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Score: 8.37/10

Synopsis

Aslan Jade Callenreese, known as Ash Lynx, was a runaway picked off the streets of New York City and raised by the infamous godfather of the mafia, Dino Golzine. Now 17 years old and the boss of his own gang, Ash gets his hands on a mysterious drug called "Banana Fish"—the same two words his older brother, Griffin, has muttered since his return from the Iraq War. However, his investigation is hindered when Dino sends his men to retrieve the drug from Ash at an underground bar he uses as a hideout. At the bar, Skip, Ash's friend, introduces him to Shunichi Ibe and his assistant, Eiji Okumura, who are Japanese photographers reporting on American street gangs. However, their conversation is interrupted when Shorter Wong, one of Ash's allies, calls to warn him about Dino. Soon, Dino's men storm the bar, and in the ensuing chaos kidnap Skip and Eiji. Now, Ash must find a way to rescue them and continue his investigation into Banana Fish, but will his history with the mafia prevent him from succeeding? [Written by MAL Rewrite]

If there’s one thing that’s enticing about the Noitamina network, it’s their way of broadcasting shows to a variety of audiences. Banana Fish seems like one of those shows that isn’t aimed at a wider audience but it definitely has its own appeal. Taking place in a crime-noir setting, the series deals with teenage gangs in a corrupted city. It’s a time period of recreation and Banana Fish sets a firm example of an old school crime drama resurrected to modern life.

Now I have to admit, I’m not too familiar with Akimi Yoshida’s work or her style of writing. The only other series I’ve read by her is a manga called “Yasha”. It has no relation to this series but the artwork is distinctive with her work. Not to mention, her series evokes a sense of mystery that’s present in Banana Fish. Yet, just what exactly is Banana Fish?

To be clear, the original manga was published from 1985 to 1994. This adaptation serves as a celebration of her 40th anniversary. It’s also somewhat unusual that Noitamina adapted this into 24 episodes rather than their usual 11/22 format. Regardless, Banana Fish strikes to me as a refreshing experience. First impressions are important and this show accomplishes that with the aesthetic story setting. It shows New York in a crime driven state and conflicts dealing with mature content. It’s also interesting to note that the series has a more modern feel compared to the 1980s. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

A main appealing factor that drew me into the show is the character relationship and development. We meet Ash Lynx, a snarky young man who ran away from home. Despite his not-so-friendly attitude, Ash has charisma that makes him a person not to be underestimated. He also possesses a variety of skills that puts him on the wrong sides of the law. Being incredibly daring and never afraid to take risks, Ash stands by example as a daredevil. It’s almost if he anticipates his death at any moment and isn’t afraid to risk it for what he believes in. This puts him on the opposite side of Eiji Okumura, a photographer’s assistant and college student. Unlike Ash, Eiji is a kind young man but often easily manipulated or gets caught into complicated circumstances. The story goes to show his character relationship with Ash. Now I’m just going to throw it out there but there’s heavy implication of BL context between the two. While not being too explicit, it’s shown that Eiji develops a growing love towards Ash. On the other hand, Ash shows his own devotion with action that speaks louder than words. Ash’s acts of self-sacrifice becomes a central part of their relationship as he takes on many risks to save his life. The story often involves with Ash’s enemies exploiting his weakness and that would be Eiji.

Still, the million dollar question remains. What exactly is Banana Fish? To be clear, the title itself isn’t necessarily just about what Banana Fish really is. Rather, it’s a pivotal component of the plot that has Ash investigate into. In essence, Banana Fish delivers a sensation of mystery and suspense. The main premise focuses on how Ash’s fight against the mafia in this rebellious age. Crime lords like Dino Glozine is the stereotypical antagonist you’ll quickly love to hate. I don’t mean that in the sense of him being a distasteful human being. Rather, Ash has a personal agenda to settle with him considering their dark history together. The series isn’t shy to deliver mature context in the form of drug deals, criminal activities, sex slavery, or gang wars. If you’re here to stay for the show, then be ready suck it up and indulge on these controversial topics. In the meantime, we also meet allies that Ash meets in his quest of vengeance. Characters such as Ibe, Max, Griffin, Alexis, and Jessica join to fight the good fight. In many cases, their roles all are important for the overall mission. On the other hand, their most prominent adversary is Corsican Mafia consisting of Dino and his crew. Deep down, this anime crafts these antagonists with intentions to destroy Ash’s life. It becomes a crime thriller that often tests the limits of the main characters and how much longer they can last. Later in the show, we also meet other dangerous groups such as the Chinese mafia. Among their members includes the cunning Yut-Lung Lee who wants Ash’s head on a plate.

At its core, Banana Fish shows that in their society, crime is more than just a social problem. In our society, criminal activities are not tolerated and punishable. In the world of Banana Fish, characters believe they are above the law. Some even believe they are the law. Let’s take a closer look at Ash for instance. Having being raised by Dino, it’s clear that he has a dark past that’s explored more and more as each episode progresses. While I don’t consider Ash to be a villain, there’s no doubt that he has committed questionable acts. As this show takes place during a period of gang warfare, Ash stands out as more of an antihero to me than a protagonist. And of course, the man who raised him wants nothing more than to destroy Ash. I think in many cases, Dino wants to destroy Ash’s soul rather than just his life. It’s a fate perhaps worse than death and just one of the few examples of how cruel characters can really be. Indeed, Banana Fish contains mature content that isn’t suited for a younger audience. Going back to what I said before, Noitamina’s audience expands beyond than just a general audience and Banana Fish is an example of that.

Adapting a manga from over two decades ago isn’t an easy task. Manga being resurrected again after all this year tends to lose steam but I can say with supreme confidence that Banana Fish hits the marks. It manages to recreate a sensation of the 1980s while the anime takes place in a more modern setting. Rather than going with any flashy style of presentation, it commits to bring the manga’s characters up to date. Characters such as Ash and Eiji are designed to look exactly how their personalities are meant to be. Gang wars and violence are showcased without holding back with the intense bloodshed. There’s also some daring scenes of man service present that may be nerve wrecking or pleasing to watch. As I mentioned before, there are cases of gay moments although it’s not distracting to the point of losing its main focus. Watch this series and you’ll see that it’s more than just a homosexual relationship between two men. In addition, I have to give some well-earned praise to the voice acting in the show. These characters are older than your typical high school students and crime lords like Dino isn’t easy to portray. Yet, they all looked pretty damn believable in such a time period.

Banana Fish is a show with a peculiar title that could probably be quoted often. It’s Akimi Yoshida’s most well-known work and MAPPA manages to produce such a series with commitment. Director Hiroko Utsumi worked on Free! in the past so it’s no surprise that you’ll see some man service along the way. But really, Banana Fish isn’t just about a gay romance story between two guys. It celebrates the chance to showcase a crime story in a setting of corruption, revenge, and politics. Now it’s your chance to experience that story.

Since its publication in a shoujo magazine in the 1980s, Banana Fish has received several labels such as boys’ love (BL), shounen-ai, and yaoi due to popular misconceptions. Not only are these terms incorrectly applied to the work, but they also do not cut at the meat of what Banana Fish is. And even its original shoujo demographic tag deeply misrepresents the content of this anime. Drugs. Rape. Pedophilia. Gangs. PTSD. Violence. Corruption. These are the terms at the core of Banana Fish. Though at the same time, the crime and gangster backdrop is not all the story is about and confining it within those boundaries massively undersells the broad scope of topics this anime covers. Because while Banana Fish's pragmatic and deplorable world is filled to the brim with death and sexual violence, the tale it tells of its main character, Ash Lynx, is a visceral story about life and love. And just as deliberate as its juxtaposition of death with life and lust with love, Banana Fish is a carefully woven story about dichotomies. Its two halves, like the darkness and light reflected in its two main protagonists, Ash and Eiji, permeate this character drama in numerous ways to paint a grounded tale about both the ugly and beautiful aspects that make us human. With little exposition to back it up, Banana Fish sets up intrigue from the outset and primarily uses its early episodes to build character back stories, motivations, and tension until its first major climax. From there, the copious amount of setup spent on its foundation gets grounded and becomes meaningful. Although Banana Fish has an overarching narrative, its story can be broken down into multiple arcs. The narrative shifts seamlessly from arc to arc; however, the tone between them can vary drastically. These tone shifts combined with Banana Fish's brisk pacing, does cause sudden mood swings, that at times lead to whiplash. But overall, its purposeful tonal dissonance is used to great effect to accentuate the light and dark themes that imbue its story. Its pacing allows eventful occurrences to happen every episode but sometimes hurts the show in its calmer hours. And unfortunately, the anime rushes a few episodes in the second cour to accommodate the daunting task of adapting nineteen volumes of manga into twenty-four episodes of anime. While in its other weaker moments, Banana Fish can suffer from clumsy plot developments, become somewhat fantastical, and get repetitive with both innocuous and annoying elements, overall, the story rarely ceases to entertain and because it is comprised of many moving parts, it often takes unpredictable turns that keep its audience on their toes. Though because a large amount of finer details were cut, viewers are required to pay close attention and often read between the lines, which at times, can lead to the discovery of surprise character nuance. While Banana Fish's story can be described as its weakest element, its characters are its strongest. Despite having a rather large cast of relevant main and supporting characters, Banana Fish adeptly characterizes the important ones in a short amount of time and consistently develops them throughout the narrative. As a result, characters as well as their interactions are both dynamic and engaging. At the center of this ever-evolving maelstrom of personalities is the two protagonists, Ash and Eiji. No other character in Banana Fish is as carefully realized or developed as Ash, who teeters between his hardened persona and vulnerable self seamlessly, but the complex, multi-faceted relationship Ash and Eiji share come close. Their relationship, while not the focus of the story, is just as important as the plot. It never becomes physical because of Ash's past, but the emotional connection between the two cannot be understated as it develops both protagonists and organically becomes the emotional foundation in which the narrative is founded upon. However, unfortunately, due to the limited episode count, several side characters are stripped of their more nuanced character traits that can be found in their manga counterparts. And even Eiji was regrettably simplified in the anime. Antagonists of varying degrees of depth and competence will come and go. All are twisted in their own way, most will be hated, and some are more than they seem. While Banana Fish is not one to have overly complex antagonists, mainly because writing sympathetic rapists and pedophiles goes against the themes of the piece, they all serve the narrative purpose that they were written for even if it is not entirely clear from the outset. However, Yut-Lung and Blanca deserve special mentions for not only being complicated and interesting, but for also highlighting Banana Fish's themes by serving as impressive foils. Each character has been made to life by talented voice actors, but most notably, Uchida Yuuma, the voice for Ash, has given a powerful performance with resounding care and heart put forth in conveying all of Ash's complexities. Consistent with other series produced by studio MAPPA, the animation and art quality are spectacular for the first several episodes before eventually becoming a series of ups and downs. The latter half of the show and the action-oriented episodes in particular have suffered as the anime progressed. For this sole reason, it is recommended to watch the Blu-Ray release, which has already been confirmed to have touchups. Despite its dips in animation and art, Banana Fish's cinematography remains very strong throughout its entire run. Storyboarding is consistently dynamic, and when applicable, framing is done with a certain message in mind. The music composed by Shinichi Osawa, also known by his stage name, Mondo Grosso, while not necessarily memorable, is distinct, stylish, and fitting. As an adaptation, the anime does a commendable job in keeping the manga's spirit in spite of its brutally short episode count. MAPPA makes predominantly solid decisions on the material to cut and while the anime loses some of its plot cohesiveness as a result, prioritizing the character moments was the correct call. And in general, the manga is a highly recommended alternative for those interested in the gritty details that the anime had no choice but to leave behind. However, despite the strengths of this production, not all of MAPPA's adaptational choices enhance the experience. Most notably, the decision to update the original manga's 1980s setting to modern day in the anime has been baffling. Character designs have been modernized and smartphones have been given to the majority of the cast but the world continues to exude an anachronistic 80s vibe. While this may seem to be a harmless cosmetic overhaul, contemporizing Banana Fish means covering dated topics. This becomes most apparent when the anime delves into political maneuvers that would be more plausible in the Cold War environment that the original manga was written in. And because Banana Fish is a product of its time, the anime, though not always through the fault of MAPPA as Amazon has also mistranslated generic insults into homophobic slurs, contains elements that can be considered tone-deaf in today's sociopolitical climate. If anything, this adaptation should be treated as if the setting was still in the 1980s as the moderization Banana Fish's world received are largely superficial and even leads to plot inconsistencies. With the vast majority of anime released nowadays abiding by successful formulas and character stereotypes, Banana Fish stands out as one of the rare few that is unafraid to take risks. Its brashness in that regard will inevitably land itself many criticisms but hidden beneath its rough exterior is a gem worth digging for. It touches upon heavy subjects without sensationalizing or sugarcoating their brutality and its grounded approach makes it a unique work that is more reminiscent of old Western action films and television than that of anime. It shows us the truly wretched sides of humanity but also reminds us of the hope and love individuals all possess while expertly invoking an array of emotions. From start to finish, it is a hauntingly real depiction of the very essence of being human. And despite the flaws in its story and adaptation, it leaves much to ruminate about. It is a deceptively simple story that can become complex in the themes it explores and the topics it leaves its viewers to ponder. Even the series' namesake, derived from the short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" by J.D. Salinger, and references to other American literature in the form of episode titles or overt mentions offer food for thought. Banana Fish is far from perfect, but at its core, it is an unforgettable rollercoaster of relentless action and raw emotion. The manga broke genre barriers over thirty-years ago and while the anime regrettably does not retain all the qualities that made the manga as groundbreaking as it was, it does deliver its own one of a kind experience with much of the same heart. There really is no other anime like Banana Fish. And it is one no one should miss.* *Disclaimer: but only if you can stomach the long list of heavy content this show has

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