Banana Fish by Akimi Yoshida, at the time of serialization, was once a contemporary story. It began in 1985 and ended in 1994, while the timeline of the main plot spanned from 1985 to 1987. So in a way, modernizing the anime adaptation of Banana Fish to be set in 2018 is appropriate. Rather than a near complete replication of a story set in the 1980s, there can be a parallel story that integrates the ideas and themes to be timely like the original was.
However, updating Banana Fish raises some clear issues. The original manga is deeply 1980s, from its aesthetics to its politics, and if handled without care, you wind up with a story that’s already dated from the very start. It’s one thing for a story to be old; we still have centuries old classics. Plus, our suspension of disbelief can be higher when we know a story was from a different time. However, with an adaptation you’re already setting up a compare and contrast situation, to mix in modernization too, it’s key to think through what needs to be changed, why it needs to be changed, and how that affects the original story. This is different for all kinds of adaptations and renditions, but ultimately it can be done in a lot of fun, unique, creative ways. In the case of Banana Fish though, it’s all about the lack of change. Though the style and technology is there, the story ultimately feels like a rerun in different clothes. This especially feels like a missed opportunity with the legacy that Banana Fish has as a classic manga that tackles heavy social issues.
This isn’t to disparage the work put into the anime or to imply it’s a complete waste. Translating a story to a new medium is difficult work and there are plenty of parts I enjoyed. It’s at least introduced the story to new audiences, including me, and opened up new avenues to discuss it. In this spirit, I want to talk about some of the missed opportunities that the anime passed over when modernizing the manga in the context of the social themes Yoshida touches on. There are some issues that are thoughtfully examined in the manga but would be reflected differently in a modern setting, and other issues that weren’t examined as deeply as they could have been in an adaptation.
Spoiler warning for the end of Banana Fish, including the side story Garden of Light.
Content warning for discussions of police brutality and sexual trauma (including child sex abuse).
In a story about systemic violence and abuses of power in the US, it seems strange that the police are often negligible or forgotten even though they have multiple interactions interactions with important characters. Police brutality and racial profiling are not new phenomena, but its coverage in current mainstream American media has grown since Black Lives Matter’s rise in 2013. With New York City in mind, given the death of Eric Garner and practices like increased militarization of the police, ticket quotas, and stop-and-frisk that disproportionately target Black and Latine people, it’s dissonant for the police to bear no remarkable presence in and of itself. This isn’t even getting into the fact that violent crime in NYC significantly decreased since the 1980s-90s and rampant gang violence is a much less pressing issue for the police to “solve.”
Though Ash is white, he does lead gang members of other races and interacts with the leader of an exclusively Black gang. He’s also extremely cognizant of American society’s worst ills. While Ash doesn’t trust the police, this is not expanded upon or explored in further detail (beyond his own back story where the corrupted small-town police failed to arrest his first abuser). For the police to not play a regular and significant role in the marginalization of the people he leads and interacts with feels like whitewashing of the police’s place in the oppressive structures that Banana Fish aims to highlight. Most of the featured police corruption centers Ash, so it becomes both a symptom of the system but also a plot-contrived anomaly. And because Ash is smart enough to escape time and time again, the police is merely a pawn, rather than systemic issue to combat or overturn.
Even in the original manga, their roles were molded around what the plot needed, whether they were well-intentioned justice-seekers or upholders of a corrupt system. Ultimately, they played second fiddle to the mafia and gang conflicts. The police as an institution wasn’t particularly critiqued or dissected. In the anime though, they’re even more sidelined as the anime adaptation tries to squeeze what it can into the 24 episodes it has.
There’s a scene in the manga, unfortunately cut from the anime, in which Ash escapes being arrested by a couple police officers who spot him by disguising himself as the pampered son of a rich, influential businessman. Ash not only taps into his intelligence and knowledge of the police, but his own white privilege to easily pass as part of the wealthy class that the police will defer to. Ideally, I would’ve like a much larger and critical focus on the police’s role in how they use their power outside of Ash. Even just a look at how characters who aren’t him getting caught in police-instigated/exacerbated violence (and sometimes unable to just wiggle their way out) would’ve satisfied me.
Banana Fish doesn’t deal with immigration directly, but prominent second immigrant characters like Shorter and Sing paint a humanized, multi-faceted picture of a melting pot America. Not only that, the exclusive ethnic affiliation of most of the gangs (with Ash’s being an explicit exception), illustrate that these characters are gang-affiliated because they’re marginalized within the predominantly white and affluent economic and social systems. However, this still exposes them to further exploitation, even within their own networks, such as when the Lee family goes back on their promise and Yut-lung coerces Shorter into being a double agent.
The Eiji-Ash relationship provides a different avenue for understanding immigration: the benefits of intercultural bridges. While the differences in culture don’t factor in their love for each other, they still serve as contrasting perspectives through which they can learn more about each other, deepening their bond. Eiji even encourages Ash to leave the US for Japan, touching upon immigration as a path of not only opportunity but also safety. In the end though, it is Eiji who comes to live in the US, seeing his true home as where he and Ash were together. It is not nationality, but the people we meet and love who create “home.”
Though one aspect that the manga doesn’t deal with explicitly is anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy. For immigrant characters to play such a significant role in the story, it would’ve been nice for the anime adaptation to acknowledge the current climate of xenophobia in the US, particularly in line with the explicit white supremacy and American imperialism that’s already part of Banana Fish. While I don’t propose swapping out one minority community for another, it would’ve felt more relevant to at least touch upon the xenophobia Middle Eastern and Latine communities face, as they’re under the most scrutiny in the national discourse of immigration. (Especially since the few Latine characters in Banana Fish are either violently killed gang members or child traffickers.)
American Foreign Policy
Though the original story of Banana Fish is distinctly The American Eighties, as in the genre and aesthetic, more so than a realistic depiction of the US, it connected its plot to the then relevant politics of American intervention in Latin America. However, rather than think through how modern American foreign policy has evolved since and how Banana Fish’s plot element could be changed while still retaining its themes, they simply rehash the same things with a different name. Though certainly there’s something to be said about how American imperialism hasn’t truly changed and the War in Afghanistan is touched upon, they sidestep commitment to sharp commentary on the subject by not only acting as if the Cold War is still chugging on almost exactly same but also retreat to the fictional “Khafghanistan.”
Admittedly, this would be one of the trickier aspects to modernize in detail, as the political conspiracies and context of the original manga were very specific. However, it feels disrespectful and toothless compared to the research Yoshida did for the geopolitics in the manga. Reading the manga now, while the pacing and melodrama of the plot is a bumpy ride, it still feels resonant in its accuracy of American history. But for the anime the stark spotlight put onto American imperialism was dimmed down to—ironically—keep the same template of the original plot. This is one of the cases where fidelity to the source material is clearly weaker than taking a chance at new takes or ideas.
LGBTQ+ Culture and Activism
I’ll start by saying this is not about turning Ash and Eiji’s relationship into something more explicitly romantic or sexual. This is more about the general lack of broader, political LGBTQ+ themes. Since Banana Fish is widely regarded as a classic work with prominent queer subtext, it seems more than appropriate to touch upon.
The landscape of LGBTQ+ community in the US has changed considerably since the 1980s. With marriage equality, increased public representation, and more legal protections, there have been a lot of steps forward. However, the LGBTQ+ community still face many pressing issues, including disproportionate rates of homelessness, poverty, and suicide. LGBTQ+ youth are particularly susceptible and so it makes me wonder why none of Ash’s gang are openly, explicitly queer. This wouldn’t have been difficult, have a few background characters in pride-themed shirts, mention queer membership along with the gang’s racial diversity off hand, etc. Ash is no softie but he does recognize the most vulnerable and downtrodden of society; why wouldn’t he welcome queer youth with open arms?
Additionally, given that most male queerness in Banana Fish is linked to pedophilia and sexual assault, it would’ve been nice to counter that with more male characters who are explicitly queer but not predatory. While Ash and Eiji’s relationship could be argued as a counterbalance, their textual ambiguity makes it a weak one in the face of multiple rapists of Ash. To contrast, while men assault women and girls, it’s not the central sexual violence of Banana Fish and there are still some explicit romantic relationships, like Jessica and Max or Charlie and Nadia (featured only in the manga) that show that not all heterosexuality is predatory. Rather than taking a chance to at least tackle the predatory stereotypes by engaging with different examples of male queerness and the LGBTQ+ community, the anime only offers the same gay bar (now strangely labeled “Gay Bar New Eden”) that’s run by a pedophilic trafficker. In the same year of Devilman Crybaby, an adaptation of a vintage, tragic property which added more nuanced, sympathetic queerness, that left a sour taste in my mouth.
Internet and Technology
Probably the most prominent issue for any vintage property being updated is how to deal with the Internet. Sure, there’s cell phones, but the Internet is truly more vexing as a factor. Our understanding of news, pop culture, social relationships, activism, business, and etc. have all been deeply impacted by the Internet.
The manga briefly deals with computers while at Alexis Dawson’s mansion but the World Wide Web wasn’t accessible to the public until the 1990s. The anime opts to incorporate modern technology and the Internet in superficial ways: replacing payphones with smartphones whenever relevant, splitting news coverage between online articles and physical newspapers, Ash’s hacking skills being impressive but not 1980s level of impressive, and so on. Though in keeping certain iconic moments, sometimes technology is magically forgotten, like when no one realizes they’re in Los Angeles until they ask a local, which sticks out in the age of Google Maps.
However, those are ultimately minor nitpicks. What’s more of an issue to me is the lack of depth or integration of the Internet. I’m not asking for Banana Fish to necessarily be Logged On but it’s surprising to me that relevant subjects like online survivor support groups, doxing, social media, digital journalism, and the dark web aren’t acknowledged. Particularly when it comes to Max’s investigation on the conspiracy of sex trafficking by high-ranking government officials, there’s not only the matter of getting enough attention on the story in a Facebook news cycle, but also misinformation campaigns run by powerful people, and potential backlash that could irrevocably alter the lives of any identifiable victims and Max’s family. There’s also its conspicuous presence and absence in the final episode, in which Ash manages to text Max an affectionate goodbye message but nothing for Eiji, and then doesn’t call for help when he’s stabbed. Ultimately, I think the Internet could have provided an interesting avenue to examine the same topics Banana Fish originally covered, but it’s sort of just slotted in as a reminder of what year it is.
Sexual Assault and Abuse
Obviously, it would be unreasonable for the crew behind the Banana Fish adaptation to somehow anticipate #MeToo emerging within the past year. However, it would be tough to deny that American discourse around sexual assault has changed and evolved over the decades, even pre-#MeToo. People have been much more willing to condemn the ways in which rape culture permeates our media, our politics, and our personal lives. The Internet, while also another conduit for sexual harassment and circulation of child pornography to flourish, has also been a place for survivors to have a voice, both with each other and in the public.
In light of this, I want to question the framing of Ash’s trauma. Overall, Banana Fish has an honest, compassionate grasp on sexual abuse: it is ultimately about power and domination than it is about sexual attraction. However, while sexual abuse is acknowledged as something that many people go through, it’s often a trauma that other characters either don’t survive (such as Yut-lung’s mother) or are left unseen (other trafficked children). The only other confirmed survivor of sexual assault is Jessica*, but she is explicitly put in a different “category” of survivor than Ash. When they talk and she opens up about her struggle about her assault (singular), Ash distances himself, saying that if he spent as long as she had for every assault he had been through, he would be dead. Of course, his statement shouldn’t be taken at face value. It is clearly a sad, tragic mindset but it further paints this image of Ash as special and alone for his abuse.
Ultimately, Ash is unique for not only his intelligence, athleticism, and looks, but also for enduring as much sexual trauma as he has. There’s an almost grotesque ouroboros around him in which because of his physical beauty, he’s abused and preyed upon, but because he’s smart enough to escape or kill his abusers, he’s further abused and preyed upon later. In the end, his death seems to signal that there’s little possibility for the future beyond suffering, at least outside of the heteronormative nuclear family (which is how Jessica finds her happy ending). Though Ash dies because of a misunderstanding of his actions as a gang leader, when other characters with pasts of violence and underground crime (like Sing, Blanca, and Yut-lung) are allowed to live, Ash’s surprise twist death feels like salt on the wound of his extensive sexual trauma.
In 2018 though, we not only examined the harm of sexual trauma, but also life with and beyond it. Many people who have suffered do not exist in isolation, but have found ways to come together and speak their truth. While I think Ash’s death could’ve been executed in more fitting ways (that aren’t petty misunderstandings and suicidal acceptance), such as the wounds of the final shootout or the systemic violence of living on the streets, my actual hot take is that Ash should’ve lived. For Ash to have found some kind of community of support, to have been allowed to live after his trauma, if not “fully recovered” but still striving on to reach for better, brighter things—a repeated theme of Ash’s characterization—I think would’ve the most fitting note for 2018.
(Of course, there is the mysterious relationship chart change that throws some mysteries up in the air, so maybe fingers crossed.)
When it comes to adaptations, I’m less interested in textual fidelity than seeing the story with new interpretations and ideas for a different medium. This includes addressing underdeveloped or problematic aspects while building on the still compelling, powerful aspects in the original story. What that means for creators and fans will always be subjective and divisive but personally, I’m more irritated by adaptations that bring little personal vision while keeping to the story beats than adaptations that try to stand out on in their own right. New mediums in particular inherently mean changes, so why not go all the way and play around, dig in deep to other pockets of potential? So while I’ll always be thankful to the anime for reviving interest in a classic series, I find it lacking in its imagination.
* Yut-lung is somewhat ambiguous due to the fact he was abused** but it’s framed as a different type of trauma than what Ash or Jessica went through, based on the implication that it’s a different degree of sexual trauma. The same goes for Eiji, whose one run-in with Dino and some guys on the street is never addressed again.
** I’m not gonna say he was almost or quasi-abused just because he only witnessed his mother’s rape and murder, or because Dino didn’t have complete intercourse with him. That would be weird.