I’ve spent quite a bit of effort attempting to persuade readers to check it out, so just imagine my joy when a few of my favorite manga bloggers agreed to indulge me in an ongoing roundtable discussion of the series!
Joining me here are 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). Each of these women writes about manga for multiple blogs and other online publications (despite the fact I’ve listed only one each here) and their combined knowledge and experience is, frankly, pretty intimidating if you let yourself ponder it for too long.
This roundtable will convene every two months, covering two volumes at a time. This month, we discuss volumes one and two. If you’d like to follow along, check out my list of suggestions for getting your hands on this (often) hard-to-find series.
On to the roundtable!
MJ: As someone late to the manga scene, I picked up the first few volumes of Banana Fish based entirely on the opinions of others. From Shaenon Garrity to Frederik Schodt, the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that Banana Fish was unlike any other shojo manga series they’d read, which was a big selling point for me at the time. Even then, once I started reading, it wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
What first drew you to take a look at this series, and what kept you reading after the first volume or two? If you’re reading the series now for the first time, are the first two volumes what you expected?
Khursten: I will be honest that the reason I picked up Banana Fish around 9 years ago was because Gackt said in an interview that his favorite manga was Banana Fish.
Don’t judge me, but I can at least say that Gackt had some taste in his manga.
So, I got a little star struck by some J-rock idol and my friends who have gone to Japan picked it up from his advice and never stopped talking about it. I too became curious that when a friend came home carrying her volumes of Banana Fish, I had to read it. My Japanese was screwed up back then but what kept me reading were the terrified faces of the soldiers in the first chapter. I remember saying to my friend “What the hell is happening here?”
And page by page she explained a strange story of this crazy drug and how some punks in New York may have been caught in between. Even without their narration, I pretty much knew what was happening. Akimi Yoshida’s art was very expressive that it was hard not to miss that you were bound for something very interesting after the first volume. I knew I had to read the next. And the next one after. I believe I slept over in that friend’s house to try to read something I couldn’t even understand entirely.
Of course I can read it now, but yeah, that was how I first crossed Banana Fish.
Michelle: I got into manga around the time the Shojo Edition of Banana Fish came into print. I was collecting a lot of books from that imprint (Please Save My Earth, Basara, Revolutionary Girl Utena…) but somehow Banana Fish never really appealed to me. I hate to admit it might’ve been the bruised-fruit look of its cover design. Eventually, though, I read enough praise that I decided to check it out.
I have not read the whole series. Indeed, I’ve barely only begun. I will say that when I was rereading volume one in preparation of this roundtable I was struck by how seinen-y this whole setup is. I must’ve read a lot of seinen between my original read and now, because it seemed more obvious this time that the whole plot could really work in a seinen epic written by Naoki Urasawa or something. It’ll be interesting to see how Yoshida manages to make it work as shojo.
Connie: To be honest, I wasn’t drawn to the series at all initially. Banana Fish was the least interesting-sounding series in Pulp, a magazine I wanted to read but was too young to mail-order. As a 16-year-old who was inhaling Ranma 1/2 and Sailor Moon, a series about a gay gang leader engaging in some sort of mob struggle over a mystery drug wasn’t high on my list of must-reads. When it hopped ship mid-series to Animerica Extra, a magazine featuring super-girly shojo that I did read every month, I was so angry about the bad fit that I swore I would never read it.
That was awhile ago. Hearing the near-constant praise Banana Fish receives as a shojo classic and just how unlike anything else it is, I was interested enough to finally give it a try. I think it was the banter the characters had going amongst themselves that intrigued me the most in the first couple volumes. The adaptation is excellent, and I could see the first volume being very tedious without all that color added to the plentiful expository dialogue. I also liked the humanizing detail of Eiji and Ibe being able to walk into a New York street gang hideout to ask questions. As hilariously unlikely as that is, it does a good job of making Ash and his gang the good guys. By the second volume, the action from the story proper had really hooked me. There really wasn’t anything girly about it at all in the early volumes, and that did take me by surprise, because I was expecting a little more concession to the audience in the early volumes.
Kate: The first time I tried to read Banana Fish, I found it talky and ridiculous — sort of like reading a manga version of The Equalizer, only with preposterously named characters who never took the subway. Ask a New Yorker: only Beyonce and Donald Trump ride everywhere in cars!
Revisiting Banana Fish in 2010, I have a better sense of where it fits into the literature, as yet another work — like Pineapple Army — that explores the role of guns, drugs, and gangs in urban America. (Or, perhaps more accurately, as yet another work that portrays American cities as a lawless wilderness.) I also have a better appreciation for the story itself. Banana Fish is wildly ambitious, introducing dozens of characters and a half-dozen major plot lines in the first two volumes alone, all while raising questions about the drug culture of the Vietnam War and child prostitution. Matt Thorn and Carl Horn really do Akimi Yoshida a solid with an adaptation that, as Connie notes, transforms an exposition-heavy script into a series of little character sketches. If anything, the dialogue was what hooked me the second time around.
Michelle: Oh man, the names! I probably wasn’t supposed to giggle when Ash revealed his real name so dramatically.
MJ: Heh, luckily I’d had the humor of Ash’s name revealed to me by Shaenon Garrity’s post, so I saw it coming. Kate, I think I like “talky” when it’s done right. Good dialogue is my greatest weakness, and I loved the dialogue in Banana Fish immediately. I can definitely understand why that would have hooked you this time around.
Eva: Like you, MJ, I first became aware of Banana Fish after reading Shaenon Garrity’s Overlooked Manga Festival. This was back when I was desperately trying to learn as much about manga as I could, as fast as I could, and Shaenon’s blog introduced me to books I couldn’t find at my local Borders.
God, I miss that blog.
Anyway, imagine my pleasant feeling of surprise when, right after reading that blog entry, I wandered into the manga library at a local con and found the entire Banana Fish series … except for one volume. Gah! Because volume 6 was missing and I’m the kind of person who has to have the whole story delivered in chronological order, I only read up through volume 5. Now, years later, having re-read volumes 1 and 2, it’s clear I’ve forgotten pretty much everything. So, I’ll be our token Banana Fish baby. It’s all new to me.
MJ: Connie, I love that your initial reaction to Banana Fish‘s lack of girly-ness was so negative, while I can honestly say that’s exactly why I was interested in it to start. It’s funny when I consider my tastes now, but when I first started reading manga I could not muster any interest in shojo manga at all and believed I never would. So Banana Fish lured me in by being different than what I thought of (at the time) as shojo while also tapping into my inner teen with similarities to all those S.E. Hinton novels (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, etc.) I was obsessed with back in junior high. What I discovered, ultimately, was that it was both much more complex than the novels I read as a teen and also somewhat more representative of shojo manga than I’d realized at the time. More on that probably once we get into to later volumes.
Khursten, I think your Gackt story is my favorite so far!
Michelle, when you answered this question at first, I think you’d only read the first volume. Do you feel any differently about the tone of the series now that you’ve read volume two? I think once Ash and Eiji start really interacting, the series takes on a warmth that makes it feel much more like a shojo manga to me. Did you experience this shift at all?
Kate: My shojo manga journey followed a similar trajectory to yours, MJ: for a long time I eschewed what I perceived to be the “girly stuff” in favor of action-oriented series. When I first encountered Banana Fish, however, I found it wanting in comparison with some of the seinen titles I was reading at the time, e.g. Crying Freeman and Old Boy. Banana Fish seemed tame, with characters explaining themselves when common sense seemed to dictate that they ought to be throwing punches, firing guns, or running like hell. (Is “more speedlines” the manga equivalent of “more cowbell”? If so, that would have been my critique: “more speedlines!”) The second time around, it’s this very mixture of introspection and action that appeals to me. The characters struck me as much more real than anything I encountered in, say, Kazuo Koike, motivated by complex and sometimes contradictory agendas, rather than a pure, uncomplicated desire for revenge.
Robin: I had a rather roundabout journey to hearing about Banana Fish. I had only just begun to read manga. My first manga was Mars by Fuyumi Soryo read simultaneously with Clover by CLAMP in the old Tokyopop editions, so I’d certainly started out in the school of shojo. I then delved into Sanami Matoh’s FAKE, which rather blew my mind in being about cops who were solving crimes and also (gasp!) gay. (Or as gay as anyone ever is in yaoi.) I was curious if there were more such stories, and in my internet searching, I recall someone recommending Banana Fish as a sort-of yaoi, and as a compelling crime drama. I’m a procedural fangirl, so I was totally on board with the crime aspect, although mafia stories don’t always appeal to me. I read the first couple of volumes via my library, and while I enjoyed it a lot, I remember being put off by reading fan reviews that hinted that the potential relationship between Ash and Eiji was not heading to a good place. I remember being annoyed as I was in the mood for more fantasy a la FAKE, and not really urban drama. That being said, I appreciated that Banana Fish was a crime drama first, not a romance, as I’d been hoping for something much more realistic than FAKE ever pretended to be in its actual police work.
I also remember learning, and I believe this was the case, that Banana Fish ran in both a shojo magazine (Betsucomi) and an adult, guy-oriented magazine (Pulp, although this was here in the US) at the same time. This fascinated me. The idea of appealing to both audiences at once intrigued me, as I am a woman who likes a lot of ostensibly manly media (Blade Runner, Fight Club, and so on). However, that kind of tale is certainly not a crossover US media creators often pursue or even acknowledge. Manly men and teenage girls liking the same sort of story? Impossible!
Now that I’ve gotten into the first two volumes, I am pleased to say that it’s holding up very well, especially in that it’s reminding me of all of the excellent crime serials I’ve loved: Homicide: Life on the Street (the original book and the TV series both) and OZ (volume two is giving me flashbacks to the joys of watching OZ!.)
Kate and Connie, I thoroughly agree that the translation and adaptation are wonderful (and I admit I flipped open the title page this time around and immediately said to myself, “Oh, Carl Horn and Matt Thorn! Of course it’ll be good!”). They manage the slang and banter very well, and with a smart eye for allowing the slightly fantastical image of US gang warfare and the mafia still linger despite keeping the language more in a style we all expect from our pulp crime stories.
MJ, I too immediately thought of S. E. Hinton — she was, no doubt, writing The Outsiders from her own experiences hanging out with greasers. At the same time, The Outsiders is full of language that screams girl perspective. The number of times she has those characters express their feelings, and rhapsodize over each other’s physical beauty. The Outsiders is true to the idea of street gangs while offering a romantic, emotionally driven story, hence it’s strong girl appeal. Now, I don’t want to discredit the appeal to boys as well, or to somehow belittle the idea that men can talk about their feelings and/or admit their friends are physically beautiful. Nonetheless, I feel like that openess between men is only now becoming more acceptable, whereas even when I was a teen it was an odd thing for a straight guy to admit his best friend just might be attractive.
In that way, I think Banana Fish is very shojo simply in the internal lives it gives its characters. I read a whole discussion that distinction that makes shojo manga shojo as a genre is the fact that characters spend a lot more time than they ever do in shonen or seinen thinking. Their internal monologues are epic, and on every page, so that even when it’s a storyline that doesn’t seem girly, the emotional life of the character makes the tale shojo. I’d never really noticed this particular aspect of defining a manga as shojo, but I think that’s spot on. We girls do like our rich character development.
MJ: Since Connie brought up Eiji, that segues nicely into my next question. The success of this series, even from the very first volume, depends very much on the immediate bond formed between Ash and Eiji. One thing I’ve been impressed with each time I read the series is how effectively Yoshida pulls this off. Do you agree, and if so, what do you attribute this to?
Michelle: I touched on both these questions in my review of volume two, which I did finish and write about after my first response, so I’ll kind of be plagiarizing myself here. I definitely get more of a shojo feeling now because, in addition to showing us how much of a badass Ash is, there’s an equal emphasis on how very broken he is. He’s distrustful and obsessively self-reliant, and there are only hints about why. So, to revise my initial opinion, it’s shojo with a liberal dose of seinen seasoning.
I can’t put my finger on what makes Ash and Eiji bond so immediately. Eiji admires Ash, that’s for certain, and feels honor-bound after certain events to help him out. I think Ash responds to that honor, not to mention Eiji’s ingenuity and bravery, as well as to Eiji’s absolute lack of a hidden agenda, which is something extremely rare in Ash’s world.
Khursten: Something like love at first sight, right? I completely agree and I feel that it’s Yoshida’s intention to make these two guys hit it off almost immediately. In a way that’s very shojo isn’t it? The two main characters coming together and making a connection. She built the two characters as though they complemented each other.
First we have the young punk Ash who seem to know his in and out of the city. And then there’s Eiji, the innocent assistant, who was trying to get a grasp of the world. The first few chapters in the first volume was an exposition of Ash’s world and like Eiji, we couldn’t help but be drawn to his brashness. It may have been a job for Eiji but there was a curiosity in how different they were even if they were both young. Ash was magnetic this way and after that hostage thing, I felt it was only natural for Eiji to step up a little. Is it his pride as a man? Maybe it’s his survival instinct. Either way, it was impressive enough to catch Ash’s attention. Suddenly, another kid who’s got the smarts. If Yoshida had drawn this more shojo, I’m quite sure there was a ‘dokidoki’ moment, a heart throbbing second there.
And lol. Thanks MJ. My youth was in many ways embarrassing like this.
Forgive me, I could also be just a fujoshi speaking here. orz. And I also have a bit of a question in relation to the first one. You guys are free to answer it as well.
I come from the Philippines so perhaps my initial experience with Banana Fish may be completely different compared to others. But based on what most of you said, am I correct in saying that before reading the comic, most of you were well aware that it was a shojo title? Did that set your expectations as a reader? Did you read the comic expecting familiar shojo elements in it? And to this day, did you read the first two volumes of Banana Fish in the context of shojo? I’ve read Connie’s and partly Michelle’s, but I’m interested to hear from the others who pretty much had that same experience. I first read this manga not knowing what genre it was so it was very fresh to me with little expectations beyond wanting know why it was Gackt’s favorite.
Michelle: I am exceptionally anal about knowing what demographic a manga series is—not for any particular reason except a need to categorize it correctly on my blog and in LibraryThing—so it’s highly unlikely I’d ever start something without knowing that it’s shojo. Like MJ, I knew that it was atypical, so I didn’t really have many expectations other than I figured it would have an involved plot.
Eva: Huh. I didn’t get a “love at first sight” vibe at all from the first two volumes. For me, Ash doesn’t mind Eiji being around because Eiji doesn’t need Ash to be anything other than a curiosity. Ash is the celebrity to Eiji’s paparazzi. Eiji’s there on assignment and he’s going to be leaving, so their relationship is supposed to be temporary and finite. Ash can afford to let him get close because, unlike the local guys, Eiji’s no threat to him or to his goals. Even during the attack and kidnapping, Ash is more concerned for Skip than he is for Eiji. It’s not until Eiji proves that he’s able to think under fire — and is willing to sacrifice himself to save the group — that he begins to notice that Eiji might be more than just another hanger-on.
MJ: Like Eva, I didn’t see Ash and Eiji as “love at first sight.” I’m only half (maybe 3/4?) with Eva on the reason, though. I think there is an immediate affinity and a kind of immediately established trust (or the seed of such) that is at least as rare, maybe more so. I think Eiji’s deep innocence is obvious to Ash from the beginning which makes him not a threat. I also think Ash probably never met anyone like that in his life (Skip was the closest, and Ash had an unusual bond with him as well) so in a way, Eiji is as much a curiosity to him as he is to Eiji. “Curiousity” is not quite the word. I think Ash is drawn to that kind of innocence, whether he’d admit it or not. I think by writing Skip in the way she did–establishing that side of Ash from the beginning in a really organic way–Yoshida made it possible for us to believe that Ash would want to be around someone like Eiji. I think it’s kind of brilliant, really.
Robin: I fall more into MJand Eva’s group in that I didn’t see the immediate connection as love, but rather as a strings-free moment of connection. I think, MJ, you hit the nail on the head when you said Eiji’s lack of hidden agenda makes him refreshing to Ash (hence why he allows him to handle his gun…and I mean not unfortunate pun there…argh!)
I think a lot of this series (even though I’ve only read the first two volumes!) works on this fascination audiences have with one, extreme situations, and two, homosocial environments. This may be my overly educated brain working on overtime here, but I think many readers are drawn to experiencing drastic situations via fiction and fantasy. Banana Fish, like OZ or similar crime dramas, takes a bunch of men, traps them in a very strict, honor-bound setting, and investigates how they interact, and how their emotions work both for and against them. The more rules there are, the more heightened the drama, and the more dangerous the situation is, the more romance (and I mean that not necessarily in a sexy sort of way, but in an escapist sort of way.) There’s the appeal of a trial by fire — what would YOU do if you ended up in the middle of a gang war? Would you step up? Would you cower in a corner? The most interesting characters are those that find themselves in situations like that, for better or worse, and Ash and Eiji are both poised to have their lives change by this beginning.
Khursten: Lol. I suppose the love at first sight is really my fujoshi vision acting up. lol. But awesome point MJ on how Ash is also drawn to that kind of innocence. I do wonder if it’s his whole gang leader/older brother in him or in a way it’s a childhood, an innocence he wanted to protect.
Connie: I read Eiji the same way Eva did, that he and Ash had a short-term working relationship at first. I read Eiji as more of a foil to Ash at first, which I think he was for awhile. We see Ash through Eiji’s eyes, so he’s inherently heroic and exotic. He is anyway, but again, I think he’d be much more of a villain if we didn’t have Eiji’s point of view. Because the relationship between them is so subtle, I didn’t pick up on anything other than concern and admiration between them, but that could also just be me being thick or used to these things being more visible. Eiji’s devotion to Ash in the second volume struck me as more of an obligation than anything else, like he felt guilty about what happened in the bar and wanted to make up for it. Even the kiss seemed like a dodge or tease rather than something more, though it did make me smile.
Khursten: It’s actually a style used in older shonen-ai stories. The first meeting is often a recognition of another’s existence, in a way how one is respectable to the other. Respect, admiration, and love is often almost blurred. As a BL fangirl, it’s almost unavoidable not to read ahead of myself just by seeing their first meeting. It was crazy and yet the respect was there. In the latter pages of the first volume, Eiji was in tears, a little helpless and yet moved by Ash’s and Skip’s effort to save him. I wouldn’t be surprised if many saw this as platonic, but there was a deep sense of respect. I don’t think it’s love just yet but the admiration was there. I don’t think it’s being dense. It was possibly Yoshida’s intention to make it ambiguous that way. For me, I found that teary moment heart wrenching and a prelude to something. Perhaps, an admission of Ash’s greatness. I can imagine some may think that it’s just a normal reaction when you almost died for a day. It’s crazy how a scene can be interpreted in many ways and maybe that’s the genius in this. You can see it in so many ways and in the end it’s still an exciting story to read.
Connie: I’ll admit, it was even harder for me to read Banana Fish as a BL story in these first two volumes than it was a shojo story, just because I’m still completely unfamiliar with a lot of the more action-oriented titles in that genre. And I also had no idea BL existed when I first encountered the series, so I probably wouldn’t have read anything into it at all had I started back then. The subtlety is definitely a mark in its favor, and I love the slow way the characters build up, especially Ash in these two volumes.
Michelle: I’m not reading it as specifically a BL or shonen-ai story at all. I know those things can be read into what happens, but I think it’s possible for two characters to be drawn together—to have synchronicity—and yet it not be romantic love, or at least not yet. So far, I haven’t read any of the moments between them as “preludes to something” romantic developing, but more like a strengthening of the immediate bond they’ve formed. I find it much more touching and meaningful that Ash entrusted Eiji with an important errand than the fact that he used a kiss to communicate the details.
MJ: I have a lot to say about Ash and Eiji’s relationship, but I think most of it is better saved for discussion of later volumes. I will say, though, that my thought when I first read these volumes was that I would be surprised to see Ash use anything sexual (including a kiss) as an earnest expression of love. Considering his experiences, I couldn’t imagine that he would associate those two things together at all. How could he have gone through all that and not come out permanently broken in that area? And I actually really appreciated Yoshida for not trivializing that.
Robin: As I said above, I originally discovered Banana Fish from a recommendation as BL with the caveat that it wasn’t intended as such. I’m waiting to see how that all progresses, but I think that the emotions right now don’t approach that level, and I doubt they ever will in the sense that it’s not a romance. BL is wrapped up in the romance genre for me, so no matter how integral a relationship may be to the plot, I don’t feel (thus far) that the point of the entire story we’re seeing is romance. It’s far more complicated than that. Not that I don’t put my slash goggles on, but so far I don’t see it as the focus.
I did want to say one thing about the shojo/seinen divide: to me, this series is seinen most obviously in the art style. I am a very visual reader (hence, why I like manga so much!) and reading this now it is even more clear just how seinen the art truly is. Eiji and Ash are both lookers, sure, but they’re seinen lookers. No willowy bodies and super-feminized faces here (and thank God!). I sometimes feel like I’m on a constant quest to find manga that do exactly what Banana Fish is doing — writing a shojo emotional story but side-stepping the character design and behavior tropes that can drive me insane in shojo. Believe me, I love a good shojo manga, but much in the way I get tired of conventions in any genre, I get tired of the sameness. I seek out titles like this that break the mold, and much of the manga I admire are the ones that eschew standard categories.
One other element that tweaked me to the shojo aspect of this series was the gay content. Yes, teenage hustlers and child porn are not exactly unheard of in gritty crime dramas, but somehow the details of how its discussed, and the casual acknowledgment of the realities of child rape, gayness, and potential male/male attraction in the midst of this world felt very manga-esque to me. I know of no other fictional output that we get here in the States that is so casual about this aspect of life, and certainly in our own media it’s always an ISSUE, not an integral part of a multi-layered story.
On a totally separate, superficial note, I just have to say: I ADORE the ‘staches. All those guys know how to rock a ‘stache.
MJ: I’m with Robin on the gloriousness of the ‘staches. A less successful fashion choice: Eiji’s ensemble for infiltrating Chinatown. Oh, 80s!
On a more serious note, Robin, I was hoping someone would mention the art. I especially look at the style of paneling as being unlike most post-49ers shojo with its neat right angles and matter-of-fact visual flow. It matches the tone of the manga overall, of course, and I kind of love that its able to be both unlike shojo and definitely shojo all at once. I think it’s a great example of how eclectic girls’ tastes truly are. It is a forthright acknowledgement of that fact, really.
Kate: Actually, the artwork reminds me a lot of Katsuhiro Otomo and early Naoki Urasawa. (Emphasis on early; Urasawa’s style evolved considerably from the time he made his professional debut in 1980s to the present, though lots of his signature touches are evident in works like Pineapple Army.) Compare Banana Fish with titles like Domu: A Child’s Dream and you’ll see that Yoshida’s figures, like Otomo’s, are solid and distinctive-looking, but they’re not always pretty — in fact, Yoshida aims for a mixture of naturalism and stylization that communicates a lot about her characters’ personalities.
Robin: MJ, just to say, I do love the fashion choices too. I particularly loved the off-the-shoulder, Flashdance Hawaiian shirt drape for Eiji. Oh, 80s. Never change. It’s still better than the high heeled dress shoes and poet shirts all over FAKE!
And Kate and MJ, the clean panels, the lack of experimental layout, and the character design all just scream seinen to me. Seinen, not shonen. I agree that Urasawa is a strong comparison (although his art, to me, is almost unparalleled in style) especially in how both artists strive for interesting faces rather than the by-rote beauty found in many shojo titles. I tend to zero in on faces more than body type, but you are absolutely correct, Kate, in how solid and realistic their bodies are.
Khursten: “in how solid and realistic their bodies are.” — I love them muscles in this series. Them big bulky muscles. >w<) And I also approve of the 'staches like you guys. In terms of style, it definitely is a little more androgynous, so to speak, in terms of sticking it in to a shojo or shonen genre. I just like to think that it’s a mature art style seen mostly in seinen titles. If we look at the paneling, it doesn’t even follow shojo‘s fluid panels and is really closer to seinen. When I was rereading this, I remember the Nausicaa manga since it has such a rigid paneling and the art’s like… watching a movie or Miami Vice. The Miami Vice came with all the detectives with suits and their floppy hair okay. We’re gonna have a discussion on clothes right?
MJ: This is sort of in response to Robin and Kate here and Khursten earlier, since Robin and Kate have both mentioned Yoshida’s distinctive (but not necessarily pretty) faces and Khursten mentioned how expressive the art is. I love the combination of those two things in this series–expression without idealization, perhaps? I think that just by itself helps to make the characters compelling. Just as flawed characters are more interesting (and, frankly, relatable) than “perfect” characters, so too are flawed faces. Perhaps it’s a personal thing, but I generally don’t appreciate physical beauty as much as I do distinction. Idiosyncrasy is at the core of love, at least for me.
Also, Khursten, YES, I want more talk of clothes. Not enough people have commented on this. :D
Khursten: Dammit, I love the undershirt and the floral overshirt on top. Catch the tie in the center for a very casual look. lol. It makes me laugh but I can believe that people dressed once like that. I wonder… do they have screen tones for cheeky shirt designs? They might have.
MJ: Considering some of the things I wore in the 80s, I can hardly point fingers at poor Eiji, but perhaps this is why I *must*!
Robin: Also, MJ, just to say — I’ve always been a girl who is much more attracted to people who aren’t classically beautiful. The truly symmetrical, god-like face doesn’t do much for me, but give me an striking nose, long eyelashes, sharp features (not to mention a great voice, intelligence, and a sense of humor), and I’m much more likely to exclaim over someone’s beauty. Barbie looks are pretty much the opposite of attractive to me.
The clothes felt like such a product of the time when it was written and the images of the US that must’ve been inspirational. It just feels so period to me, and that’s what makes it fun. It’s like watching The Breakfast Club and getting nostalgic.
MJ: Robin, I’m actually really glad you brought up the series’ “period” feel, because something that has always struck me about it is that, to me, it seems to mix a few periods together in a kind of late 20th century American stew. The clothes and hairstyles are gloriously 80s, but the language (as translated, at least) and cultural attitudes (especially within the gangs) often feel more to me like something from the mid-to-late 50s, circa West Side Story or Rebel Without a Cause. Meanwhile, the police are straight out of a 70s TV cop show. I expect this is due entirely to an outside view of American culture, but I find it intriguing.
Robin: MJ, I do see what you mean. The gangs, I think, while being more akin to the 1950s image, are also more urban than I feel like the stereotypes of 1950s toughs would allow, and thus a bit more diverse. The police force, of course, is completely out of 1970s cop shows, with a little bit of Hill Street Blues thrown in. I often find series like this, set in the US but created entirely outside of that experience, fascinating precisely because of what they get right and what they get fabulously wrong. Shorter’s mohawk is definitely late 70s, early 80s punk rebel.
MJ: I’m glad Robin brought up the specifics of the “gay” content, because to be honest, the one lingering issue I have with the series even now is that despite its appeal to BL fans, there is a pervading sense of homophobia which is present right from the start. Homophobia in BL manga is a huge topic on its own, but what I’m referring to right now is the fact that all the obviously gay characters we meet in the first two volumes are not only criminals, but also predators dealing in child prostitution and child pornograpy. Conflating pedophilia with homosexuality is a particularly hideous aspect of homophobia in my opinion, and though Ash’s experiences are all a part of real-world crime (as Robin mentions) I can’t quite dismiss the message being sent. I’m bringing this up now so that we can discuss it and be done with it, because I really love this series and I don’t want to dwell on a single issue. Is this something that bothers anyone else?
Robin: I completely understand your concerns, MJ. I have sensitive radar when it comes to this kind of storyline, and I do agree that it’s appalling when gayness and pedophilia are conflated. The way Banana Fish presents these topics gives me hope that none of the characters believe gayness in itself is a bad thing. It’s more that one, child prostitution and rape is wrong, and two, none of them seem particularly OK with Marvin and his particular tastes. Of course, Papa Dino is a relatively respected character who allows Marvin his assignations, and indulges himself in some variation thereof. I will reserve judgment until I see more how the positive characters treat the subject, and whether there is any sort of crowbar separating gayness from pedophilia.
I do agree that the tendency in Japanese manga for creators to never be clear about homosexual identity or how homosexual acts define a character is problematic for US readers, especially in how it’s mixed together with underage characters. In the United States we have more codified definitions of sexuality and tend to like to keep characters in expected boxes. Sometimes I can see the lack of a definition for gay identity in Japan as a reason for confusion… I don’t know that homosexuality and pedophilia are connected in Japanese perceptions of sexuality. I don’t know enough about how those definitions might inform fiction or fantasy. That’s a whole other level: these are fantasies, no matter how realistically they may be portrayed. Japanese creators, from what I’ve read in manga, have much freer rein to explore the darkest sides of sexuality and power dynamics, so I suppose I’m unsurprised to see such topics being explored here. What I can’t know until I read more is just how much of that will be offset by other characters or portrayals of sexuality and power.
Michelle: So far, I haven’t gotten the sense that homosexuality and pedophilia are being conflated here. More like… being a criminal leads you to do really horrible things to people and if you happen to be a gay criminal you do them to someone of your same gender. Again, we haven’t yet seen a gay person portrayed in a positive light, but who exactly would’ve fit that bill anyway? Even the straight people we’re seeing so far are mostly criminals. It’s not like if Shorter Wong is gay that he’s had time to mention it while saving Ash, y’know?
Khursten: Like Michelle, I didn’t feel this sense of homophobia. I actually think that it’s possibly just Yoshida’s way of making a delicious complicated background for her tragic hero, Ash. And I don’t mean delicious in a way that it’s a good thing but I think it’s a pattern for most BL writers to write a really impossible past to build the personalities of their characters because it’s delicious for their stories. It’s pretty and it makes their characters have this cool veneer of managing to stand up for themselves despite their tragic past. I honestly think that the homosexuality and pedophilia was just one of many things to explain why Ash does what he does in this series. At the same time, it described the people that surrounded him. I… don’t think Yoshida really thought of it beyond a plot device. Sexual ambiguity is a characteristic of Japanese culture. In fact, looking back at classical works and this, sometimes a character’s sex is not the issue but rather what’s important is the exposition of their personality and their psychology. I think it’s closer to that than really a sense of homophobia.
Kate: I’m always frustrated by manga artists’ need to “explain” their characters’ homosexuality, as if it were precipitated by a single event or unrequited love. In one book I read recently, for example, a character’s homosexuality was attributed to the fact that he couldn’t be with the one woman he truly desired, who just happened to be… his twin sister. (Dude, try online dating!) In Ash’s case, however, I think his behavior and self-image are consistent with the kind of abuse he endured at Marvin and Papa Dino’s hands. As MJpoints out, it would be natural for Ash to conflate aggression, manipulation, and sexual behavior, as he’s been punished and rewarded for being an object of these older, more powerful men’s desire.
Robin: Oh, Kate, you’re always so much more articulate that I am late at night. :) I definitely agree with both you and Khursten that Ash’s past is there to set up his behavior, and his reactions, especially in volume two when his past is brutally revealed to the cops he trusts, I feel like he acts true to his nature. I also think, at least for Ash, the key is the abuse more than that the perpetrators were men or that he hustled. In that sense, at least in my head, actual gayness doesn’t really enter into it (or at least not yet.) I keep flashing onto other reference points from other media (my brain is just one big mix of pop culture references, really, of epic proportions). If any of you have seen Mysterious Skin, the lead guy in that has a lot in common with Ash, and that film has a similar character arc in exploring his sexuality and abuse without ever choosing to put labels on him.
About Yoshida, just to ask — was she known for writing BL? Does she come from that world? Did people expect that from this series when it started? I guess I’d always gone forward with the knowledge that there was some homoeroticism, but I never got far enough to know if that ever went anywhere or was just the usual heated glances that never really amounted to much. And no, I’m not asking for spoilers, I’m more curious whether people would have gone into this story knowing it was BL.
Eva: Thanks for asking this question, Robin, as I was becoming confused, myself. Is Banana Fish BL or is it shojo? When reading volumes one and two I really didn’t get BL vibes at all. Yes, there are gay characters, yes there is a male/male kiss, but neither of these things automatically place a story into the BL box. (All you have to do is look at Yoshinaga Fumi’s Antique Bakery to see that this is true.) Khursten, you asked in the beginning if we all read these books in the context of shojo. I’d have to say that because of the non-stereotypical storyline and the non-shojo art, I’ve just been reading it as a story, without attaching a label to it. Just a story. And as a result, I’m not seeing the BL patterns you’ve suggested are there. I see a friendship building, I see Ash using sex as a tool to survive, I see Eiji blushing in confusion and embarrassment. But in the first two volumes I don’t yet see love. Not even the spark of love. Maybe it’s coming, and based on what everyone has said above, I won’t be surprised when it does, but I don’t see it yet.
Khursten: With regards to Robin’s question, at the time of Banana Fish, there was no BL magazine yet nor was the BL genre so separate from shojo manga. What they had was shonen-ai in shojo manga, and I think all of us know that this was all due to the 49ers who were also published in the same magazine as Yoshida which was Betsucomi. Hence, she was still considered a shojo mangaka but if I would trace the continuity from the 49ers (and the world owes the start of BL from them), then she was one of few who followed after their tradition. I haven’t had the chance to read her work before Banana Fish but I have read one of her works after Banana Fish, Yasha, which also had hints of a homosexual story between the two main male characters. Now, if you guys thought Banana Fish was gripping, wait ’til you guys have a chance to read Yasha. That’s one hell of a story. My friends who have read her other works like Lover’s Kiss also said it had homosexual elements too. I even heard that one of her earlier works had a lesbian theme in it.
For Eva, yeah, I have to apologize for my fujoshi vision. It’s like a strange gay-dar wherein I just have to catch a few elements and all of a sudden I’m just saying “God, they’re gay.” It’s bad enough that I have my fujoshi vision even in mangas like Slam Dunk and Case Closed so yeah… I would have to apologize for that now. It’s a vision born out of my fujoshi imagination. (Hence, the rotten girl. orz.)
MJ: I don’t want to give too much away, since several of our participants (and likely readers as well) are getting into this series for the first time. I can say, however, that though I don’t consider Banana Fish to be BL, I think the homoeroticism is deliberate. I’m glad that Khursten has followed the thread back to the 49ers, because that makes a lot of sense to me.
Robin: Just to say, Khursten, I don’t think it’s something you have to apologize for. I’ve been known to see homoeroticism in all manner of stories, intended or not! It’s a legitimate interpretation, and I think it just speaks to how much we bring to the story (and any story) as readers. I think both Eva and I were just wondering just how much the story was intended as such. In my head, BL has become a fairly rigidly structured subgenre, where romance and sexual attraction are key (not sexuality, per se, or identity, but romance.) I didn’t get that vibe from these first two volumes. I’m guessing as you’ve said that it’s much more like earlier shonen-ai works where there’s a whole lot of implications but not a romance in the classic, genre-defining way. I have no doubt that whatever is there was intended by the creator. Elements of homoeroticism are all over the place in manga, whatever the declared genre, and I’m not at all surprised to see it as part of the story. Still, homoerotic content does not make it BL or even shonen-ai for me.
I guess I agree with Eva in that I’m not reading it as a genre story, but as a story. It may become a genre story as it goes, but I find it more inclusive to not limit myself to thinking of it in any particular way at the beginning.
Michelle: I agree with Eva, as well. I have always been an entertainment consumer that accepted what I was given. I don’t need to know exactly what the relationship between two characters is, if it’s the way that it’s being portrayed that’s important. Does that make sense? If any of you have listened to the commentary musical to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Joss Whedon sings a song about, essentially, fandom. “He told the story. What came before he didn’t show. We’re not supposed to [know].” So, it doesn’t matter to me if this really is BL or not. It’s a damn good story, and that’s all I really need.
MJ: “A damn good story” works for me, Michelle. :) On that note, we’ll wrap up this installment of “Breaking Down Banana Fish.” Many, many thanks to Michelle, Khursten, Connie, Eva, Robin, and Kate for the truly fantastic discussion and for indulging my deeply selfish desire get more people talking about this series.
Join us again in May as we return to discuss volumes three and four!