The great Raving Otaku generously shared with us a post about Banana Fish the other day. This got me thinking about the series again and the conversations I had when it was announced.
For those of you that don’t know, I read the Banana Fish manga years ago. It was in fact one of the first manga I ever read and it stayed pretty dear to me. It’s an emotionally charged story with a lot of depth. When I heard that it was finally getting an adaptation, I was pretty excited and a little cautious. After all, the manga was rather ruthless and uncompromising, certainly not suited to all audiences. I was curious how they would go about it.
At the time, I was also part of a few anime blogger chat rooms and I remember one of our members being absolutely thrilled about it all. They had also been a huge fan of the manga, and it was actually their favourite. We were chatting about it and I offhand mentioned that Banana Fish was a BL classic and in my opinion did a lot to bring representation in a mature context. Neither this megafan, nor anyone in the chat had any idea what I was talking about. I was told politely that I must be thinking about something else and Banana Fish was not a BL story in any way.
At the time, I didn’t insist. After all, maybe I had read too much into it. That’s not usually my style, if anything I’m too dense for subtext but if no one else at all had noticed, I could be off on this one. I also hadn’t read it in a while.
Then the anime came out and made all the implicit connections, explicit. I never followed up on that original conversation but I did reread the manga and there are a few things I personally took away from the experience.
First of all, I like the fact that the adaptation made the relationship between Ash and Eiji completely clear. I am all for BL and queer representation in media. And I particularly like when it’s part of a complex and rounded-out story, rather than the entire point.
However, I also really liked the representation in the manga. I’m not sure if Akimi Yoshida was trying to get around censorship laws or age restriction regulation, or whether she simply wanted to portray the relationship in this casual and subtle way. The fact is that it creates layered and nuanced representation. It’s soft and full of longing. And to be clear, I still think the relationship is clear in the manga, just not quite as front and center maybe. It’s written in a way where the actions and clues scattered around make perfect sense for these particular characters. That is how Ash would act in a romantic context and the relationship sort of feels like it developed naturally and not like it was the point of the story.
A lot of BL and Yuri stories have romance in the forefront, even when the series isn’t necessarily a romance. It seems like the main point of the characters involved is to fall in love. And don’t get me wrong, a lot of great stories simply work best that way. I more or less fell in love with the first season of Given. Given absolutely needed to be about Mafuyu and Ritsuka falling in love. Making it all subtle and tongue in cheek would have been annoying and potentially ruined the series.
But in Banana Fish, I thought it added a lot. The fact that the core of the relationship was something a bit more private to Ash and Eiji and even the audience(readers) weren’t in on all the details, made it special. And the potential it had remained limitless. Since the explosion in popularity of queer romances in anime, I find that we don’t get as many of those elusive storylines. Personally, I think that’s a shame.
But then I started thinking, maybe I’m wrong. After all, is its representation if it’s so subtle or too small a part in the story, that people don’t pick up on it? A chat full of anime bloggers, people who love the medium and dissect it for fun, didn’t notice or see it as such. At that point, it’s sort of the same as it not being there at all. If a tree falls in the forest sort of thing. Psycho-Pass has an explicit lesbian relationship but it’s never considered Yuri after all.
I guess we can argue that there is enough overt representation in media nowadays that it doesn’t matter if it goes over the heads of some fans. It could still be worth it for those that do see the details. I was already a part of the queer community when I read Banana Fish so it’s entirely possible that I picked up on context clues that would not have been obvious to the general public. And that’s kind of cool. If you get, you get and if you don’t, you still have a great story. Sweet!
However, even that seems sort of off to me. Why didn’t people get it?
Under normal circumstances, I really wouldn’t have thought about it any further. But this is anime, and I overthink anime as a matter of course. Been doing it for years and it’s hard to quit, you know.
Sure, I could have simply been happy with my explanation that I was more attuned or more familiar with queer coding or queer context clues but you see… Madoka!
Even before I ever watched Madoka, I knew it was a queer story, Yuri, to be precise. It was constantly mentioned as such and discussed in those terms. There was no doubt about it. Then I watched and, sure. If I wasn’t already watching it in that context, I might not have noticed it. Anime uses very emotional or even oddly physical relationships between female characters as general fanservice and I’m a little desensitized to it. Two girls are talking, obviously, the one with the bigger chest is going to get groped by the other…
But I’m not dismissing it. There is something that goes beyond the usual fare in Madoka. In my opinion, it’s one-sided on Himura’s part and potentially not even fully realized, but the implication is there, for sure. It’s just more subtle than in the Banana Fish manga. Like way more subtle, and a lot less time is spent on it.
So why was it obvious to everyone and their grandma in one case and invisible in the other? One reason might be that the Banana Fish manga first came out in 1985. That’s a full 26 years before Madoka. Awareness and attitudes towards LGBT representation in the media changed drastically over those years. In 1985, it may not have occurred to most readers that a gay relationship was even a possibility. By 2011, it was way more likely.
And that’s a great explanation if I was talking about people that read Banana Fish in 1985. But I think most of those bloggers hadn’t been born then and likely me, had read it years later.
So at this point, I’m going to throw out some wild ideas. To be clear, I don’t necessarily think I’m right about anything I’m about to say and none are a completely satisfying explanation. It’s just that the question has been rolling around in my mind for a while and I want to get some of my ideas out. So these are some half-baked theories I came up with.
1 – Banna Fish is “serious”. Banana Fish was written as a fairly gritty crime drama. It’s brutal at times and doesn’t shy away from some very unpleasant elements. It’s certainly not the happy, sunny slice of life or CGDCT genre that a lot of people associate with casual suggestions of queerness. Such a serious drama wouldn’t simply drop a BL relationship in for salaciousness… Leave that to the likes of Black Butler or something. I’m exaggerating but I think you see my point.
You could also argue that since the main criminal plot is so heavy, readers don’t really look for or have the emotional bandwidth to fully take in the romance. The impact of the story is through the violence and that may be what stuck with people.
2- Banana Fish is supposedly a shoujo. Not a josei. And we all know that pure and gentle Japanese schoolgirls wouldn’t be interested in a vulgar romance between men. My pearls!
I know this is a bit out there and I’m not sure how much I believe it myself. Still, you can make a point that Shoujo manga stays away from anything lewder in concept. Banana Fish was already a bit of an outlier with all the violence in the story, an actual Yaoi plotline may have been seen as pushing it by some fans. And as such, some fans may have downplayed the importance of that aspect.
3- Eiji and Ash are men. Again, this is going to sound like some very silly justification but still. I think it may be that anime audiences are more comfortable or just more accustomed to inferring and embracing romantic relationships between two girls than they are between two grown men.
Moreover, Eiji and Ash are not cartoonishly queer coded. Neither is portrayed as delicate or fay. Eiji’s more reserved personality is clearly explained through cultural differences and plays into East vs West biases rather than orientation. Neither are stereotypes, and that is to their full credit.
But that may also be a reason, that not all readers were as ready to label the Banana Fish manga as BL or Yaoi, as they might have if the characters were archetypes we are more used to seeing in these roles. Thankfully, this is changing fast and the ravenous shipping culture in anime has basically made every single character gay or pansexual.
That’s really all I can think of. Maybe some of those points are right for particular readers. Maybe it’s a combination of all of them and a ton of stuff I haven’t thought about. But I figured there was something here to ponder.
What are your opinions? Do you think there’s a reason why the Banana Fish manga may have is not widely considered BL when other similar works are? Or maybe everyone was right and just wasn’t? The team that adapted the anime were simply crazy shippers like me! Did I miss any potential reason? Do you prefer overt or subtle representation or a mix of both? I have soooo many questions!