Anime Review — Banana Fish (MAPPA)

It’s guy love. That’s all it is. Guy love. It’s mine or his.

What’s that? The Rising of the Shield Hero is getting heat for having a false rape accusation in it? People are so mad about it to the point that they’re complaining that this never happens in real life (even though it clearly does) rather than just point out that the execution of the accusation was downright laughable because anyone who would actually apply that anime’s “misogyny” to real life are in the same demographic as people who’d actually get brainwashed by Happy Science films? Oh and Comicbook.com got in on the mix. But it’s Comicbook.com, so of course their interpretation is shit.

Starting on a rape accusation paints the entire series in a bad light according to its detractors as it’s meant to set the entire series in motion. Rape as a plot device is bad enough, but here it serves as the origin of the entire plot. – Nick Valdez

 

Hahahaha, fuck you Comicbook.com – Mr. Flawfinder

I honestly have no idea what is up with the idea that now that anime is becoming more mainstream, we need to treat it the same way Jack Thompson still treats video games. In fact, there was apparently a controversy related to an article ANN published about Banana Fish and how it endorses rape some time ago, which was so obviously not true that ANN had to take it down due to public backlash. Obviously I can’t prove that exists now, but it’s not like I can prove it’s not true either. So since I don’t have any definite proof, I’ll just have to ask the people reading this review before I actually get started: is it true that Banana Fish was a bit under watched for a popular anime because the majority of the cast are either pedophiles or pessimistic assholes? Actually, let me rephrase that: is it true that people used that as a criticism against the series?

While Banana Fish was my second favorite popular anime of 2018, the reason it didn’t become a personal favorite of mine was because it had a few execution issues I couldn’t ignore, and literally none of them were related to the majority of gangster Hisokas populating the universe. It’s a bleak show about a dude whose involvement with the underworld is destroying him on the inside and his “best friend” who represents a better life, and we want to see a lot of the former because we’re not going to appreciate the latter if there’s no contrast. Sure it can look a little ridiculous when everyone is an ass with a hard-on for Ash’s behind, but as someone who has read and watch all manners of nasty rape in high-profile films, serialized TV, and more NTR hentai than one man can possibly own, I find Banana Fish’s shock factor to be rather tame. Believe me, there are other issues worth talking about with this show. And I’ll highlight them in due time, but first let’s get to describing Banana Fish in general.

Banana Fish is a shojo manga from the 80s-90s that was apparently really popular for its time and whose anime adaptation was made to celebrate the property’s 30th anniversary. I never heard of it before said anime was announced, but Wikipedia was pretty upfront about the appeal when I went to do some basic research and noticed what was under the “reception and legacy” header. Near-homosexual relationship between the two male leads you say? Except it’s treated seriously because this is a crime series centered around a mysterious mind-controlling drug, the titular Banana Fish. And was written during a time when PC culture wasn’t as annoying now as it was back then.

MAPPA was producing the anime, and they practically yelled at me that they weren’t going to be phoning in the visuals for this one when they revealed the director of Free would be in charge of the project. Because that’s pretty much one of MAPPA’s defining traits as a production company, isn’t it? Getting industry professionals who aren’t being allow to make animation elsewhere and allowing them let loose for their love of the art. It’s basically what A-1 Pictures does, except without the large number of light novel adaptations and the overall murdering of the talent they hire. Although MAPPA still occasionally allow their talent to phone it in at times, given how it’s the same director as the currently critically acclaimed and visually arresting Dororo who made the already forgotten and visually inert Altair: Record of Battles.

However, Utsumi definitely wasn’t phoning it in for this anime. Banana Fish is beautifully animated with any real drops in quality escaping my notice, and I even noticed that some of the fluidity in the action mirrored the fluidity in Free’s swimming scenes. I really enjoy the show’s usage of bright colors as well, proving that just because your story and setting are grim doesn’t mean it has to look grim. And I might as well get the obvious joke out of the way, you couldn’t have picked a better director to helm your homosexual crime show than a woman who directed one of the most well-animated fujoshi-bait series in recent time.

Our two lead characters are Ash Lynx, a young blond-haired teenage gang leader who’s been groomed by a sleazy crime boss to take over his criminal empire whilst taking care of his older brother (who’s been driven mad by the Banana Fish drug during a war), and Eiji Okumura, a young Japanese tourist who gets caught up in the war whilst trying to research gangs in America and ends up becoming Ash’s closest confidant. Apparently the original mangaka planned for Eiji to be a girl, but decided that the main relationship between two guys would be more interesting; and I’ve got to say that was a great call, because of how much the show relies on that relationship to carry a story that is honestly pretty flawed.

Remember those execution issues I mentioned before? Well Banana Fish has the same problems that shows based on really old manga like Parasyte and Ushio & Tora had in that certain aspects of the story either haven’t aged well or you can tell they were written during a time when repetition was more acceptable. A lot of the plot is centered on various parties hunting for the titular Banana Fish and it honestly gets tiresome fast due to the number of dead ends the show utilizes in order to get Ash to a new location or keep an antagonist alive so that they can be a problem later on. The Banana Fish itself is utterly stupid in of itself, as well as irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. A mysterious drug that permanently brainwashes someone? Are you serious? And it’s not really used in the plot for anything more than causing Ash to suffer. Yeah, you thought Subaru from Re: Zero had it bad? Ash would literally kill to have his Groundhog Day powers in this series.

And the relationship between Ash and crime boss Dino Golzine, which is the other main source of conflict for Banana Fish, isn’t too special in of itself. Dino raised (and raped) Ash ever since he was a kid, explaining why Ash has such a morbid outlook on life along with why he wants to kill the fucker. The war for the titular drug causes the two of them to oppose each other for the entirety of the series, but Dino doesn’t want to outright kill Ash whilst Ash keeps getting into situations where killing Dino would be inconvenient. This relationship does get a good payoff at the end, but the ride is pretty predictable back-and-forth stuff for the most part. There’s even a part where Ash temporarily surrenders himself to being Dino’s lapdog, only to get rescued surprisingly easily after a few episodes.

So yeah, the actual plot isn’t really a good main draw for Banana Fish. What keeps me invested instead is the character of Ash himself, and the way it grows over the course of the series as he gains and loses companions whilst fighting his inner demons. The thing I like the most about Ash is how much it hurts him inside to be thrown such a crappy hand in life and how he vents by being one of the best fighters in the series whilst still maintaining loyalty to anyone who doesn’t piss him off. But when he’s with Eiji, this older yet really meek Japanese kid who’s reminiscent of Johnny from The Outsiders, he reveals a softer side that his enemies love to exploit.

Eiji himself is mostly just a nice guy who is tempted to stoop to Ash’s level in order to fully relate to him, as well as get out of dangerous situations, but Ash always stops him because he doesn’t want Eiji to live the life of killing that he has. Not really a lot to him besides that. I guess you can consider him the audience avatar for the series, but while he does gain more confidence throughout the story and it’s fun to see him play with Ash, Eiji has the least amount of character development throughout the series. His relationship with Ash is also never really gay despite them kissing at one point so that Ash can sneak something into his mouth. Honestly, I find that to be more respectable to queer relationships than if they had been an official couple, as I think most people wouldn’t want them to fall in love due to the gangster life forcing them together.

When it’s not on Ash, a lot of the character development instead goes to the other cast members from Ash’s best friend Shorter to a Chinese gang leader named Sing. They’re all fully fleshed out for the most part in terms of why they live the life they do along with how they relate to Ash (with most of them wanting to kill him), but some of them have character arcs that go in weird directions that are borderline unfinished. I honestly have no idea what the purpose of Yut-Lung’s character arc was supposed to be. He doesn’t want Ash to die yet, then he tries to violate Eiji in order to make Ash a true killer, then he gets convinced to give up on Ash altogether? Obviously there’s more to it than that, but it just feels like the writer didn’t know what to do with him for the finale and went “you know what? Just make him join that little kid’s gang.”

I think the best antagonistic relationship in this series was the one Ash had with Arthur, a dirty loser who teams up with Golzine in order to get revenge on Ash for cutting his fingers off (because he tried to kill Ash after losing to him in a fight). He’s honestly not a great character, but the increasingly pathetic methods he resorts to in order to get Ash killed truly is a sight to behold, and it’s oh so satisfying when he finally bites it around the halfway point in one final duel. And by the way, can I give a big thumbs up to the fight animation and choreography in this show? Despite the fact that a lot of the characters survive ridiculous injuries at times, it’s appropriately realistic whilst being brutally exciting at the same time.

And as I mentioned before, a lot of people who associate with Ash end up dying throughout the series. Most of them are minor characters, but it really surprised me when the little kid who’s introduced like one of those street savvy youths you’d expect to be calling the naive newcomer his big brother ala Shenmue II ended up dying in the second episode. Don’t even get me started on how long Ash’s brother lasted in this show. I can’t think of a single death that’s really wasted, because it really ties in well with Ash’s character arc regarding how he brings destruction to everyone he associates with, and even the ones who are alive have to pay somehow. Not to mention, when major characters end up getting killed off as a result, it’s all the more heart-breaking, along with opening the doors for even more heart-breaking story directions that can really take your by surprise.

Remember when I said Banana Fish had a really great ending on the level of Made in Abyss’s and Scum’s Wish’s? Now I’m intending for my reviews to be more spoiler-filled from here on out since most people who read my reviews have already seen the anime in question and apparently a lot of anime-only fans knew it was coming beforehand anyways because a lot of them chose to associate with the manga crowd (it’s really not that hard to avoid spoilers, guys. I literally knew nothing about Banana Fish’s plot during the twenty-three weeks I didn’t watch it, although admittedly I’m not popular enough to warrant that crowd coming here). However, on the off-chance you haven’t seen the series yet, you might as well stop reading and go watch the show before continuing. Go on. Do it. This review isn’t going anywhere.

You still here? Okay then. Going to talk about Banana Fish’s ending now.

Ash dies in the finale. Not out of some heroic sacrifice (sort of) or even to a major character. He gets caught off guard during an attempt to change his life for the better by a (shit) minor character who misunderstood his actions because the code he lived by prevented him from clearing that up. And that’s not even the most tragic part. If you’ve seen Ash throughout the series (and apparently the manga makes this more clear), you’d know he could have survived the wound that ultimately killed him if he had actually gone to a hospital. But instead he bleeds out in the library he christened as his sanctuary. I guess the attack on him made him realize that he could never truly escape his dark past and thus he decided to set Eiji free by going away for good.

And that’s what made the ending so powerful to me: the fact that Ash was too far gone to really change. I mean he was raped as a kid for god’s sakes. Multiple times too. However, the peace he found when he finally decided to free Eiji from the criminal life was cathartic in a way few character arcs can match. In an age where most manga adaptations come off as unfinished because they’re just advertising the source material, seeing one conclude with such finality as well as a strong emotional high that caught me off guard really stands out to me. It kind of reminds me of the ending to Gundam 0083: War in the Pocket or a lot of the tragic decisions in City of God, except the tragic irony in Banana Fish was something Ash ultimately chose on his own.

On the whole, Banana Fish suffers from some artificial padding and an overcomplicated plot, but I think everything good I’ve outlined in this review overcomes those flaws for the most part. I definitely hope everyone involved goes on to do good things in the future, and I’m interested to see whether MAPPA can score another big hit in regards to adapting old source material with their Dororo anime. I’m really glad this studio seems to have mostly recovered from their middling performance in 2017, and hopefully that Kakegurui sequel airing right now has some actual animation in it.

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  • Also, I could really do without the lazy attempts to make the story more current with the inclusion of modern technology. Parasyte did this too and in retrospect, it wasn’t a good idea.
  • I’ve actually heard that MAPPA’s upcoming anime they produced with Ikuhara has already been completed as of now. If so, that’s really impressive.
  • To all defenders of Rising of the Shield Hero, please stop using the source material to defend the anime adaptation. How on earth is that knowledge beneficial to anyone who only knows the series through the anime? How would that be beneficial to someone who doesn’t read manga or light novels like me?
  • Seriously, how deluded do you have to be to think that Banana Fish could possibly endorse rape when all it does is make the characters miserable?

One response to “Anime Review — Banana Fish (MAPPA)

  1. Pingback: In Case You Missed It 2019 #2 – 100 Word Anime

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