manga bookshelf

Breaking Down Banana Fish, Vols. 3-4

Welcome to the second installment of the Banana Fish roundtable!

This month, we discuss volumes three and four of this classic shojo series, in which Ash gets out of jail, Eiji and Ibe overstay their visas, and everyone ends up on an ill-considered road trip to L.A., just in time to fall into the hands of a Chinese mafia family’s secret weapon. Topics this round include what makes a shojo manga, thoughts on the series’ few female characters, and everyone’s take on new bad guy, Yut-Lung.

Once again, I’m joined by Michelle Smith (Soliloquy in Blue), Khursten Santos (Otaku Champloo), Connie (Slightly Biased Manga), Eva Volin (Good Comics For Kids), Robin Brenner (No Flying, No Tights), and Katherine Dacey (The Manga Critic), all of whom graciously found time in their incredibly cramped schedules to indulge me in this discussion.

Read our roundtable on volumes one and two here. On to part two!

Breaking Down Banana Fish, Vols. 3-4

MELINDA: Volume three provides a turning point for Eiji, who makes a decisive break from his normal life in order to throw his lot in with Ash. One of the most remarkable things about Banana Fish is that despite the fact that its plot quickly becomes quite dense, it manages to move along at a breakneck pace–sending its characters on a whirlwind road trip from New York to LA–without ever losing its relationship-driven focus. Though these volumes contain a minimal amount of deep conversation for shojo manga, this focus on relationships is strong enough to overwhelm all the elements that might otherwise make it feel like something written for a male audience. I know we discussed the series’ demographic category extensively in our first roundtable, but I want to bring it up again because in my opinion, though the action really gets going in these volumes, I also think the series feels more shojo than ever. What do you think?

MICHELLE: It’s true that the intense action (and might I add I love the epic kind of quest they’re all suddenly swept up in!) means there’s not as much time for conversation, I still admired how Yoshida finds time to insert some quiet scenes between pairs of characters. Two scenes that stand out in particular are Ash teaching Eiji to fire a gun in volume three—a way of accepting him and what help he can offer?—and the conversation between Max and Ibe in volume four, in which we learn more about Eiji’s background to lend support to his earlier statement that seeing Ash’s goals through would be good for him and that he wants “to quit quitting.” This easily could’ve been a more seinen-esque “Ash is a badass” story and we readers probably would’ve enjoyed it anyway, but the fact that time is taken to flesh out the other characters and their motivations makes this feel more shojo to me, too.

ROBIN: I agree, Michelle, that the quiet scenes are carefully placed and a welcome break from the chase. Action stories really only work if you care about the characters in danger, and Yoshida orchestrates the tension and the character moments to intermesh enough to make sure you’re not just staring at pages and pages of car chases and shoot outs.

Not to pick a fight, but I was struck by the phrasing of the question: “…the focus on relationships is strong enough to overwhelm all the elements that might otherwise make it feel like something written for a male audience.” I fear we are misrepresenting manga written for men. Seinen titles are just as full of relationship drama and eloquent emotional moments as Banana Fish is: Pluto and Monster spring immediately to mind, as well as classics like Lone Wolf and Cub. (Pluto always gets points for making me cry into my dinner in the first volume.) I don’t want this discussion to give folks who may not know manga as well the impression that only shojo manga emphasizes emotion and relationships.

All manga emphasizes emotions more than our own pop culture here in the U.S. That emphasis is even more noticeable in seinen manga (or crime dramas like Banana Fish) as it’s often lacking in U.S. “guy” media. To bring it around to our own cultural landscape, I agree that titles aimed at men are less emotional in that the characters don’t stand around internal-monologuing or bemoaning their emotional state to their best friend. Still, the emotional resonance can be there and be wrenching (films like Reservoir Dogs or any of David Simon’s television series including Homicide or The Wire come to mind, all created primarily by men.) As I was considering your question, I was struck by how in some ways Banana Fish reminds me of one of my recent favorite TV shows, Supernatural, for the action/crime aspects and emotional journey rather than the premise. Supernatural is one of those clearly aimed shows — it’s brothers! chasing demons! for guys! — but it’s lasted because of a strong female fan base that were hooked by the brothers’ relationship. (FYI, I prefer comparing manga to television as to me it’s all about the episodic storytelling.) For whatever reason, it seems women worldwide are more engaged in stories that feature internal character development, and that is the shojo hallmark. What librarians (a profession dominated by women) cite as the best novels are introspective and driven by coming of age or a definite emotional arc, a trend that is rightly criticized by men and guys within and without the profession as devaluing what men find appealing: humor, plot, and action.

So after all that meandering what I’m struggling with is the push to decide who this manga reaches out to best. Must it be one or the other? It truly is a series that has wide appeal, and yes, while it was originally published as shojo, I’ve come to feel more and more often that such decisions are products of editors and marketing rather than authorial intent or a story’s appeal. Emma and Yotsuba&! are great examples of titles that also defy their stated categorization of seinen, especially for U.S. readers. Can’t we all just read together? ;)

All of this leads me to stick by my original feeling that while Banana Fish is definitely shojo, it also feels strongly seinen to me, and these two volumes don’t particularly sway me toward thinking it’s that much more shojo than when it started.

MELINDA: Point well-taken, Robin. And if you disagree, that’s totally fair. I think that when I say “focus on relationships” and “relationship-driven,” however, I’m not being as broad as you think I am. I completely agree that manga in general emphasizes emotional content more than most western media. I’d even say that’s probably why I like it so much. Like you, I’ve been moved to tears by Pluto. Hell, I’ve been moved to tears by shonen series like Hikaru no Go and Fullmetal Alchemist. I’ve even gotten sniffly reading Bleach. :) But I think there’s a difference between being character-driven or emotionally-driven (which I think most manga is) and being relationship-driven, which I do see as a hallmark of shojo.

I think there is a level of intimacy granted to the reader by shojo manga that is specifically intended to convey knowledge of how the characters feel about each other, in a way that is unique to stories deliberately written for a female audience. I think, actually, this is related to what you mean when you mention “internal character development.” Whether through dialogue, narration, or internal monologue, the reader is granted special access to the main character’s (or characters’) feelings about other characters and where they stand with them. I think not only is this a major element of the story but, more often than not, it’s actually the point. That’s the vibe I get from these volumes of Banana Fish that makes it feel so shojo to me. If there is one thing we’re made constantly aware of, it’s how Eiji’s feeling about Ash, how Ash is feeling about Eiji, and how everyone else is feeling about Ash and Eiji’s feelings. Heh. Even the plot begins to revolve around this as Ibe looks for ways to get around it (to save Eiji) and Yut-Lung looks for ways to exploit it (to trap Ash). That’s what I’m talking about when I say the story is relationship-driven. :)

Also, though I agree that demographic categorization is often irrelevant to actual appeal, especially outside of Japan, I think that the decision regarding who a series is going to be published for and marketed to has a significant impact on how it will be written, especially in a long-running series like this one, where editorial influence is not happening after the fact, but chapter-to-chapter as the story is being serialized. Regardless of whose decision the demographic categorization is, once it’s been made, the story is going to be specifically tailored to that audience (with a nod to cross-marketing, of course) in order to drive sales. I’m totally on board with letting us “all read together.” :) But when we’re talking about something that was created within a system that is pretty different from our own (from what I understand) I think it’s a mistake to try to dismiss the influence of that system on the final product. So I think the appeal and demographics are two different issues, both well worth talking about.

ROBIN: Melinda, I definitely see all of your points. I agree that relationships are a major key to shojo, and that Banana Fish has this in spades. I’d never really articulated that idea clearly — that the relationships are the point more than the mechanics of the plot — but I do agree.

I think its interesting to look at how manga was marketed and created in the system that it comes from, especially when critiquing how a story rolls along. However I don’t get as concerned with these ideas as I’m reading. As a reader, I could care less about the overarching traditions that have shaped a story — all I care about is the story itself and whether I’m enjoying it.

Investigating the way the system shapes the story is important, but I find it less interesting as I get more involved in the story itself. Then, going back and critiquing is interesting in terms of breaking it down, but only if the story itself feels to particularly be a product of that system. In some ways, because Banana Fish defies some conventions (pretty boy shojo art) and adheres to others (strong relationships), it feels more like a title that was created in opposition to the system. Sort of like the way TV writers and producers fight to keep one line or element of a story in the aired episode while allowing the network to adjust other aspects so that the show ultimately makes it on the air. That kind of makes me wonder if there were any such arguments between Yoshida and her editors at the time this was created? Were the editors getting what they expected, or did she have to fight to keep her story the way she imagined it? Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those meetings…

I’m also honestly hesitant to judge the series by the shojo/seinen monikers until I’ve read the whole thing. There may well be elements later that sway me one way or another, but it’s hard for me to tell mid-story.

CONNIE: I think it’s interesting to look at “internal character development” and its appeal to women in stories like this, which push boundaries into other genres, and also in character-driven stories where the “internal monologue” is stripped away and character interpretation is left mostly to readers and regular, non-soul-bearing conversations had with other characters. There are different degrees of this, but I find that it’s a technique more common in shoujo manga, but usually the characters aren’t completely silent on the subject of their feelings. It was I’ll Give It My All… Tomorrow that got me thinking of it, actually, since there are only a few lines of narration for key points, and almost everything else about the characters is left to the readers. Crown of Love also struck me since, other than their main goals, the characters are strangely silent on how they feel about the little things, and it lends a strange nuance to events. Also, I remember having problems with early volumes of Let Dai because I was never quite sure that Dai’s intentions matched up with Jaehee’s frequent, flowery monologues, even after he started responding to Jaehee. In the case of Let Dai, it makes the relationship seem almost one-sided initially, and makes Dai even more unapproachable than he already is.

Basically, if there was a lot less dialogue, would the emotions still come across? (not that Let Dai is in any way a good example of “less dialogue” :p) I think in Banana Fish, they probably would, since it’s still a story about Ash trying to get to the bottom of what happened to his brother, and there is a lot that is left unsaid in events like the gun lessons.

Getting back to the original question, I would second those events that Michelle brought up as my favorite examples of shoujo touches. I think it’s true, too, that scenes like that can be found in many of the best “general audience” seinen series like Monster. My train of thought just led me through several interesting places, like… is Banana Fish shoujo because one of the characters in the main couple is meant to serve as a reader “entrance” to the story? In that case, is it Eiji, is he less masculine than the other male characters, or gender neutral, maybe? Is sensitive Ash appealing as a man with a feminine touch? Well, then, are men meant to insert themselves into seinen stories? If that’s the case, are readers really meant to sympathize/”see themselves as” Dr. Tenma? Who would want to put themselves in his shoes? Perhaps the difference is that Tenma’s motivation in Monster is that of guilt, or a combination of justice, wanting to do the right thing, and self-preservation, whereas, especially later, Ash and Eiji often act on behalf of one another. Tenma really never had any truly sentimental links to other characters in Monster. But it’s true that some of the overarching motivation in Banana Fish is probably a combination of vengeance, self-preservation, and a twisted kind of justice.

MELINDA: Connie, I love your question there about whether readers are supposed to insert themselves into seinen stories. My immediate response was to say yes, I think we’re always supposed to identify with someone, but actually I think that answer is probably wrong. I don’t think that’s necessarily how things are written. I think that’s just what I do with them, which is not the same thing at all. And perhaps this sheds some light on why I often have difficulty getting into stories where there is nobody for me to identify with (or at least like, which is not necessarily the same). Does that make me a stereotypically female reader? Am I a cliché??

ROBIN: Connie, I think you made my point perhaps better than I did! There’s a difference, in reading scenes, between explicitly stated feelings (in internal monologues or spoken aloud) and those feelings readers conclude from silence, gesture, and expression. Manga, of course, has always been a medium that beautifully uses silent beats and eloquent gestures to move through feelings. I know many new readers who get entirely frustrated by the lack of explicit declarations, spending the entire time wondering what exactly characters feel for one another or about their circumstances. Sometimes, it can be a shield that makes characters seem cool and distant, but more often it’s a nod toward the fact that most people don’t talk openly about their feelings (and it makes me wonder how much more or less true that is in Japan.)

I think what’s difficult with any story is how much one is expected to identify with one character or another. I always find the fun of identification, if it happens, is that it matters more to me (as a reader) how much the character’s thinking or feeling has in common with me and less who I’m supposed to identify with. I know that in watching films, for example, in chick flicks I’m supposed to identify with the female lead, but often I don’t. I may have more in common personality-wise with the male lead, or I may be nothing like either but still enjoy the banter and the story. That being said, of course I enjoy movies more where I can identify with one of the characters, and so the romantic comedies that get me are always where at least one of the pair strikes a chord with me.

I have always liked the idea that whether we’re supposed to identify with one character or not, that can and does change, and that we can as readers jump around from character to character as more story is revealed. I’m sure in Harry Potter everyone would like to think they’re Harry, but I so know I’m not (I’m such a Ravenclaw, it’s not even funny), and in the end I ended up identifying with both Hermione and Neville far more. It’s a balance between how much characters represent how we wish we were and how much they act as we really are.

So, with Monster, I do think most of us are expected to identify with Tenma — most of us would like to think that we’d be the good guy and try to do the right thing, although none of us wish to have such a cruel twist of fate happen to us. In Banana Fish, I’m guessing Eiji is considered the way in, as the innocent and most ordinary joe character in the mix. (I admit, though, I find myself more often indentifying with the beleaguered cops.) Given my own tendency toward brainy, cautious types, I tend to get frustrated trying to identify with impulsive or firecracker characters, like Ash, as they react so differently than I might. Overly naive characters like Eiji also don’t necessarily fit, as I more often want to smack them upside the head than empathize. Still, it’s not like I’ve ever been near gang warfare or organized crime, so Eiji’s still the closest to my own reactions, most likely.

Melinda, you make a good point that there has to be someone you at least like. Or if not like, at least want to get out alive. :) I’m trying to think of any stories I’ve gotten sucked into where I didn’t like the characters very much, and the only one I can really think of is Hitchcock’s Vertigo (and then I think that’s just because of the enormous appeal of Jimmy Stewart as an actor even though he’s playing an a-hole of a character, in the end.) Anti-heros can have their appeal, but even they have to have something that makes them human — a glimmer of a lost love, or a moment of empathy. Hands down, I always look for complicated characters, and I much prefer those who are neither good nor evil, but somewhere in between.

KATE: For me, it boils down to something a lot simpler: when I think of a balls-to-the-wall seinen title like Crying Freeman, Monster, Old Boy, or Hotel Harbor View, the characters’ motivations are primal, often on the level of “You touched my stuff!” (That is, “You killed my wife and son!” “You violated my girlfriend!” “You destroyed my happy home!” “You took away my freedom!” “You ruined my good name!”) These series are intricately plotted and emotionally expressive, but most of the perceived complexity lies in the narrative itself, rather than with the characters’ internal lives. Tenma, for all his moral outrage and steely grit, isn’t a particularly deep or well-rounded hero; the path he takes through Eastern Europe to solve the mystery of Johann’s origins, however, is incredibly circuitous, bringing him into contact with dozens of supporting characters. The same is true for Old Boy: Shinichi Goto is revenge on legs, motivated only by a desire to find out who imprisoned him, but his journey to the truth is almost as Baroquely plotted as Tenma’s odyssey through the Eastern European underworld.

Looking at Banana Fish, we have both narrative complexity and nuanced characters. Ash’s backstory could just as easily be the backstory for a character in a yakuza drama; his history with Papa Dino is as complicated and overripe as any other father-son dynamic I’ve seen in mob dramas, Sicilian or Japanese, and plays an essential role in advancing the plot. Yet the way in which Ash’s past informs all aspects of his behavior and not just what he does to exact revenge on Papa Dino — that seems more fundamentally shojo-esque to me.

KHURSTEN: It may have been little on the whole internal dialogue used in shoujo manga, but I believe it had enough emotion and drama to be rendered as one. And I believe in contrast to other seinen titles, what I find interesting that it was a little bit of both. There were emotions openly expressed by Eiji but we can only infer as much of what Ash was feeling based on his reactions. Whatever glimpse of emotion we see from Ash can be seen through Yoshida’s art, like that scene where Ash finally cries alone for his brother at the rooftop. I found that quite manly in many ways. The way seinen heroes would only take the pain for themselves and never let others know about it.

Eiji though is more expressive, more open about his emotions which we can attribute to something more shoujo. In essence, they’re strangely very talkative to be too seinen. They talk a lot about themselves and their plans to an almost careless degree, just like they would in shoujo where the heroine would prattle on. But perhaps, that’s as much as I can see with this title and particularly in these volumes. It tries, as mentioned earlier, bridge a bit of both genres. Perhaps it’s this great mix that it can’t exactly be a shoujo alone but also a competitive story for seinen as well. Seinen though is a tricky genre as it can be both for men and women. It really ain’t just a manly manga, so to speak. So we really can’t encompass it to seinen alone if seinen is supposed to be a bastion of what a manly manga is.

I can imagine at least that while Yoshida was making this, she was trying as much as she can to capture a man’s emotion. But she too was a woman, and it’s almost impossible to overlook what a person can feel let alone miss the chance to reveal their emotions. If we look at Japanese gender stereotypes, let’s say… Golgo13, the manliest of men are known to be expressionless and cold-hearted. Showing emotions only proves you’re weak and powerless… like women. In these volumes, with all the dramatic revelation, it was impossible not to tackle what the characters emotionally went through, particularly Ash who probably had one hell of an experience from New York to L.A. But even when Yoshida showed his tears and his painful past, we still saw him as a man. Although the youngest Lee used it to his advantage.

MICHELLE: Kate, I think you nailed exactly when you said, “These series are intricately plotted and emotionally expressive, but most of the perceived complexity lies in the narrative itself, rather than with the characters’ internal lives.” Like Melinda, I have been moved to tears by shounen manga, but it’s usually for straightforward reasons like, “He finally found somewhere to belong!” These moments usually happen in the course of a larger plot, though, like, striving to become king of the pirates. In shoujo, and the series that comes to my mind right now is We Were There, the developing and incredibly complicated relationships between the characters are the whole point of the story. What’s the plot otherwise? Some teens go to high school?

EVA: I’ll be quick, since I’m chiming in last. I think the fact that this reads like seinen, but is relationship-driven, is what gives off the yaoi vibe some people picked up on in volumes one and two. We aren’t used to relationship-driven stories for men, despite all of us knowing that men do, in fact, form strong, non-sexual relationships with other men. Instead, those literary relationships are slashed, turning what might have originally been a manly story into something else. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

I agree that Eiji is the primary entrance into the story for most readers. He’s the everyman and, except for the way he dresses, the easiest character for most readers to identify with. He is Scott McCloud’s mask, if you will. He’s Samwise to Ash’s Frodo, the bumbling sidekick who ends up (I’m assuming) being the unsung hero. And really, aren’t we all?

MELINDA: Eva, you completely made me sporfle with “except for the way he dresses.” Also, your points are spot on.

So, it’s been pointed out often that Banana Fish doesn’t pass “The Bechdel Test,” and it’s true. This doesn’t tell us much about the story’s female characters, however, aside from the fact that they aren’t generally seen together. We’ve now met both of the series’ main female characters and one more who doesn’t last long. What do you think of Banana Fish‘s female cast so far?

MICHELLE: Jennifer bugged me ‘cos she’s an apologist for her man’s crappy behavior—and seriously, why is he blaming Ash for something he himself suggested?—but Jessica’s first appearance amused me because it completely read like something from American TV or movie. One of those tough chick roles played by Holly Hunter or Linda Hamilton. Is the third one Shorter’s sister? She hasn’t made much of an impression on me yet besides, “Jeez, she’s got broad shoulders.” I suppose the latter two have some potential to contribute meaningfully, but so far they haven’t done much.

MELINDA: Michelle, I completely agree regarding Jennifer. She’s probably supposed to be a sympathetic character, but she’s such a doormat, I have difficulty caring about her very much. I think the fact that she’s set up as a sacrifice so early on is very telling, and if she wasn’t balanced out by a couple of much stronger female characters, I’d have a pretty low opinion of Yoshida’s portrayal of women in general. Fortunately, she also gives us Jessica, who I think is pretty kick-ass, and Shorter’s sister, who is actually my favorite of the bunch. She’s intriguing to me from the start, I suppose because she doesn’t obviously fall into any of the usual stereotypes. Despite the fact that other characters comment on her supposedly masculine appearance, she isn’t written either as a tomboy or as an awkward, old maid-like character–the usual designations for female characters who aren’t conventionally pretty. Somehow, even though we’ve seen so little of her (and what we have seen has been somewhat mysterious, due to her reticent nature) she strikes me as being more genuinely herself than nearly anyone else in the story.

ROBIN: I already like Shorter’s sister — see my reply above — as she’s a smart, cautious type. She seems very strong, but not driven by impulse, and she’s someone I’d definitely want in my corner in a pinch. I agree about the shoulders, too, Michelle — she’s very panther-esque. If we were color-blind casting a movie, I’d kind of want to cast Angela Bassett, as she’s just that kind of badass.

As for Jennifer, I was also disappointed for all of the reasons you guys point out. There always does seem to be a problem when women write this kind of tale set among hard men: they get reduced to stereotypes and plot devices. On the one hand, I’ve come to expect it so I’m not surprised when it happens, but I’m also pleasantly surprised when a creator resists that urge. Shorter’s sister may be a character outside the tropes — she’s a badass, true, but she’s also not a femme fatale or a sexpot, which is what most women who can fight end up being.

KATE: Though Jennifer behaves like a doormat, I found her truer to life than Jessica. Don’t get me wrong: Jessica is a whole lot more fun, the kind of tough-talking, high-kicking, take-no-shit-from-anyone woman that I’d like to be in my everyday life. (The whole bit about Jessica running a high-class skin magazine for women totally cracked me up, though she seems believably entrepreneurial and crass to pull it off.) Yet Jennifer seems like the kind of woman many of us were socialized to be: a peacemaker and nurturer, rather than a warrior. Jennifer’s timid, conciliatory demeanor also reveals a lot about Ash’s father; from what we see of his relationship with her and with Ash, we realize that Ash’s father is a volatile, emotionally abusive man who’s unable to cope with the intensity of his own feelings. No one as resilient as Jessica would stick around for what he has to offer.

Shorter’s sister hasn’t made much of an impression on me yet; if anything, she seems to exist primarily so that the Lee crime syndicate has something to hold over Shorter’s head. I’ll be curious to see how she evolves in future volumes: will she actually become a player in the drama, or will she continue to be a passive witness, trotted out whenever Yoshida needs a reason to test Shorter’s loyalty to Ash?

KHURSTEN: Well, I’m not one to judge so early with characters, then again I have nothing left to judge her with, but I’d like to believe that Jennifer has her reasons for sticking by Ash’s dad. She does appear as a doormat, but unlike some of the people in the story, she was the one who saw through the characters and understood the things that they refused to admit at least until the end. When she reveals how Ash’s dad loved him, I was thinking “how the crap can you say that woman for a man who treats you like shit?” But then later on, you see her wisdom in the dad’s effort to let Ash escape. To me… she must be one of those insane women who probably, truly, saw some good in people. Hence, not exactly, the doormat for me.

Jessica though is quite a character, isn’t she? She’s got spunk. I like that.

The female Wong though. She’s trufax an Asian woman who knows the line of command in these extensive and intricate family ties that the Lees have built. I’m just excited what she’s up to… She did raise Shorter after all.

Did anyone forget the old woman taking care of the youngest lee? I think she’s perfect. For every bocchan needs to have his handmaid. In this case, his old maid. I bet she kicked his ass when they were younger that’s why he’s quite a cool character.

MELINDA: Khursten, I *totally* forgot Suk-Leui! Now I feel like an ageist pig! She’s kind of a badass, really, isn’t she?

CONNIE: I’m with Michelle on Jennifer. She just struck me as an element in Ash’s upbringing, a weak mother that just seemed to go with his terrible father. She does have a moment or two, but I more or less wrote her off for not standing up more for Ash. I did like Jessica though, even though, as Kate pointed out, she is a little unrealistic. As a character, she stands out and is very amusing. But I think she’s very necessary in the context of the story, where a character like her can add a bit of the right kind of levity to a pretty dark story. And as for Shorter’s sister, I think it’s better to wait a little bit to see what she does.

KATE: It’s interesting that we’re focusing so much on characters who, in the grand scheme of things, get very little screen time. It reminds me of being a female Star Wars fan back in the 1970s: I spent a lot of time wondering why Princess Leia was the only “girl” in the series, and inventing names and histories for the few other women we glimpsed over the course of the original trilogy. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less sensitized to that kind of gender imbalance in a story, even though I’m much more attuned to the negative ways in which women are portrayed. In this case, I’m not disappointed in Banana Fish‘s lack of female characters; given Ash’s background, and the skill with which he’s learned to manipulate other men, I couldn’t imagine his world including too many women. I’m just relieved that Yoshida doesn’t resort to totally cliche roles for her few female characters, e.g. gangster’s moll, hooker with a heart of gold.

ROBIN: Kate, as I’ve been reading everyone’s discussion, I was so glad to get to yours because I was thinking much the same. I didn’t have a strong reaction to the female characters, and as I was read along I wondered if I was being a bad reader (and potentially a bad female reader) by ignoring the female characters. I think they’re sliding to the back of my mind precisely because of what you said: they’re neither main characters nor irritating stereotypes (at least not too much, in the case of Jennifer), so I’m just not that concerned by them. In male dominated stories like these, I don’t get up in arms about female characters or the lack thereof.

I’m always reminded of a woman I knew once getting all riled up because there were no women in the film adaptation of Master and Commander (of Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic navy saga), and all I could think was, “But there WERE NO WOMEN on those ships! If it’s all about the ships and they never return home or on inhabited land, then there will be no women. It would be really strange for there to be women on the ship in the middle of battle!” I’m all for debating the lack or quality of female characters, but I think I too have gotten less reactionary.

KATE: Phew! I’m relieved I won’t have to turn in my feminist comic blogger credentials just yet.

MELINDA: So, earlier, Connie described the dominant motivation in Banana Fish as being a combination of “vengeance, self-preservation, and a twisted kind of justice.” At this point in the story (and please try not to think ahead, those who’ve read the whole thing) do you see any one of these elements as being stronger than the others? And are these just Ash’s motivations, or can this be applied to other characters as well?

MICHELLE: That’s a really interesting question. I definitely agree that all of those motivations are present, but different characters embody them in different degrees. Does Eiji really feel Ash’s need for vengeance? I don’t think he does, but it’s important to him nonetheless. When Eiji seeks to help Ash achieve his revenge, to him it feels like a kind of justice. Too, Eiji has his own reasons for wanting to see this through, and though his personal safety was not in jeopardy back in Japan, his sense of self-worth was, so in that sense it might be considered an issue of self-preservation for him. To Max Lobo, I think the justice issue is most paramount, and also a sense of guilt and responsibility to ensure that his friend’s little brother makes it through all this alive.

KHURSTEN: I think that can be said and you can see it in varying degrees as you have mentioned earlier. There is definitely vengeance for Ash’s family and Skip. Shorter exhibited some sense of self-preservation. Lobo had that strange sense of justice. Although this is just part of what we see here. In this case, I felt that raw sense of greed was here particularly with Dino who not only wanted the drug back but also Ash. The lengths he tried to get him was just… wow. I suppose Ash was that precious to him. And greed works for the Lee family too, hence the deal with earlier, Shorter, and then later with Golzine. And maybe by looking at the Lee family, I’d like to bring out the idea how some of the characters are starting to show their other faces, meaning you can’t exactly take them for their face value. We’ve seen it in Ash from the very start. But now we see it too with Lee’s and slowly, we’re seeing it develop in Eiji and in Shorter.

MELINDA: Michelle, I’m glad you brought up Eiji’s sense of self-worth and whether that might be considered an issue of self-preservation. I was thinking, too, that what Eiji is really seeking at this point is just the ability to feel alive, something he’s finally discovered by attaching himself to Ash. I think that, for him, this might indeed be a matter of self-preservation.

MICHELLE: I can’t partake in a discussion that mentions just wanting to feel alive without thinking Buffy the Vampire Slayer thoughts. “Every single meet, the same arrangement… I go out and vault the pole…” But yes, I think that’s right. In some ways, I think that Eiji feels that this is his last chance to recapture what is missing from his life and if he lets it slip away, that’ll be it for him and any chance he might’ve had of a life worth living.

CONNIE: I hadn’t thought of Eiji’s motivation being his self-worth and wanting to feel alive, that’s a very good point. It makes me smile a little, that he’s going to all this trouble, but for him I think justice and his need to help Ash also play a part. Admittedly, it was mostly Ash I was thinking of when I mentioned the vengeance, self-preservation, and justice, since he’s the leader, but they do fit the other characters to some extent, too.

MELINDA: Finally, the most influential new character added in these volumes is Yut-Lung, the youngest of the formidable Lee family, who seems to have been raised from the womb to act as some kind of secret weapon for his clan. Any impressions to share so far, about either Yut-Lung as a character or the role he’s taken on in the story?

ROBIN: To be honest, my reaction was, “Oh, OF COURSE he’s the calculating, beautiful badass.” Talk about a character smacking of shojo — Yut-Lung is it. I didn’t really mind, it was just a moment when Banana Fish did conform to tradition and add in a stock character I could predict. I hope he might get more interesting/complex as time goes by (I expect he might), and I do love a good villain, so I’ll wait and see.

KATE: I totally agree, Robin, though I’d add that Yoshida toys with us a bit before confirming our suspicions about Yut-Lung. Lung introduces himself to Ash and Max as the adopted son of a prominent medical researcher, peddling a rags-to-riches story that strains credulity. Yet it’s just the kind of ridiculous, over-the-top backstory a shojo manga-ka might give a handsome bad guy to make him more sympathetic to readers. It almost — almost — throws the reader off the scent — could Yoshida be doing something so blatant? — though it doesn’t take more than a few pages before we realize that we were right all along. Yut-Lung doesn’t really have much of a personality at the moment (beyond being smart and evil), so it will be interesting to see if Yoshida develops him into a real character or treats him as a tool for advancing the plot.

MICHELLE: I was a little thrown by the intensity of Shorter’s devotion to the Lee family—it seemed rather sudden, though I guess it makes sense—but I still really like the element of conflicting loyalties that Yut-Lung introduces into the plot. I always enjoy stories in which good people are faced with the possibility of betraying their friends, and am really looking forward to witnessing the depths to which Shorter will sink.

KATE: I reacted the same way to the revelation that Shorter’s family was beholden to the Lees: where did this come from? At the same time, however, Shorter’s dilemma goes a long way towards addressing one of my few criticisms of Banana Fish: a lot of the supporting characters don’t have much of an identity beyond their relationship to Ash. Shorter has personality, to be sure, but up until volume four, he didn’t seem to have much of an interior life, or a set of motivations beyond, “Help Ash!” Like you, Michelle, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens now that he has a reason to examine why he’s loyal to Ash, and to decide whether that reason is more compelling than his family’s long-standing obligation to the Lees.

KHURSTEN: I seem to have watched much too many Chinese mafia movies so it was quite natural to me. In volume 3, when they got their guns from Mr. Lee, I already had a feeling that Mr. Lee were these guys were bigger than Shorter and would possibly be the family taking care of the community. You can say Shorter’s the small fry who doesn’t want to be in on their dirt although we really just saw that in the last part. I honestly found that exchange between Yut-Lung and Shorter rather nice in a way that it reveals so much about Shorter’s own philosophy and at the same time Yut-Lung’s own recognition of the opinions of people around him. I’m not exactly sure if Yut-Lung met people outside his family for more than… a day. But perhaps that exchange would leave him thinking about the movements of his family. We’ll just have to see that in the next volumes~

MELINDA: The relationship between Shorter and the Lee family didn’t surprise me either, but I suppose I just expected it based on the weight the Lees seemed to carry in Chinatown. I wholeheartedly agree that it gives Shorter a richer character. It’s helpful to the story, too, for us to see some potential for real conflict between those we’ve designated as the good guys–the juiciest kind of conflict, too! I’ll take moral dilemma and confused loyalties over most anything else for conflict.

EVA: I was more than excited by the introduction of Yut-Lung. As many of you have mentioned, his character is predictable and cliched. But I suspect that Kate is right. He’s also perfectly poised to be a springboard for the already established characters. I liked Shorter when he was first introduced and then blah. Shorter’s sister? Awesome at first, then meh. The police detectives? So much potential, then … Cape Cod? Now, with the introduction of Yut-Lung and the Lees, the story has places to go other than more chasing of drug vials around the country. If this leads where I’m expecting it to go, I’m really going to enjoy volume five.


That’s all for this month’s installment! A million thanks to these brilliant women for their thoughtful discussion. Join us in July when we tackle volumes five and six. And please share your thoughts with us in comments!

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  1. Every once in a while I’m reminded of the Bechdel Test, and I feel guilty about all the books and movies I enjoy that simply do not pass it. I don’t know if we can really fault Banana Fish for having so few female characters, though, and I agree that it is preferable that there are fewer of them than that there would be a bevy of gang hags and prostitutes pulling down the average female IQ in the series.

    Great roundtable. It was a truly interesting read, and I am so looking forward to the next one, for reasons only those who’ve already read volume 5/6 would know (and Ash’s momentary transformation from ripped-jeans thug to tuxedoed biseinen)…

    • A comment, a comment! :D You don’t know how happy I have about someone finally having started some conversation in here. Thanks, Cait!

      Like you, I’m not too bothered about Banana Fish and the Bechdel Test. I don’t think a lot of women realistically figure into Ash’s world, and his world is interesting enough to engage me without it, which is actually saying quite a lot, since I tend to gravitate towards female characters at this point in my life. The main reason I brought the subject up to the roundtable was so that we would address it before someone else came along and asked us about it. :D

      Thanks so much for reading! I too am looking forward to the next installment!

      • Well, expect some more comments through the weekend. This was a long discussion this time, and the only reason I got through it all yesterday (but slept on my response) was because I had the day off. ^_^

        For me, I do seem to be more drawn towards female characters more recently (Balsa in Moribito, Kino in Kino’s Journey, NANA, etc.), but historically I was always more interested in male-centered stories, but that brings up an interesting question of why. I feel like, US pop-culture tends to polarize demographics in a way that makes the things geared for “women” so completely unappealing to me (romantic comedies, et al) that all that’s left is the stuff for “men.” When I got into manga, I was afraid of sticking my foot in the shojo door because I was expecting more of the same, and only more recently discovered the wealth of titles and the genre of josei.

        This is sort of off-topic for Banana Fish though, but I think the point I’m trying to make is that we can forgive Banana Fish’s lack of female characters because they aren’t lacking for all of the usual reasons women are often absent from fiction, but are both a product of the universe these characters inhabit (one which affords little female presense), and possibly because the story itself focuses on the relationships between the male characters at least as much as on the action, making it more “written for women” than “written about men.”

        • I definitely was drawn to male characters more when I was younger (and in fact, I had mostly male friends until probably my mid-30s), though when I look back on it, a lot of the stories still had female protagonists. I just felt like I had more in common with the males. Just like my life, I guess. :D This has definitely turned around in recent years, though. I’ve always wondered (in life, but perhaps this also applies to fiction) whether it was me who changed or the other women. Of course I decided it was the women. Hee. But I wonder if I’m right. I wonder if there are just many more great female characters these days, or at least more relatable characters.

          • That’s interesting you say that because I always had more male friends until recent years, too!

          • I also had more male friends through my younger years. Well, really, I still have more men in my life than women. But I feel like in my later years I am less focused on what people expect (or don’t expect) of me as female and have become more comfortable in my life. It’s curious to see how that has affected my tastes in fiction.

            • I had a similar journey through mangadom, Cait—I’m positively allergic to entertainment like Sex in the City and Letters to Juliet, and when I started reading comics, I went straight for the testerone. Not until I’d been reading a while did I realize how much I was missing by not including shojo and josei in my diet — it just took me ages to find the female-centric comics that didn’t set my feminist teeth on edge.

        • themooninautumn says:

          Cait, I thought your last paragraph was pretty brilliant. Well-put!

  2. Ooh, lots of interesting discussion. Starting with the female characters – I do like Jessica, and Shorter’s sister, and I could have lived with more female representation on the NYPD (if only so that I stop mixing up all the males with facial hair), but otherwise the gender-skewing felt right for this particular story.

    I am curious about Ash’s mother, tho’, and without going into further potentially spoilery speculation about her, I think it’s interesting both in pacing and story terms that Ash ends up confronting his other parent so early in the story-line. Not that all western literature follows the basic plot line of Star Wars, but still, there’s kind of an expectation that dealing with your parents (especially men and their fathers) is more usually a resolution rather than a minor part of a much larger plot.

    Also on the pacing, I like that we get out of New York without slowing down (in fact, I could have coped with a bit more road trip!) and I do like the double-page spread of their arrival into LA, which is a really nice moment.

    Hmm. I feel I should be able to say something complex and meaningful about the focus on internal emotions in manga while actually only being able to see the characters from outside (as opposed to in fiction), but it’s late and I’m not articulate enough. I do like Melinda’s point about how the characters in Banana Fish demonstrate an awareness of feelings and relationships (well, mainly relating to Ash and Eiji) – I think it gives them more depth, actually, while obviously highlighting the emotional content of the story.

    I was not wild about Yut-Lung’s initial introduction, but I do like the way he schemes (and, again, he picks up straight away on Eiji’s importance to Ash…)

    • That’s an interesting point about Ash’s confrontation with his dad… I suppose it’s telling that Ash has left that life so far behind him. I suppose when you think about it, the hostility he *might* have felt for his dad is more focused on Papa Dino at this point in his life. That’s really interesting.

      Thanks so much for joining in here! I may have more to say later on!

  3. themooninautumn says:

    Another nice discussion to read through full of good points, great quotes, and interesting conversations.

    Every time I reread this series, I am just floored by how fast it moves and still remains compelling. When you try to do a plot summary, you end up with more in these four volumes than most series have with 15 volumes. It’s kind of absurd. I love it.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion; I’m already looking forward to next time.

  4. Eva, one of my favorite quotes was yours. “I think the fact that this reads like seinen, but is relationship-driven, is what gives off the yaoi vibe some people picked up on in volumes one and two. We aren’t used to relationship-driven stories for men, despite all of us knowing that men do, in fact, form strong, non-sexual relationships with other men. Instead, those literary relationships are slashed, turning what might have originally been a manly story into something else.”

    I feel like you really nailed something important with that explanation. It was quite thought-provoking. Thank you!

    • Eva Volin says:

      Thanks so much! One of the disadvantages to working so much is that I end up chiming in late. The other ladies all made such interesting comments that it’s nice to know my brief additions to the discussion didn’t get lost.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of many slashy stories, but it bothers me when meaningful stories about real-seeming relationships are trivialized by the squee factor. I think this is also where I was going when I talked about reading the story that is on the page rather than the story I wish were on the page. Sometimes it’s hard to make the distinction, but I’m trying with this series. And for me, the effort is paying off.


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