There are very few instances in which I can say that I started a show to watch cute boys, but stayed for the philosophical and literary merits thereof.
When I first decided to pick up Banana Fish, I had no idea what it was going to about. All I knew was that it was going to be set in gang-infested New York, with a cute blond American boy and a cute Japanese boy. In general, that's almost always good enough to justify picking up a show to me.
Banana Fish was so much more than that, though. The name itself is a callback to the short story by J. D. Salinger, titled A Perfect Day For Bananafish. Episodes model and are named after more great American novels. Along the way, characters in the anime reference other works, like Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemingway. These references clue in to the major plot devices and movements in the story of Banana Fish, and provide it with that extra layer of depth. So, I only feel it's appropriate that we begin there.
A Perfect Day for Bananafish is the main literary work which this show's characters and plot draws parallels to. If you wish to experience this masterpiece for yourself, I have here the link to the short story itself and another to an in-depth analysis, one of many. In summary, it follows a World War II veteran named Seymour Glass, recently discharged from an army hospital after a psychiatric evaluation. He is on holiday at an upscale seaside resort with his wife, Muriel Glass, who visibly cares about Seymour despite his increasingly anti-social behavior. Separated from his wife one evening, he encounters a girl on the beach, Sybil Carpenter, who plays with him and argues with him. We can see that Seymour is visibly a softer version of himself around Sybil, and that he lets down his guard around her.
Eventually, Seymour suggests that they catch a bananafish, an imaginary creature which enters a feeding hole and gorges itself on bananas before becoming too bloated to leave, and die in the hole. Sybil claims to see a bananafish with six bananas in its mouth, upon which Seymour kisses her feet and returns to the resort. He has a random argument with another woman in the elevator on the way up, and when he returns to his hotel room, he looks at his napping wife and shoots himself in the head.
Generally, there exist multiple interpretations of this story, but the common thread that runs within most standard interpretations is that the bananafish represents Seymour and other soldiers, who have been thrown into the feeding hole and forced to feed on each other and take in traumatic experiences, and who are then unable to return to the world of peace that they once inhabited. They die in the feeding hole, isolated and shrouded in darkness. Being that A Perfect Day for Bananafish is the foundation on which this anime is laid, the anime's themes very closely mirror these in terms of its overarching story. We meet Ash Lynx, the 17-year old leader of a street gang in New York. We are then introduced to Okumura Eiji, a 19-year old college student who was brought along with a photojournalist doing a report on street gangs. The parallels are drawn when Eiji and Ash first meet: Ash and Eiji, Seymour and Sybil. Interestingly, later down the line the show begins to create a new Seymour/Sybil pair, in the form of the Chinese triad leader Lee Yue-Lung and his subordinate, Sing Soo-Ling.
TRAUMA AND ITS SCARS
"Your father talked to Dr. Sivetski." "Oh?" said the girl. "He told him everything. At least, he said he did--you know your father.The trees. That business with the window. Those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away. What he did with all those lovely pictures from Bermuda--everything." "Well?" said the girl. "Well. In the first place, he said it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital--my word of honor. He very definitely told your father there's a chance--a very great chance, he said--that Seymour may completely lose control of himself. My word of honor."" There's a psychiatrist here at the hotel," said the girl. "Who? What's his name?" "I don't know. Rieser or something. He's supposed to be very good." "Never heard of him."" Well, he's supposed to be very good, anyway." "Muriel, don't be fresh, please. We're very worried about you. Your father wanted to wire you last night to come home, as a matter of f--" "I'm not coming home right now, Mother. So relax." "Muriel. My word of honor. Dr. Sivetski said Seymour may completely lose contr--" "I just got here, Mother. This is the first vacation I've had in years, and I'm not going to just pack everything and come home," said the girl. "I couldn't travel now anyway. I'm so sunburned I can hardly move." "You're badly sunburned? Didn't you use that jar of Bronze I put in your bag? I put it right--" "I used it. I'm burned anyway."
Sometimes, all you can do when someone is so badly scarred is to acknowledge it and try to gently pull them along. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to be yourself, innocent and unacquainted with the pain they have gone through.
The show dives deep into Ash's trauma slowly, excruciatingly. Ash begins his journey in Banana Fish a very soft and carefree child in his youth. He is very attached to his brother Griffin, who is protective of a weak and trusting Ash. Their brotherly bond is what tides Ash through the stresses of an unstable family life, and Ash loses a bit of his shine when Griffin leaves to fight the Iraq War. Being an incredibly beautiful child, Ash is kidnapped from his village by a mafia kingpin named Dino Golzine, and forced to work as a child sex slave in one of Dino's brothels. Becoming the apple of Dino's eye, Ash was later taken out of the brothel and instructed in the ways of the underground by a top-tier assassin, Blanca. He would grow up to become a young, beautiful, cold, calculating leader of his own street gang, loosely subordinated to the Golzine mob, and for the first third of the show he lets this trauma and his desire to bring down Dino Golzine define him and guide his actions.
Lee Yue-Lung is the parallel to Ash in this story. Assigned male at birth but with incredibly feminine traits and expressing at times that he feels female inside, he was a child born of the previous patriarch of the Lee family and his mother, who was sold to the Lee patriarch as a prostitute in her teen years. When the Lee patriarch died, his half brothers, Lee Wang-Lung and Lee Hua-Lung, seeing Yue-Lung and his family as competition, raped and killed his mother before his eyes, before subjecting him to lifetimes' worth of suffering and mistreatment. This is the crux of Yue-Lung's character motivations for the majority of the show, and he dedicates himself to his vengeance.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an incredibly difficult topic to deal with; it is fitting then, that the causes for trauma in both Ash and Yue-Lung are incredibly difficult. Witnessing the death of love ones and being on the receiving end of repeated sexual assault is one of the heaviest aspects of Banana Fish, and in some sense the grand overarching plot of a mind-control drug being research takes a backseat to the way these characters' traumas are uncovered. Ash is hyper-aware of and hyper-sensitive to any form of physical contact. He pretends to be okay, when he really isn't.
BEING ACCEPTED BY THE INNOCENT
"Where's the lady?" Sybil said. "The lady?" the young man brushed some sand out of his thin hair. "That's hard to say, Sybil. She may be in any one of a thousand places. At the hairdresser's. Having her hair dyed mink. Or making dolls for poor children,in her room." Lying prone now, he made two fists, set one on top of the other, and rested his chin on the top one. "Ask me something else, Sybil," he said. "That's a fine bathing suit you have on. If there's one thing I like, it's a blue bathing suit." Sybil stared at him, then looked down at her protruding stomach. "This is a yellow," she said. "This is a yellow." "It is? Come a little closer." Sybil took a step forward. "You're absolutely right. What a fool I am." "Are you going in the water?" Sybil said. "I'm seriously considering it. I'm giving it plenty of thought, Sybil, you'll be glad to know."Sybil prodded the rubber float that the young man sometimes used as ahead-rest. "It needs air," she said. "You're right. It needs more air than I'm willing to admit." He took away his fists and let his chin rest on the sand. "Sybil," he said, "you're looking fine. It's good to see you. Tell me about yourself." He reached in front of him and took both of Sybil's ankles in his hands. "I'm Capricorn," he said. "What are you?" "Sharon Lipschutz said you let her sit on the piano seat with you," Sybil said.
Anybody who's spoken to a child as an adult will recognize the flow of this conversation as pretty ordinary. Sybil speaks at her own pace, and in whatever direction she wishes. She is, in a sense, the anthropomorphic embodiment of childlike innocence.
Ph.D. Lynn Margolies states, "The essential psychological effect of trauma is a shattering of innocence. Trauma creates a loss of faith that there is any safety, predictability, or meaning in the world, or any safe place in which to retreat. It involves utter disillusionment." Is it then any wonder that many traumatized individuals place a high value on, in some cases to the point of fetishization, this idea of innocence? Is it then any wonder that Seymour, who has witnessed the most heinous parts of humanity and society first-hand, finds so much simple joy in conversing with Sybil?
While Banana Fish's sweet, homely scenes where Ash and Eiji play husbands are so comfy they make me tear up with how idyllic it is, they serve a greater purpose than simple fanservice yaoi. The roadtrip across middle America, Ash and Eiji living in an apartment and bickering like a married couple, serve to show that it is only Eiji, in his innocence and ability to show affection for Ash with absolutely no strings attached, who is able to make Ash feel at home with himself. Slowly, Ash grows: from fighting to take down Dino Golzine as vengeance for the hellish childhood he received at the hands of this monster, to fighting to defend Eiji and his innocence at all costs. It is for Eiji's innocence that Ash is willing to pay the ultimate cost, as he shows time and time again.
The bananafish gorges itself on violence and suffering, and is unable to return to a normal state thereafter. Originally used as a metaphor for Seymour and the trauma he as a soldier suffered in fighting a war, it can just as easily be applied to Ash and his life in the streets of New York. Therefore, Banana Fish plays around with idea of Ash escaping this feeding hole; Eiji is constantly telling Ash that he should escape to Japan with him, that he deserves a life better than the one he has had. Yet, it's not as simple as eloping to Japan to form the sweetest gay couple of fall/winter 2018 anime seasons. While Ash will be able to escape New York, he will ultimately be unable to escape his trauma.
Yue-Lung's arc plays with this notion, as the anime goes into much effort to contrast him with Ash. He is constantly jealous of Ash and the bond he has with Eiji, and upset that Ash is able to find even a moment's respite from the living hell that is their lives. He recognizes how similar he and Ash are, but for the larger part of the show spurns any kind of emotional ties. He is dead set on having Ash become his rival and equal by succeeding the Golzine mafia, and that cannot happen with Eiji around drawing Ash out of the feeding hole. Thus, Yue-Lung constantly seeks to kill Eiji, and kill Ash's last remaining line of escape from the feeding hole, where they both can wallow together and die of banana fever.
Once the seal of his innocence is broken and Eiji is shot while teaching Ash simple Japanese, Ash can no longer justify keeping Eiji with him. He refuses to meet Eiji, for fear of binding him to his own inevitable fate.
INEVITABLE FATE OF THE BANANAFISH
"You just keep your eyes open for any bananafish. This is a perfect day for bananafish." "I don't see any," Sybil said. "That's understandable. Their habits are very peculiar." He kept pushing the float. The water was not quite up to his chest. "They lead a very tragic life," he said. "You know what they do, Sybil?" She shook her head."Well, they swim into a hole where there's a lot of bananas. They're very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I've known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas." He edged the float and its passenger a foot closer to the horizon. "Naturally, after that they're so fat they can't get out of the hole again. Can't fit through the door." "Not too far out," Sybil said. "What happens to them?" "What happens to who?"" The bananafish." "Oh, you mean after they eat so many bananas they can't get out of the banana hole?" "Yes," said Sybil. "Well, I hate to tell you, Sybil. They die." "Why?" asked Sybil. "Well, they get banana fever. It's a terrible disease." "Here comes a wave," Sybil said nervously. "We'll ignore it. We'll snub it," said the young man. "Two snobs." He took Sybil's ankles in his hands and pressed down and forward. The float nosed over the top of the wave. The water soaked Sybil's blond hair, but her scream was full of pleasure. With her hand, when the float was level again, she wiped away a flat,wet band of hair from her eyes, and reported, "I just saw one." "Saw what, my love?"" A bananafish."" My God, no!" said the young man. "Did he have any bananas in his mouth?" "Yes," said Sybil. "Six."
This is the most depressing part of the show.
I'm going to be honest with you, when I watched the final episode of Banana Fish, I was on public transport, and it nearly brought me to tears. Not just because of the uwu sweet boy yaoi relationship that would never be, but because of what it meant.
When the trained assassin Blanca decides to leave Yue-Lung's service, they have a clash of words. Blanca asserts that the difference between Ash and Yue-Lung is that Ash has chosen to love and die, where Yue-Lung has chosen to rule and live. When Ash chooses to value Eiji's life above his own, Blanca implicitly asserts, he has managed to leave the feeding hole. Blanca, who had had the love of his life taken from him long before the events of the anime, is dead inside. He thus presents Yue-Lung with the option to, having carried out the revenge on the Lee family that had been his sole motivating force for the entire show, either learn to love like Ash, or learn to kill his emotions like Blanca. He presents Ash's route as the best way to solve this problem, and in the final scene we get with Yue-Lung and Sing, we can sense the winds of change blowing and Yue-Lung's life about to change for the better. The viewer is brought to a state of hope for Yue-Lung, as Sing starts to show just how much he cares for his boss, and the walls begin to fall.
On the other side of the coin, Blanca returns to the Caribbean to continue his retirement, a life of hedonism and luxury, but ultimately empty and devoid of life. With the divergence between Blanca and Yue-Lung, it truly seems like the anime is presenting a dual path for the bananafish. Yet, one must recall that while Blanca lives his life in a state of pleasure, he never seems truly happy. In contrast to both Ash and Yue-Lung, who spend most of the show scowling at people, Blanca spends almost all of his screen time smiling. It is a hollow smile, and belies his hollow life that he has chosen to lead, devoid of meaning without anybody that he can care about on the same level as the woman he lost so many years ago. It is subtly set up as a bad ending.
But is the other path really much better?
Banana Fish ends with what amounts to a punch in the eye and a stab to the guts. In the final scenes, as Eiji returns to Japan, he sends a final letter to Ash, saying that he will eventually come back to New York to find him. He encloses a ticket bound for Japan that was meant for Ash, and Ash recognizes that this is the way he can escape from his feeding hole. Everything in his way has been settled: Dino Golzine is dead, the whistle is blown on his child prostitution parlors, the development of the mind-control drug has been exposed, and so are corrupt government officials who supported him. He finally lets down his guard and tries to run to find Eiji, but is barely able to run a few steps before he is fatally wounded by a C-list character we haven't seen for 2 episodes and in all honesty have probably forgotten in all the explosive action of the 2 final episodes. He snaps back to reality. He will never escape his feeding hole.
Broken inside, he stumbles back to the library, bleeding from his wound, and cradles the letter in his arms as he reads it.
The last time we see Ash's face, he is dead in the library, holding the blood-stained letter out in front of him. The librarian comes over and attempts to wake him, thinking he is asleep. Seeing his peaceful face, she says the last, masterfully scripted line in the show: "Must be a nice dream."
Ultimately, Banana Fish follows the short story in its assertion that there is no real escape from the feeding hole. One either dies within, or one dies without. Whether it's better to truly live for a few moments and suffer for it, or be dead for the rest of your life, is ultimately your choice to decide. Sometimes, in this dog-eat-dog world, it's the only choice we really have.
Sayonara, Banana Fish, the anime that will probably make me cry buckets every time I rewatch it.
Taken with edits from https://isaisabored97.wixsite.com/dingdong