave Yoshida a bit of a pass because of my understanding of how Japanese artists were attempting different races at the time. It’s not a total pass, because it’s still jarring, and it always will be. But I hope the fact that the African American characters (especially Cain) are as intelligent, multi-faceted, and important as anyone else helps counteract the negative stereotypes reflected in the look.
MJ: I think something important to note in terms of the way Yoshida draws African-American characters in this series is, as Shaenon Garrity points out in her write-up of Banana Fish, it’s actually one of the less insulting depictions of black people you’ll see from Japanese artists at the time. I mean, you’ve read Moon Child, right? I love that series, but wow.
MICHELLE: Actually, I have not read Moon Child yet. Everyone on the covers is so lily white I’m surprised to hear that any black characters even appear!
MJ: Well. (Editorial note to readers: It’s bad. Mind-blowingly bad. Do not click if you don’t want to know how bad this can get in manga from this period.)
MICHELLE: Oh, dear. Faced with that example for comparison, I must say I prefer the Banana Fish depictions.
KHURSTEN: Ahaha. Yeah, I noticed that as well with mangakas of that time, or mangakas in general on how they represent and draw blacks. But even Disney followed the same trend once. I suppose it’s an early representation, stereotypical at that. That aside, I think Cain is rather cool. But I prefer Sing. The whole exchange in the train, where Sing mentions how his men can fit in the cracks of the building just amused me greatly.
MJ: I’d like to reflect a moment on the awesomeness of Cain. He’s pretty much the only other gang leader who commands the kind of fear and respect that Ash does, both within and outside his turf, and you can see why. He’s smart, but he’s also completely pragmatic. He knows exactly what he needs to do to protect his gang’s interests, and he holds that above the kind of petty emotions that fuel a guy like Arthur.
Also, one of my favorite moments during the subway fight is the one in which Cain realizes (*before* Arthur pulls his dirty trick, which of course changes everything) that Sing is kinda rooting for Ash and calls him on it.
MICHELLE: All of that is true, but I also like that Cain is honorable in the same way that Ash is. He respects Ash and his way of doing things and can be counted on to take his role as a neutral judge seriously. Maybe that’s the pragmatism coming into play again, but I enjoyed seeing the different ways Ash and Arthur approached him and how Ash earned his respect while Arthur did not.
MJ: So, our Eiji conversation has touched on a lot of Ash’s vulnerability in these volumes. Let’s talk a bit now about his darker side. Alongside his tearful confessions to Eiji, he’s also especially cold-blooded at this point in the story. While it’s hard not to cheer for him as he intimidates Papa Dino with pure guts and super-brains, he’s also systematically taking out Arthur’s underlings and associates in a way that’s even got Eiji pretty horrified and freaked out. “Even those who threw away weapons and begged for their lives were killed, one by one,” is the quote that sticks with me from the beginning of volume 8. Keeping a character like that sympathetic without compromising him is pretty tricky business. Do you think Yoshida pulls it off?
ROBIN: I do think Yoshida pulls it off. Then again, I also think she’s orchestrated it so that the readers would be sympathetic from the beginning. While we hear about the systematic executions, we don’t see them in detail, which admittedly makes it easier to focus on why he’s doing it rather than just on the horror of what he’s doing. I think she’s set it up as a defensive move — if Papa Dino and everyone hadn’t already irrevocably damaged and compromised Ash, it’s unlikely he that he would be slaughtering anyone. Since Dino made it this complicated, though, Ash is not going to back down. He can’t.
It would perhaps be more difficult to sympathize with Ash if there was some hint that he enjoyed killing, or got off on the violence, but I never get that feeling. He doesn’t do any of this for his own pleasure or thrill. If we see him descend into true bloodlust, I might waver in rooting for him, but as he is portrayed right now, with all his motives and vulnerability, he’s an appealing if very damaged lead.
KHURSTEN: Yeah. I absolutely think she has pulled this off and I think I’ve mentioned it in previous discussions that her art makes it possible to have a kick ass teenage gangster look like he’s been ripped off from a classy Ralph Lauren ad. It must be the floppy bangs. Or that cheeky smile. Those wonderful eyes. The whole BAMF bishounen aura was well executed in these volumes. I think this is a special trait of hers. With her other work Yasha, her characters there also held this same cunning aura which astounds you not only with their art but with the way they think. Personally, wordy as it was presented, Ash’s deliberation with his ‘Dad’ really shows that the kid’s got brains as well. It’s almost scary, and yet the scene in the library was just as endearing. I think Yoshida set an appropriate pace in exposing these aspects of Ash.
MICHELLE: I think she absolutely does. We know, from the nightmares and from Ash’s own private reactions—I don’t have the books with me just now but I believe after ordering the executions of the surrendees (a word?) you mentioned, he looks at his hands and bemoans what he has become—that this is not easy for him. Yet he has this amazing drive to survive, and he knows the rules of the harsh world in which he lives. I believe he feels he has to do all of this in order to achieve the ability to some day break away.
In regards cheering for him, oh man, was his subway train shootout with Arthur’s goons intense, or what? I literally have goosebumps at this moment just thinking about it.
ROBIN: Michelle, I totally agree about the subway car chase and shootout. That whole scene was beautifully intense, and it had me kind of cheering in my head.
I’ve been nattering on and debating the appeal of certain stories this week with various friends, and in particular we’ve been arguing over the appeal of Inception (the film.) I’m not going to veer off into that discussion, but this in combination with our roundtable has made me think about what is most important to keep me interested in a story. Do I need an emotional connection to characters, and if so, how much? Do I have different expectations depending on the genre I’m in? Does spectacle distract me from character flatness or plot holes, or do I still notice the flaws? What’s my ideal balance? I think all of these answers are different for each viewer/reader.
We’ve been discussing both the emotional connections one needs to have as well as the action/plot elements known to drawn people in. I love crime drama for its procedural aspects, and an emotional connection to the characters is important but not, say, as important to a romance or a family drama. I can be happy with well-executed action for longer than many readers/viewers. I need an emotional connection to characters enough so that I care if they live or die, but I’m not as concerned with intricate character portraits in an action drama. I think Banana Fish does both, but I’m not sure how much it appeals to different audiences outside of the more emotionally driven reader.
What are the elements that have hooked you most? What are the parts that you are preset to enjoy, and what parts are you tolerating for the story? Do you find the procedural parts working for you, or are they more of a sidebar to the emotional core? I think this could help potential readers understand where the appeal lies, and which parts are most engaging for different readers. I think that folks who like serious crime drama may enjoy Banana Fish, but I can also see them getting frustrated and/or bored by the frequent pauses for emotional outpourings (I’m not in that camp, quite, but I can see how one could be.)
MICHELLE: Reading your comments about being able to tolerate well-executed action longer than most had me nodding along in agreement. I definitely want an emotional connection with characters, but sometimes—and this has now happened at least twice in Banana Fish—I can be captivated and thrilled by an action sequence, particularly if it involves the hero being just completely awesome in some way. I love the cinematic appeal of these epic encounters, but I don’t actually have much interest in action movies thesmelves. I think that’s because the time limit works against establishing that emotional connection that I also need to really be invested in a story.
So, I guess I’m saying that I’m preset to enjoy all the badassery but I love the growing relationship between Ash and Eiji, too. What I don’t care very much about is the overall mystery of Banana Fish. I’m more interested in what’s happening in the moment and how Ash is achieving his immediate goals. It’s moderately intriguing that the government is involved, but that part won’t begin to capture my interest until Ash is, like, storming the White House or something.
CONNIE: I do love the procedural aspects of Banana Fish. In many manga series, the procedural elements are not as tight as I’d like them to be. And that is an understatement. Telling rather than showing goes against what I enjoy most about comics, but Banana Fish finds a balance and goes into enough detail and motivation to keep things interesting. That is one of its strengths, in my eyes.
And I like the action too, but it’s because of the above that it really shines. The early scuffles in volume one are good, but nowhere near as great as the battle that runs through volumes five and six. The action scenes are always decent, but it’s their baggage that makes them most interesting. I tend to love over-the-top conflicts, and am drawn to many series for that reason. The conflicts do get increasingly more crazy as the series continues (which is hard to do when one of the first major battles is fought in tuxedos), but they still wouldn’t be great unless we really knew how terrible the consequences would be if they were caught, what’s at stake, et cetera.
Sadly, as girly as I usually am, I think the emotional content and character development are tertiary to my enjoyment. It’s all good, but it isn’t really the point for me. My opinions may shift as I start re-reading the later volumes too, and I’m remembering some things that contradicting my stance here. But all my favorite parts are lengthy action sequences, so I think that’s basically true for me.
MJ: Perhaps more than anyone else who has responded so far, I’d characterize myself as an emotionally-driven reader. I enjoy the action drama and the procedural elements of Banana Fish, but those things are decidedly secondary to what I’m really looking for in any kind of story–rich characterization and well-developed relationships. I’ve sometimes wondered if this is due to my former profession as an actor, but when I think about what I looked for most in books even as a child, I realize it is most likely those preferences that led me into acting, not the other way around.
The kinds of procedurals I enjoy are shows like Bones, for example, in which the procedural framework exists mainly to facilitate the relationships. And while I enjoy many action movies, I often feel bored during the actual action sequences. Banana Fish offers me a mix of these elements that is fairly well-attuned to my tastes. It’s got talky procedural sections and all-out action sequences, but even those things are very much relationship-driven (in the broadest sense).
My greatest joy in reading is the opportunity to immerse myself in someone else’s inner life–to appreciate territory I’ve yet to explore as well as the bits that overlap with my own. In a very real sense, this is how I best find connection with the rest of the human race. What makes Banana Fish compelling for me is the sense that I’m living in Yoshida’s inner world, one that exists very much separately from the “real” places she’s depicting, and which is ultimately driven by the characters she’s so lovingly created in her own mind.
MICHELLE: Our procedural preferences differ in an interesting way. I don’t watch Bones but I do watch Castle, which is structurally pretty similar. I primarily watch because I like the characters, but I think I also pay more attention to the actual mystery than you might, and snark a lot about it when it is lame, which it often is. Seriously, every spouse in the Castle universe is engaged in adultery.
MJ: Yes, I’m unlikely to snark about the procedural elements, because they matter very, very little to me. They aren’t worth my snark. ;)
KHURSTEN: I just love the panoramic art she showed in these volumes. First of New York, and then the one in the train. The train scenes really got me excited. I find them quite cinematic, really. I’ve never been to New York so I don’t have a gauge on how real it is, but the way she’s drawn that train scene just really brought life to some dirty subway train. Yes, it’s rather intense. Yes, it really made the panels come alive. Pages 144-149 looked like a story board for me. Is it strange that I actually remembered a bit of Nausicaa in it? Maybe even some gekiga.
ROBIN: Khursten, I complete agree about the cinematic aspects of both the cityscapes and train sequences. This is when the strong relationship between manga and films really shows, in that manga artists give themselves the panels, pages, and pacing of film to create action and suspense. In particular, the sequences here are a strong demonstration of how well manga can use pacing and point of view to draw out the drama and thrill of a scene just as a skilled director and editor creates tension in a film. Part of why I love manga is the strong cinematic storytelling, and that’s why volume 8 reminded me of why I DO like this series despite my recent misgivings.
MJ: So, since Robin brought up her “recent misgivings,” let me finally get up the nerve to ask this question. I’ve said before that volumes 7 & 8 were where I really got hooked on Banana Fish, and though I think I liked it more *before* that point than some of you, it really was a turning point for me in terms of how I viewed the series. A quote from my Livejournal at the time:
“I thought I knew what this manga was, and suddenly I don’t anymore. Like. It was this great, stylized, old-American-cop-show-with-S.E. Hinton-gang-melodrama-on-the-side thing, and it was really enjoyable like that. And now suddenly it is also really funny in totally unexpected places. And kind of tender. In a non-melodramatic way.”
So, this was my experience (in a paraphrased fashion). It’s the reason I began acting as an evangelist for the series in the way I did, and ultimately why I felt compelled to initiate this roundtable. Given some of the criticism that’s come out of the last couple of installments, however (which is *awesome* by the way, and very much the point of engaging with multiple critics on one series) I certainly can’t assume that anyone else is having the same experience.
So what has your experience been, going into and coming out of volumes 7 & 8? Have there been any major shifts in how you view the series? Where do you all stand with Banana Fish at this point, and what would you want to say about it to prospective readers?
CONNIE: Honestly, it doesn’t take much to impress me, and I do like gimmicks, so the slang-y banter in the first volume and the cross-country trip in volume 4 were what kept my interest in Banana Fish initially (I have a weakness for stories containing the latter). But I think it was the tuxedo dinner that ended in a huge, emotion-riddled fight that really knocked my socks off, in volumes 5 and 6. I was pleased to see all the exposition lead into something so spectacular, and it just has so much going for it. Lots of excellent character interaction and emotional content, great action scenes, and it is one of the most over-the-top sequences I’ve ever seen that still has a purpose and such dire consequences.
I think it was the scenes in 7 and 8 that finally sold me on the deep connection between Ash and Eiji, though. The way they meet and immediately click seemed so unlikely to me during my first read-through that even the best scenes between them rang false for a long time after that. Not that they weren’t wonderful, but I just doubted for a long time. The interactions here couldn’t be interpreted as anything but sincere though, and the bond between the two finally became something I could appreciate in full.
MICHELLE: I think my a-ha moment happened a little early, back in volume 6 where tuxedoed Ash violently and spectacularly makes his escape from Papa Dino’s mansion. I liked what had happened up until then, but I think I wasn’t fully in awe of Ash as a protagonist until that moment. Volumes 7 and 8 feel like a logical extension of that moment, so while I enjoyed them very much, there wasn’t an appreciable difference in how I enjoyed them.
Although I have now written several reviews about Banana Fish, I’m not sure what my sales pitch would be if I had only a brief opportunity to convince someone to try it out. How about “It’s like if shoujo and seinen had a brilliant love child” ?
MJ: That works for me!
Once again, I’d like to thank the wonderfully brilliant women here who took time out of their busy schedules this month to chat a bit about Banana Fish. Join us again in November, when we dig into volumes 9 & 10!