Welcome again, and for the very last time, to our roundtable, Breaking Down Banana Fish!
We greet you this month with our final installment, covering volumes seventeen through nineteen of this epic series, as well as two side stories (“Angel Eyes” and “Garden of Light”) which are included in the final volume of the English-language edition of the manga. It’s hard to believe we’ve finally come to the end!
I’m joined again in this round by Michelle Smith (Soliloquy in Blue), Khursten Santos (Otaku Champloo), Connie C. (Slightly Biased Manga), Eva Volin (Good Comics For Kids), and Robin Brenner (No Flying, No Tights).
Just a note before we begin, this final edition of “Breaking Down Banana Fish” contains in-depth discussion of the series’ final chapters, including the outcome of the all series’ main conflicts and the fates of its characters. Obviously this means spoilers, so if you’re new to the series we recommend you begin reading along with the discussions listed below.
Read our roundtable on volumes one and two here, volumes three and four here, volumes five and six here, volumes seven and eight here, volumes nine and ten here, volumes eleven through thirteen here, and volumes fourteen through sixteen here. On to roundtable eight!
MJ: Welcome, everyone, to our final roundtable! I can’t believe we’ve actually reached the end of the series, and I expect people will have a bit to say about that. I’d like to discuss the ending (of course), and the two side stories included in the Viz editions as well. But first, let’s ponder a bit on volumes 17 and 18.
These volumes provide a lot of action as we reach the conclusion of each of the series’ main battles, but what’s revealed here more than anything is the truth of everyone’s loyalties, for better or worse. Relationships are tense, people are switching sides, and by the end, it’s hard to know who will stand up for whom as these battles come to a close.
While I don’t think any of it is extremely surprising, it is quite revealing, and even Ash is shaken by some of what goes on.There are two observations about Ash, made by other characters, that really struck me as I read this time around. First of all, in volume 17, after Ash goes nuts and guns down two Chinatown gang members who wounded Eiji, Lao, exasperated by Sing’s continued loyalty to Ash, screams, “You saw how he killed them, like they were vermin… Yeah, that’s all we are to him, a bunch of cockroaches! Our lives don’t mean crap!! Nobody besides that Japanese kid means *anything* to him!!”
I don’t think that’s completely true, but there’s certainly a kernel worth munching on. I also really like Cain’s observation a little later, when he marvels over seeing Ash lose his cool, and confesses that he likes him better that way, which leads Ash to a pretty alarming conclusion of his own.
What was your reaction to the personal tension and shifts in loyalty we saw in these final volumes? Did any of it take you by surprise? Do you think Yoshida handled this well, or did it just read as manufactured melodrama?
MICHELLE: The only shifting loyalty that took me by surprise comes after the battle, when Sing pays Yut-Lung a visit. Yut-Lung assumes Sing is there to kill him for co-opting his men in his plot to kill Eiji, but it doesn’t turn out that way at all. Maybe this wasn’t so much a shift in loyalty, though, as it was an extension of the idea that the infighting between gangs needs to end. Let’s put aside the past and go forward, and all that.
Possibly I was intended to be surprised when Colonel Foxx double-crossed Papa Dino in an aim to get Ash, Banana Fish, and the Union Corse all to himself, but I just really couldn’t care too much. That said, I was thoroughly surprised when Foxx shot Papa Dino, whom Ash was using as a hostage, and when Papa Dino later repaid the favor. I had never assumed there to be any loyalty in their arrangement, but two creepy villains (and what is it with bad guys and a penchant for sodomy in this manga?!) taking each other out is pretty fitting.
ROBIN: I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the shifting patterns of alliances — that is rather par for the course in this series. In fact, it was making me tired, and therefore caring very little about the outcome of the crime and conspiracy plot.
I find that I only really appreciate the various betrayals when they allow for new character development. Thus, I adored Cain’s comment about how Ash’s weakness makes him human as I quite agree. After so much ice-cold posturing, the cracks that show feelings are what would make anyone loyal to Ash.
When Foxx shot Dino my main reaction was, “GOD! Finally someone did!” The story was suffering under the problem I often have with these kinds of firefights: so much would be solved if the villains and heroes would just stop talking and someone, anyone, SHOT the villain. Dino, by this point, deserves no quarter, and so I kept just waiting for someone to take the freakin’ shot.
CONNIE: What Robin said about someone finally shooting Dino? That was my reaction almost verbatim both times I read that scene. In fact, the first time I read it, I was mentally begging someone to do it one page before Foxx got his shot off. Papa Dino strikes me as more conniving than physically gifted or skilled in defense, so to see him instigate and escape from so many fights unscathed, especially when he so sorely deserved what was coming to him, was absolutely agonizing. Admittedly, he was almost never at the center of these fights, but even so.
EVA: The two characters I’d loved all the way through the series I continued to love until the end. With all the fluctuating allegiances, Sing and Cain stayed leaders. They used their brains more often than they were swayed by their emotions, and as a result I never got tired of reading about them.
Although the foreshadowing was strong on this one, the character I was most pleased to see switch sides was Blanca. Yut-Lung had become so intensely boring that to have Blanca stay loyal to him would have been a waste of a promising character. (And when Sing told Yut-Lung to man up and get over himself? That part was AWESOME.) Blanca added some needed comic relief as well as the tactical know-how needed to make the firefight at the end make at least a tiny bit of logical sense.
As far as the shooting of Dino goes, I’ll raise my hand as the one who was surprised. I probably shouldn’t have been, but considering how many times someone should have shot Dino, but didn’t, you can’t blame me for being surprised that someone finally did. I’m sorry on behalf of Ash, or Eiji, or even Blanca, that it was Foxx who did it. It would have been so satisfying for any one of them to make that shot, but the surprise wouldn’t have been as great.
MJ: Eva, I just wanted to cry out in solidarity regarding Sing’s dressing-down of Yut-Lung. I’d always liked Sing, but that moment pretty much sent me over the moon. I have special appreciation for him as a leader, too. Not to dismiss Cain at all–he’s one of my favorite characters–but Sing was the one whose leadership was most openly challenged, time and time again, and I really admire the way he hung on even while feeling enormous regret for having become the leader of his set in the first place.
KHURSTEN: On Yut-Lung: Pathetic. ‘Nuff said. I wish Sing took over Chinatown. Sing deserves to be the new boss in Chinatown. HONESTLY.
ROBIN: I also wanted to agree with Eva whole-heartedly about how awesome Sing and Cain continue to be (How much do I love giant grown up Sing!? SO. MUCH.) Also on Blanca’s easily-predicted switch over to Ash’s side. I grew to like Blanca a lot in these last volumes, despite the still distracting proportions of his fivehead, and I was very glad he got to be a good guy in the end.
I was kind of glad that Foxx was the one to shoot Dino — it kept the story away from the cliched Mexican standoff that could have been too dramatic to resist. I love me a good Mexican standoff, but I was hoping Yoshida wouldn’t allow herself to indulge, and I’m glad she didn’t.
MICHELLE: I had a similar response both to grown-up Sing—who seems to be using Ash’s notes to make himself an even bigger success—and Blanca. Now I find it hard to recall why I ever found the latter an unnecessary addition to the cast! I loved the epilogue, “Garden of Light” (in which grown-up Sing appears) very much, but did sort of wish we got to see a grown-up, successful Cain as well. Or at least some mention of his fate, if he ended up a casualty of the streets.
CONNIE: As for the various shifts in loyalty and whatnot through the last few volumes… reading back through my notes from my first read-through, I was pretty much on the edge of my seat the first time through, and surprised by some of it, but the second time through, it was more expected. Not to say that I remembered the sequence of events through to the ending (I remembered almost none of it save for the Ash/Dino scene and the final scene with Ash), but I think I was less awestruck this time through and had a better grasp of the characters. Foxx’s betrayal in particular, though I didn’t remember it, was totally something I was looking for this time through.
KHURSTEN: Ugh. Lao. Years later after having read this manga, I stil scream (in tears, literally) WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!?!?! This guy definitely doesn’t know any better and let his pride come in the way. Not that I’ve got my Ash banner around, but Sing’s being smart. Unfortunately, not everyone’s as smart as Sing or Cain. When men like Lao start talking about their pride and their fears, it’s an exasperating stubborness that makes me wish they were chosen as bullet fodder in the museum.
I also like Cain’s observation which, I suppose, has lingered in my view of Ash ever since I started reading this. To me, he’s not just the kickass killing sexy machine. The kid can feel. He knows what it means to finally have someone important in his life.
I wasn’t particularly surprised since I don’t know what nth reading this is of Banana Fish. I remember being surprised back then. Mostly really on Dino. His last act for me often evokes a lot of questions but it always starts with “Why did you do it?” Each time, the answer’s a little different but in the end, I’m just like Ash, wondering and asking, yet simply, just watching.
I think the fact that “that moment” stunned makes me appreciate Yoshida’s style for melodrama. Artistically, seeing that wide panel, was cinematic to me. As for the story, it was something difficult NOT to react to. And I think that makes it good. I think if we were indifferent by then, Banana Fish would have been an awful story.
ROBIN: Oh, and also to go back a bit — the fact that Foxx was yet ANOTHER creepy, psychopathic rapist made me even more tired. The suspense is gone when you’re left to just to say, “Oh right, another creepster who wants to sleep with our angelicly beautiful hero…snore.” I really, really wanted a villain who was JUST a badass and had NO DESIGNS on Ash’s body. PLEASE.
Pardon my need to use all caps like the fangirl I am, but geez. Sometimes they’re necessary.
MJ: Actually, on this point, I appreciated Ash’s observation (I can’t remember for sure which volume this was in–will look it up) that guys like Foxx don’t actually rape because of sexual desire, but out of a desire for power. This is a point often argued from both sides about rape in general (and I understand that it’s controversial for some), but I appreciated it here specifically because it was the first time the author has even brought up the question at all, as opposed to just assuming that everyone is after Ash’s body as an object of lust.
It makes a lot of sense here, too. Foxx goes on at length about his need to subjugate Ash in order for his plans to go forward, and he specifically brings up Ash’s history of abuse before abusing Ash himself as a means to breaking him. It reads differently than most of the other rape in the series in that context, I thought. I suppose I also appreciate this, because it’s nearly the only instance in which Yoshida makes a point of *not* conflating homosexuality and rape (or homosexuality and pedophilia) which is one of my personal issues with the series.
ROBIN: MJ, I totally agree that is was heartening to have Yoshida address this issue. Rape is about power, not sex or desire especially in the contexts that we’re seeing these men all use rape as a tool. I was glad she finally had a character say that, and Ash would certainly have understood that experience of rape given his past.
I do feel like Foxx is both — using it for power and also getting off on it — but he is admittedly much more driven by strategic control than by personal desire. Dino, on the other hand, was blinded to strategy *because* of his personal desires.
MICHELLE: I appreciated this perspective as well, but I would’ve preferred it to come sooner. True, all these guys are using rape as a means to dominate Ash, but there are loads of villainous types out there who don’t do this. It just got to the point that, as soon as Ash fell into someone’s clutches, you knew that someone was going to have a go at him.
ROBIN: Yep, Michelle, that was obviously my problem too. I think most bad guys, of all stripes and types, would not turn to rape as their MO, no matter how achingly beautiful Ash is. This reminds me of the discussion I had in the comments on the volumes 11-13 discussion with Laurie about whether the fact that everyone wants to rape Ash makes Banana Fish BL. I’d say no, and in fact am fairly uncomfortable with rape being a defining characteristic of BL, but it does make me wonder: does this kind of sexual threat appear in all manga, not just BL, more than in other format’s stories? Is it a manga thing? A Japan thing? Anecdotally I’ve noted in reading manga over the years that villains (rather than opponents) are extra villainous if they has sexual designs on the hero or heroine. Thus it does seem rape is a threat that makes someone especially unforgivable. I don’t, however, have actual research to back me up on this conclusion.
MJ: I thought Laurie’s point was interesting, and though I’m also really uncomfortable with rape as a defining characteristic of BL, I can’t ignore how often it turns up there. I don’t feel like I know enough to make generalizations about rape in Japanese culture or even just in manga, but I can say I’ve encountered more fictional rape since I started reading manga than I had in all the 30-something years previous.
MICHELLE: Same here. That said, I do not think the fact that Ash is repeatedly victimized in this way makes the series BL. The only factor that need be considered there is how Ash and Eiji feel about each other. Because theirs isn’t a sexual relationship, the BL categorization might not apply, but it’s definitely a loving one.
KHURSTEN: You know, I find it funny that we’re talking about rape thing right smack after the Tokyo Metropolitan government just banned a “couple” of titles that had to do with rape. MJ’s right in saying that there’s a lot of rape going on in manga, and even in Japanese literature. Heck, “rape” is even in Genji Monogatari. Japan has had a long history of “forced affection.” As to why, I’ve yet to read up on that. I also do not personally agree on non-consensual sex, but I’m a little forgiving in fiction. It’s a fantasy after all.
But in my experience, I’ve got a feeling that rape, more often than not, is a loved figurative expression of power in manga. Perhaps I am forcing it by saying loved, but MJ said it herself: the amount of rape in Japanese manga, whether porn or not, is just unbelievable. If it’s in one out of ten manga, then it probably sells and Japanese people pretty much still fantasize about it or perhaps they even believe that it is a manifestation of one’s power. I’d like to think that it’s NOT the only way to do this too, but… it’s a deus ex machina they love to use. It’s also a shiny tragic plot kink.
As a reader, at least for Banana Fish, I can see why Yoshida used rape as a tool to subjugate Ash. It’s such a numbing experience for him (to anyone actually) and it adds tragic flair and admiration for his character. In volume 18, Jessica and Ash exchanged brief notes on their experience and for Ash, hanging on to his rape for a year would only mean him getting old and doing nothing. And he can’t have that. At the same time, it’s amazing how his “biggest opponents” resort to rape to just try and control him because if they did it in any other way, Ash still destroys them. I think to a degree, raping Ash was just as much a humiliating exercise for Foxx and he convinced himself that Ash was simply a whore. Certainly, Foxx hasn’t been around enough to know that he got that “whore” wrong. Could I say the same for Dino? I don’t think so.
This might actually be unpopular opinion but I actually think Dino loved Ash. The son thing was perhaps an “excuse” to share what he had with the boy. The old man was twisted and probably didn’t know the extent of “normal love” given his background. But I think, in these last volumes, he tried his best to reel Ash into his world, try to give the boy something that could sustain him for life and it just didn’t work. Of course it won’t work. Ash, of course, is better than that.
MJ: To be fair to Laurie, I think her point was that everyone *lusting* after Ash is what made it BL in her view, not the fact that he was sexually assaulted all the time. Here was her elaboration on her original statement, “I’m not saying that just because a character is gay or just because rape is included as an element of the story, it’s BL. I’m saying that if the story is significantly about sexuality (and the sexual element is primarily male/male & written for women), then it’s BL. Sure, if one guy wants to rape the protagonist, then maybe he’s the villain (or the love interest), but if 10 people want to rape the protagonist… there’s something else going on. Then it’s not about the character of the antagonist anymore, it’s about the character of the story.”
Personally, Michelle, I’m with you. For me, it’s the nature of Ash and Eiji’s relationship that brings up the BL question in my mind. I’ve still never categorized the series as BL, but for me, that’s where the potential is, because I tend to classify BL as romance, even when it’s all about the pr0n.
CONNIE: I’m like MJ, I tend to value BL more for its romantic elements rather than the sex, so it’s the relationship between Ash and Eiji that raises the BL question in my head rather than the copious sexual themes. I can see Laurie’s point, though, since its difficult to divorce the BL romance from sex.
KHURSTEN: What makes BL is Boy’s love. And love can take many forms. It’s not just sexual relations, but also strong emotional connections, or for any definition an author can define “love” between boys.
I was reading an issue of Eureka, this Japanese literary journal, and they’ve listed Banana Fish as one of the top 40 must reads among fujoshi. And I’m quite sure it’s not only because of the sexual tension that surrounded Ash but primarily because of its updated non-sparkly “real” depiction of love. It’s one of those texts that can be interpreted openly. Some, who probably don’t have their fujoshi goggles on, would consider this as a depiction of hardcore bromance. Fujoshi like me would see caring affection and love between Ash and Eiji.
ROBIN: I don’t want to derail the conversation too much more in terms of the rape and BL categorization, but one point I’d like to make is that rape in this particular context is never used in the way rape is used in BL. It’s not used to prove anybody’s love or loyalty, nor is iit perpetrated by people who are proclaiming their love for Ash (Dino, you might say, might have done that in the past, but it’s highly unlikely.) As many of you say, the emotional romance (or bromance, or whatever the heck you want to call it) is between Ash and Eiji and is what if anything makes this a romantic story. Thus, I still think of this series as distinct from the rape fantasies that ARE a part of romantic tropes in manga, in romance novels and in literature in general.
KHURSTEN: A question: I can’t remember if it was Blanca or Sing who spoke to Yut Lung about Ash’s redemption. I believe all of us felt strongly about him throughout the story but do you honestly believe that he got this redemption? Do you think other characters also got this redemption?
ROBIN: I’m glad you brought up the redemption and forgiveness question, Khursten!
I find redemption to be fairly dull as a conclusion to a story, to be blunt. All of the horrors and complications and compromises that come before redemption are the interesting bits, so when a character has all their concerns lifted away, I just find that less interesting and harder to believe for longer than a minute. Anyone who’s gone through such experiences would have great difficulty ever finding redemption or forgiveness, either from other people or from himself, enough to truly leave all of shit that went down behind. What I did wish for Ash, and I do think he got, was a sense of balance and of resolution. I won’t say peace, because that feels like too much to expect, but I think he was content with his lot.
Now, to that note, I will bring up my annoyance (which I know other folks share from long before I ever read through the whole series): I was really annoyed that Ash died. I know precisely why he did, and why this is a classic tragic move to pull in terms of storytelling, but…I think I would have preferred a messier ending. It felt out of character to me for Ash to just give up and die after all of that, and it may suit the romantic notion of idealized love that Ash and Eiji have going at the end, but it jarred. His resignation wasn’t beautiful, it was almost cowardly, and I just couldn’t really reconcile that with Ash’s character.
I love it because there are a couple of ways of looking at it. In his beautiful letter, Eiji writes, “It’s true, Ash. You can change your fate.” Ironically, Ash reads this after he’s already been mortally wounded by Lao. So, did Ash simply delay too long? If he had gone to Japan, could he have avoided this outcome? Or, does his fate simply prove what he’s been saying all along? Even though he may wish to move on and live a normal life, it’s not as easy for others to forget what he’s done, and they’re going to keep after him even if he considers himself out of the game. The fact that Lao acted upon a mistaken desire to protect Sing just makes it even more awesomely tragic. I guess what I’m saying is that I actually think it already is rather messy.
My few reservations do involve Ash’s decision to make his way back to the library and let his life ebb away during “those long, long hours until death finally came.” I don’t fully understand why he did this, either. Perhaps finishing Eiji’s letter was more important to him than fighting to survive.
ROBIN: Michelle, I think that’s exactly what irked me. It’s not so much the fact that he died, but that he sat in the library and let himself bleed out for hours. HOURS. Who…does that? I’m sorry, but I was hard pressed to believe that he couldn’t have been saved if it took that freakin’ long for him to die.
MJ: Khursten, to answer your question about redemption… I tend to be uncomfortable with the concept of redemption, and that extends to my feelings here as well. I don’t see Ash as someone who needs to be or even *can* be redeemed. Yes, he’s been broken and twisted by his past and has found himself doing some truly horrible things. My mind always goes back to his cold-blooded slaughter of Arthur’s boys when I think about this, and we see a bit of that same mad killer in these volumes when he keeps on shooting at the kid who shot Eiji. I mean, we can understand his reaction, and he truly *is* mad with fury in that moment, but it’s out of control. We also see that he’s been put in situations, over and over, where his choice has been to kill or be killed, which is a very different thing, though the body count is just as high. So what can “redemption” even mean here? Does he need to be redeemed for defending himself against those who would kill him in cold blood? And is it possible to find redemption for doing the same thing himself? My answer would be “no” all around, though again, it’s not a concept I’m fond of to begin with.
This actually ties in with why I personally found the ending of the story effective. It’s not that I saw it as a romantic tragedy (though a tragedy is certainly is, of course). It’s that I truly don’t know how Ash can or would ever reconcile these things within himself. Where does he go from here? When I cried at the end of this series (and I cried a *lot* the first time through), it was as much for this as for the tragedy of Ash’s death. I couldn’t envision a “happy” ending for him, as much as I tried. I can appreciate Robin’s desire for a messier ending in that sense… most of us are forced to continue on even when we don’t know the answer to that question for ourselves. But I’m not sure how Yoshida would have told that story, especially in an 80s shoujo magazine.
ROBIN: MJ, I do wonder what Ash’s story could have been, moving forward. I don’t think it would have been easily resolved, although I do kind of adore the ludicrous but appealing romance of he and Blanca teaming up to be awesome in Europe, with periodic visits to Japan and Eiji…fanfic writers, sharpen your pencils! In all seriousness, though, I think that writing any further would have been very difficult, and I doubt Yoshida would have been able to given the context.
I did very much appreciate the complexity of emotions and adult sensibility Eiji shows in “Garden of Light.” Heck, I liked him more in that story perhaps than I did through the bulk of the series. He has been changed, likely forever, by the events recounted in Banana Fish, and I like the presentation of the idea that his idea of happiness may not be the same as others (like Sing) would wish for him, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t or won’t be happy.
MICHELLE: I never got the impression that Ash had thought much about redemption; in fact, he seemed pretty convinced of his own monstrosity and/or unworthiness throughout, and in order to believe one can be redeemed one must believe one is worth redeeming. It’s interesting, then, that Yut-Lung is jealous for what he sees as Ash’s shot at redemption (his relationship with Eiji), when the latter isn’t even poised to go down that road.
MJ: Michelle, that’s a really interesting point about Yut-Lung, and I think it may apply to nearly everything he feels/does. I feel like his whole life has been based on something false, and while I can understand how that happened, it’s really sad to see.
MICHELLE: You’re right. Yut-Lung just doesn’t know Ash well enough to know how the latter feels about his life. He can only think what he would do in that situation and with Ash’s many gifts. And when Ash fails to do this—become the ultimate evil nemesis—it drives Yut-Lung crazy.
ROBIN: Michelle and MJ, you’ve both pulled out a great point. Yut-Lung has almost zero empathy and fails because he cannot see outside his own point of view. He knows how to manipulate and provoke people, but he has little awareness of anyone’s motivations beyond what he would do in the same situation.
CONNIE: I would say that redemption doesn’t quite gel with my idea of Ash. For many of the same reasons as MJand Michelle, mostly that, while he is a violent killer, I don’t know that redemption from the events of the story that we see is necessarily what he seeks, but more of an escape, or perhaps an end to the life he was living. Eiji is something like a means to that, an escape from his life, but I don’t think it’s really redemption.
KHURSTEN: I asked about redemption because I was wondering if there was truth in what Blanca said. Like MJ, I don’t think that there was true redemption in Ash’s life especially with the ending. I actually find it sad that Ash still chose to go back to his life with the boys than really change his entire life altogether. It goes to show how he really can’t get away from his life and that he was someone still stuck in his mess.
Still, seeing a “brighter” future ahead was better than staying under the dark clutches of Dino and his men. I don’t think that’s exactly redemption but I think the ending offered a bit of “hope” for Ash.
Too bad, he really hadn’t had a chance to pursue this hope.
EVA: I’m with MJ on this one. I appreciated the ending (and I did the clutch-one-hand-to-my-chest-as-the-other-hand-reaches-toward-the-book-and-say-“Oh!’ thing) for what it was: a final end. If Ash had lived too many questions would have remained. Does the mob come after him in Japan? Does he even make it to the airport? Do Ash and Blanca team up as mercenary vigilantes, fighting crime as only they know how: with a barrel full of issues and a payload of angst? See? Too many questions are left either for the reader or too many more pages for the storyteller. The story had to end with Ash’s death for it to end cleanly. Does it hurt that he died in a library? Of course not. I hope to die in one someday, myself.
As far as the two short stories at the end, I loved “Garden of Light,” too. This was the first time (I know, I know) that I got a romantic-love vibe from Eiji, which may be because the story was written (I’m guessing) after Banana Fish had ended and there were so many fujoshi fangirls to satisfy. I’m totally okay with this turn of events. For me (and I may be in denial), the story still works as a bromance.
ROBIN: Eva, I do appreciate your point about a clean ending. I just prefer a messy ending. I want there to be unanswered questions. I find that when a story ends in a main character’s death, I get slightly perturbed by the fact that I can’t just imagine the story continuing after I’ve closed the book. I like stories where the world created and the characters I’ve been in the company of for a substantial amount of time are still out there, somewhere, even if the creator never returns to that world. That being said, that is, of course, why I love side stories like those included in the last volume. If you can’t go into the future, you can at least go into the past and flesh out the world. Both of those stories were immensely satisfying in that way.
CONNIE: I loved the ending. I was shocked the first time I read it. It’s so rare to see a shoujo series that doesn’t end happily, I was 100% expecting Ash to go to Japan with Eiji and start over. And after the library scene, I realized that anything less than Ash’s death would have left too many loose ends. I do appreciate Robin’s point, that the story should have had a messier ending, and that Ash’s death pretty much ties up any loose ends or continuations. But it was such a shocking and absolute ending, and completely unexpected, that I coudn’t help but be awed by it.
A series ending with a character death like that is uncommon in manga, anyway, I assume because the mangaka aren’t allowed to upset fans. I hate that a little bit about shoujo manga, that an interesting story can be sacrificed for what the fans want, and it always makes me happy when that expectation is overthrown. That Yoshida was willing to end such a popular series by going against what the fans would want makes me like it that much more.
MJ: Eva, I too loved “Garden of Light.” And though I’d been reading with Ash/Eiji in my heart all along (or at least from volume 7 or so on), I knew I was reading it as a long-time slasher and never really expected to see it become explicitly canon. So whatever Yoshida’s motivations might have been for writing that side story, I admit it was pretty gratifying to have my romantic vision validated by the creator, at least to some extent. Back in my fandom days, I went so far as to write a fic based mainly on “Garden of Light.” That’s how much it spoke to my fannish self at the time.
MICHELLE: And, oh man, the reactions of everyone to the portrait of Ash hanging in the gallery. It’s really lovely. And I’d love to read a spinoff about Akira and Sing’s courtship, once she makes good on her pledge to return as a foxy lady! :)
ROBIN: On the fangirly front, OMG I was so pleased with “Garden of Ligh”t making Eiji’s love and romance TEXT. Or as much text as it can be. (Also, though, that front chapter splash page of Ash and Eiji in bed, apparently shirtless if not naked, kind of got my hopes up! I’m not remembering which volume that was, but…it was lovely to linger over for a bit. ;)) I also still mainly see the bromance, not romance, but from an adult Eiji’s point of view, perhaps he’s been able to reassess what he was feeling and acknowledge it. Perhaps?
MICHELLE: I like that interpretation!
CONNIE: I think because I enjoyed that note of finality at the ending, I disliked “Garden of Light.” That last scene was all I ever wanted to see of the characters, and honestly, seeing them ten years later wrecked things a little. Even if it did verify the relationship between Ash and Eiji, I felt like everything that I wanted to know about it was already in the story, and starting everything back up after time had elapsed felt sour and wrong.
“Angel Eyes,” however, was awesome. I loved seeing Shorter again, and it was a little bit of a trip seeing Ash so young right after watching him die. For whatever reason, my tastes can handle follow-ups within the timeline of the series, but not any later than that.
Also, I loved the illustrations at the beginning of volume 19. The English cover is a great image to end on, the Ash and Eiji image that was already mentioned is there and much appreciated, and I even liked the hokey, literal banana fish on the title page.
MICHELLE: To abruptly veer off topic here, was anyone else thoroughly distracted by the t-shirt slogans in the two bonus stories? Do juvenile delinquents in reform school really wear shirts with cute fuzzy dogs on them that say “bow-wow”? I highly doubt it. The silly shirts kept taking me out of the moment, none more so than in the final pages of “Garden of Light,” where Sing and Akira are admiring Ash’s photograph, then it pans down to reveal some thoroughly random shark on Sing’s shirt.
I occasionally experienced something similar with the graffiti in the background of crucial scenes. I sort of want to pat Yoshida on the head for these misguided efforts to evoke mid ’80s American gang culture.
CONNIE: On one hand, I liked the distraction of the graffiti in the city scenes, I thought that was a really nice touch and it was fascinating to look at, if… a little bizarre and dated. But the shirts. The shirts were just silly. Sing’s shirt in “Garden of Light” ruined a perfectly good serious moment for me. “Killer of the Sea” has no place in any sort of emotional scene.
MJ: I think I’m probably less bothered by the random shirts, and more so by Yoshida’s portrayal of Eiji’s photography, which is overall kinda lame for someone who supposedly has gallery showings and so on. She draws real life better than she draws someone else capturing real life, if that makes sense. But I try to suspend my disbelief. :D
MICHELLE: I wish we had seen him taking pictures throughout the series, actually. Have I simply forgotten him doing this?
ROBIN: Michelle, I totally agree! I don’t remember us seeing Eiji taking that many photos (and honestly, it makes me wonder when he did, given everything that was happening…) Did he pause amid the gang warfare and be like, “Oh, just hold that a minute, it looks fantastic!” Hee.
MJ: Hee! Well, I get the feeling that most of Eiji’s photography was post-Ash, and that most of the Ash shots were private moments, just based on the little we are shown. I’m guessing he played with the camera a lot while he was holed up in the fancy condo all that time.
EVA: Michelle, I thought it was just me! My favorite random bit of graffiti was of “Mike Mouse.” Heh. And, yes, the graffiti and t-shirt slogans (pretty much all of her attempts at American pop culture) were tremendously distracting. Granted, I’m easily distracted, but it was more than I could to look away from the scrawls on the walls.
KHURSTEN: Like most of you, for me, the ending was difficult. I remember crying upon reading it, hoping that Ash had a chance to be “free” and live his life anew. And it’s sad that an idiot who didn’t know any better (Lao) had to rob that away from him.
However, I felt that the ending was nicely done. In that mono no aware, Japanese idiom way. And I think, despite the American feel that Yoshida tried to present throughout the manga, she ended the story in such a beautiful, if not, graceful Japanese ending. I’m not exactly sure if most readers would be familiar with the concept of mono no aware but the most popular metaphor used with this are sakura blossoms. Like a sakura blossom, Ash was someone that everyone admired. He was a captivating beauty enough to stop and move worlds. However, the best of things must come to an end, just like the blossoms that scatter and fall at the end of spring. Ash, this beautiful creature, had to die for us to appreciate the good that he has done.
His death didn’t destroy the ending for me. In fact, after seeing it in this perspective, I saw no better ending in Banana Fish. I think some might have dreamt of Eiji spending time with Ash who could be living a clean life in Japan. I think someone might have wanted him to head to a clinic and fix himself (hard though with a vital wound) but I think I understand Ash’s choice of heading to the library to read Eiji’s letter. Knowing that he lived his life to the best and that he had found someone who really loved him (and I’m using the term love quite loosely here), made him feel that his life had been worthwhile.
ROBIN: The concept of mono no aware is something I’ve come to appreciate about Japanese stories, and I do think you’re right that this story ended in a Japanese way rather than any attempt to give it a US-style ending. I can enjoy the longing and almost courtly love aspect of mono no aware as an idea, but I do find that, as a native Western reader, it does jar with my hopes for stories sometime. However, if I rejected the ending, I’d be ignoring the creator’s skill, and I try to take a step back. Yoshida was telling the story as she set it, and while I may react to it, I’m not one of those fans who denies a whole work just because I wish it had ended a different way (not that I think any of you are thinking that way either.)
MICHELLE: I’m a huge fan of mono no aware, which is perhaps why I adore the ending to Banana Fish so much. I seem to recall that sad endings in manga and anime were more common in decades past—ask me sometime about the ending to my beloved Gatchaman!—and have to wonder whether it’s a Western preference for happy endings that has influenced more recent series. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike happy endings or anything, but I always respect a creator who stays true to their vision and gives readers the ending the story needs rather than what they may want.
KHURSTEN: I just want to take a moment to thank the translation team for the English version of Banana fish. I read it against the original and I’m happy to say that I actually enjoyed the English version a little more than the Japanese. I strongly believe that this was an appropriation done right. These guys were in New York, at a particular time, and the choice of words, tone, dialogue, everything of the English translation heightened the experience of reading Banana Fish. Great job guys!!
ROBIN: Khursten, I also wanted to add my voice to the cheers for the translation team. I have not (and cannot) read the original Japanese, but all I’ve heard from those who can is that this is a crackerjack translation. I can tell. It’s remarkable how the language and awareness *actual* New York slang and dialog makes the rest of the non-NYC-ness easier to swallow. As we’ve said, there’s nothing to be done about the art side of it (the graffiti and the t-shirts), but the dialog was just spot on.
KHURSTEN: To go back a bit to the side stories, I have the fortune of actually owning Another Story which I love reading because it fills in the gaps in the story.
You guys have mentioned two sections already: “Angel Eyes” and “Garden of Light.” The three other stories are “Private Opinion,” “Ura Banana,” and “Fly Boy in the Sky.” In my Japanese editions, each volume contains an essay from a Japanese manga critic on their opinions about that particular volume. The critic changes from volume to volume and reading it is similar to this roundtable however I noticed that most of the critics have a deep respect for her choice for melodrama because it seemed that for the Japanese, this particular emotional intensity at a time of difficulty and disconnectedness, was something that the Japanese needed to read.
Now on to the three extra stories.
“Private Opinion” is the story of how Blanca first met Ash. I love how this story starts and ends with Blanca observing Ash and Eiji during the time when he was still observing Ash. We go inside Blanca’s head on how he felt that Ash was the Lion’s son, a force to be reckoned with.
He first met Ash in Dino’s pavillon, fresh from the sexploitation of his private tutor. In here we see the tough, really cold and young Ash who’s given Dino quite a problem in finding the proper tutor to shape him up, thus leading to Dino asking for Blanca’s service. As usual, Blanca wanted to check if the boy was worth it and Dino gave him the lowdown on the boy’s genius. And from there we see the story of Dino blackmailing Blanca into taking the boy under his care. Blanca eventually caved in however noting that a killer can do nothing to a boy like him.
The story exposes more of Ash’s past as Blanca tries to study the boy’s background. What we see of Ash now is completely different when he was a kid. Blanca, in fact, saw nothing with the boy and saw him merely as a genius and ruthless kid who didn’t like anyone touching him: a demon prince. He was far from the charming gang leader that we met and was one who was particularly scared, more than anything of the adults that surrounded him. Odd, isn’t it? We wouldn’t think of fear when we see Ash however in a panel where Marvin picks up Ash from the street, the kid had intense fear on his face.
Of course, we know the reason why and Blanca finds this out and consoles Ash after his beating. What we see next is a very vulnerable Ash, one who still had emotions that are just bottled up in his cold facade. This impresses Blanca, making him think that he was more than just a demon prince and eventually took the child in his tutelage and made sure that Marvin stayed out of this way.
What I love about this story is how Blanca felt that Ash needed to understand love, and that had he been given love and was held with great care, he would have been a better person. If he was given that choice, his potential could be infinite. And that pretty much started his mentorship with Ash and I completely love how this gives perspective on Blanca’s and Dino’s hopes on Ash.
“Ura Banana” is a funny short of Ash and Eiji talking it out with Yoshida. At first they discussed some fan mail and one of the the most surprisingly popular character among the Japanese fans were Papa Dino! He ain’t the most popular but for him to have a following was still surprising. The top five characters among the Japanese fans were Ash, Eiji, Sing, Shorter, Max, and then Yut Lung. They loved how Blanca was always dressed well and some, like us, took notice of Ash’s shirt, even asking ‘where can we buy Ash’s “Fishbone” brand shirt?’ Some fans made requests and ask that Ash be drawn as a musician or as a model. Eiji even had a cute comment saying “Oh, Ash really sings well in the shower!” On the model comment, Ash says “Am I only good for my looks?” It’s in this short that they segued towards “Fly Boy in the Sky,” an old story of hers where Eiji and Ibe first met.
In “Fly Boy in the Sky,” Ibe first sees Eiji in a televised high jump competition and found pity with how the boy looked particularly sad yet performed a particularly beautiful jump that somehow fell short. This fuels Ibe to research on Eiji, wanting to take photographs of his jumps for his exhibit.
Eiji looks VERY different from the Eiji we see. It wasn’t the cheery face kid we see in throughout the entire series. He was very distant and quiet, handsome but not exactly appealing. He was an amazing athlete though and felt most happy when he was in the middle of his jump. There’s a cute scene where Ibe wanted to know more of Eiji and why he was in a “slump” with his jumps in competition. So he asked “What do you think of when you’re up in the sky?”
His interview progresses and he finds out more about Eiji, on his hesitations in doing well, especially with the accident of his rival and his own family problems. Ibe was impressed to think of how Eiji was quite mature of for his age. In here we see how Eiji had always been considerate of other people. Eiji though had a lovely reply to Ibe’s question. “I don’t think of anything when I’m up in the sky.”
In Ibe’s photos we see these moments of struggle in Eiji, that moment of worry before his job and his ecstasy in his weightlessness. It was a beautiful perspective on Eiji and even the boy didn’t realize that he felt that “weightlessness” when he’s up in the air. Ibe says that seeing his face was like seeing a white homerun ball up in the sky.
I personally love all of these side stories as they opened up more of their pasts, characters, and stories that we previously speculated but now fully realized. It only made me appreciate our main characters lives and made the story more “complete” than it already is.
And to share bits and pieces of this:
1.) From Private Opinion: Blanca finds Ash after the boy’s tryst with Marvin.
2.) From Ura Banana: Musician Ash and Model Ash.
3.) From Fly Boy in the Sky: The face that Eiji never knew
Oh! I forgot to note that “Fly Boy In the Sky” was written a year before Banana Fish. Like in 1984. I find it amusing how she reused her characters in this way although “Fly Boy In the Sky” had an entirely different feel from Banana Fish, but it still had Yoshida’s eye for detail and knack for intense emotions.
MJ: Khursten, I’ve wished for a long time that someone would publish “Fly Boy in the Sky” in English. The others too, but as an Eiji fan, that one has always called out to me. Knowing now that it was published *before* Banana Fish only makes me want it more!
As we wrap things up here, Robin suggested that we might recommend titles we think fans of Banana Fish would like. I have three, and they may be obvious, but I’ll take a moment anyway.
First, I think most of us here would recommend Kazuya Minekura’s Wild Adapter. It, too, depicts a strong bond between its two main male characters within a tale of organized crime (and even a mysterious drug). I’ve got a review of the series (so far) here. Wild Adapter is the focus of the next Manga Moveable Feast, which Michelle and I will be hosted next month here at Manga Bookshelf.
My next two recommendations are both Korean series. First, I’ll mention Let Dai, Sooyeon Won’s epic BL melodrama about romance between a teenaged sociopath and an ordinary schoolboy. Though it isn’t nearly as evenly-written as Banana Fish and a lot less realistic (seriously), it’s an incredibly addictive series and a really great read. My review is here.
And lastly, Han SeungHee and Jeon JinSeok’s One Thousand and One Nights. Despite being set in 13th century Persia and having nothing at all to do with juvenile delinquents or organized crime, the main relationship in this series reminded me so much of Ash and Eiji’s in Banana Fish that I actually wrote an essay about it.
Anyone else have recommendations?
MICHELLE: Those are superb picks! Out of all the series I’ve read (well, okay, I haven’t read Let Dai yet) those come closest to capturing the feel of the relationship between Ash and Eiji.
Shiho Sugiura’s Silver Diamond stars the good-hearted optimistic guy instead of the notorious killer, but there’s still the same “I will rehabilitate you with my wholesome presence” theme going on. The tone is lighter, and the pace much slower, but they’re also on their way to confront an evil doer and his schemy right-hand man.
The lead characters in JiUn Yun’s lovely manhwa Time and Again don’t have quite the same relationship dynamic as Ash and Eiji. Instead, both have done things in the past that they’re not proud of. Still, they do draw comfort and strength from one another as they strive for not only atonement, but for the ability to forgive themselves.
KHURSTEN: Romance may be absent in my own recommendations but if you love the whole New York feel, and maybe the hard-boiled aspect of Banana Fish, my recommendation are as follows:
Hotel Harbour View by Jiro Taniguchi is an exciting read on the life of assassins and their motivations in doing what they do. If you love the gunshot scenes in the museum and in the train, then you’ll love the action scenes here in Hotel Harbour View.
Golgo 13 by Takao Saito is another hard-boiled assassin manga. I think everyone knows how Golgo 13 goes but yeah, if you think Ash’s shooting skills were amazing, then wait ’til you see Golgo 13.
EVA: My first recommendation is also Let Dai, so we seem to be in agreement on that one. The other recommendation may seem like a stretch, but work with me here. Shout Out Loud is about a man working as a voice actor, his co-worker, and his estranged son. Shout Out Loud *is* BL, but it’s quite tame, so may appeal to fans of Banana Fish-as-romance. And while a little romance is always good, that’s not only reason it works as a read-alike. There is the mentor-student relationships, the bucking of societal norms, the wanting of things, people, love, that just aren’t possible.
CONNIE: I’m going to throw my hat in with the Let Dai crowd about a thousand times. Banana Fish is definitely the better story, but I love Let Dai to pieces for its over-the-top melodrama. And it is very over-the-top. The relationship dynamics are similar (Dai is a lot more evil than Ash, and there are hundreds of tear-stained romantic pages as opposed to simple implications), some of the danger elements are there, and the romance is there from the first volume. It’s like Banana Fish, but catered especially to the tastes of ridiculous fangirls like me. Silver Diamond is a good choice too, though, and Wild Adapter is also a nice fit.
ROBIN: After being the person to suggest this, I find one, you all have beaten me to the best title recs (Wild Adapter! Let Dai!), two, suddenly all I could think of was fanfiction which is less than helpful, and three, I can only seem to come up with novels rather than manga. The one manga I can think of that featured both yakuza and is BL in a more gentle sort of way is Shinri Fuwa’s A Gentleman’s Kiss (2 volume series.) It’s not nearly as artful as Banana Fish can be, but it shares an unexpected sweetness amid all of the yakuza shenanigans. There are also numerous CLAMP series I could bring up (Tokyo Babylon, X/1999, etc.) but I fear they are (as Eva has pointed out to me) never finished (shakes fist at sky!) and rarely as explicit as even Banana Fish is in the relationships.
For a little format diversity: I startled myself a bit by immediately thinking a favorite novel of mine, Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. On the surface, there’s not much the same — this is a richly written fantasy novel, full of world building, court intrigue, and Elizabethan-esque politics. The killers wield swords and debate with barbed words instead of guns or hollered insults. However, it shares some key elements: casual and not so casual violence, a dubiously moral and vicious hero, and a very functional romance between two very dysfunctional young men. There is no Eiji here, per se — it’s more like two different Ash’s falling love, one brilliant with swordplay and the other with academia and courtly manipulation. It will take a while to get in to, but readers should trust that the richness of the setting will pay off — the finale is delicious in both revenge and unexpected romantic declarations.
If you don’t mind fantasy and would like your romance to become actual text eventually, plus a lot of spying and heists and such, Lynn Flewelling’s first two books in her Nightrunner series (Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness) are an epic-ly good time. Again — these are typical fantasy novels, full of semi-medieval trappings, fairy-like races plus wizards and an encroaching evil (as in EEEEE-vil). Still, you’ve got the hero with a dark past, the naive partner who will become a source of solace, the banter, the humor, moments of true horror, and the ultimately immensely satisfying romance make it another potential fit for readers.
MICHELLE: Oh, I’ve read Swordspoint and loved it, so I can second its awesomeness. I think it might suit fans of the “competency porn” aspect of Banana Fish that we’ve talked about in the past.
ROBIN: The only other series that I might recommend that stirred up the angsty feelings that Banana Fish did was You Higuri’s Cantarella. Now, it’s a very over the top period fantasy based on the historical Borgia family (the subject of Showtime’s equally delicious TV series The Borgias). The Borgias were in fact that over the top and scheming, what with frequent poisonings and maneuvering to get the papacy, but this manga series focused on the Pope’s son, Cesare Borgia, and his struggle to remain relatively decent amid the treachery. Higuri adds on the additional layer that he’s being slowly taken over by demons who push him to indulge his darkest desires, but his constant companion, assassin and poisoner Michelotto, is the one light in his life persuading him to be good. (Yes, the assassin turns out to the be the best of them.) Cesare is clearly in love with Michelotto, and there’s some wonderful tension between them, but it mainly goes only one way. Sadly, the series is now out of print due to Go Comi’s shut down, but we do still have it in libraries.
CONNIE I still can’t think of good, close recs… my mind is only really letting me gravitate towards crime-oriented BL, and the closest I can come is Yellow, which is like a cross between Fake and Banana Fish, except not quite as cool as that sounds. It’s got a little bit of humor and a partner set-up where the two of them bust bad guys, but it’s also pretty noir. Thinking on it, it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Banana Fish at all. I might as well throw Totally Captivated in there, too, which is BL and gangsters but with a whole lot of personality and humor and angst, and also not a whole lot like Banana Fish.
Tokyo Babylon is another good choice, though! That one wouldn’t have occurred to me, but it does remind me a lot of Banana Fish, and is even from the same era. The clothing is way more insane, though.
Robin’s discussion of novels made me think of Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, for some of the same reasons you mentioned Nightrunner. It’s similarly a fantasy novel (the first of a trilogy, all three are great), about a young woman who was raised to be a courtesan spy in a city that’s vaguely based on Paris. Her mentor is murdered and she is cast out with her bodyguard and has to find her way back to uncover a plot to overthrow the royal family. Her bodyguard is the physical protection between the two, but he’s the naive Eiji-like one otherwise. The main character is the one who has to do all the political maneuvering, tricking, and is an expert in basically everything she needs to get back home, from several different languages to everything about the cultures she crosses paths with. Plus, you know, the romance. They start out hating one another, then they build a relationship based on trust that just keeps going.
MJ: Thank you so much everyone for being a part of this roundtable and seeing it through to the end. I’m so pleased with what we’ve created, and I hope that it will be a valuable resource for readers for years to come. I’m really so grateful to you all.
ROBIN: Thank YOU MJ, for having me! I’ve had a great time doing this roundtable, and I’m keen to start another one just to keep the discussion going in such good company. Thanks to everyone else for the debates, the giggles, and the company in occasional swooning!
CONNIE: Yes, thanks a lot for hosting, MJ! It was a lot of fun.
MICHELLE: It has indeed been quite awesome! I’m so proud of us for finishing, and I too hope that our words and thoughts prove useful to someone!
KHURSTEN: This was totally fun, ladies! Thank you so much MJfor hosting and for everyone who weighed in from the start! To me, it was nice hearing everyone’s opinions especially the fresh readers who brought back some memories of my own initial reading. It’s also nice to see new perspectives from reading through it again. Thank you to everyone for sharing your experience and I hope we can do this again!
EVA: Yay, team! This really was fun. I don’t think I’ll ever love this series with the burning passion that some of you have, but I’m not sorry I read it. I wonder if Banana Fish is one of those stories that you have to read at the exact right time — like the Little House books or Catcher in the Rye — read at the right time it can change your life; read at any other time and it’s just a book. In any case, I had a ball reading and discussing this book with all of you and I look forward to our next roundtable.