Nature made Ash Lynx beautiful; nurture made him a cold ruthless killer. A runaway brought up as the adopted heir and sex toy of "Papa" Dino Golzine, Ash, now at the rebellious age of seventeen, forsakes the kingdom held out by the devil who raised him. But the hideous secret that drove Ash's older brother mad in Vietnam has suddenly fallen into Papa's insatiably ambitious hands—and it's exactly the wrong time for Eiji Okamura, a pure-hearted young photographer from Japan, to make Ash Lynx's acquaintance...
Banana Fish was published in English by VIZ Media; initially the first seven volumes under the VIZ Graphic Novel imprint (with flipped pages) from January 8, 1999 to November 13, 2002, and later completely under the VIZ Shojo label from March 3, 2004 to April 10, 2007. The series also ran in both of VIZ's now defunct manga magazines, Pulp and Animerica Extra for several years.
During the Vietnam War in 1973, an American solider goes insane and starts gunning down his allies and friends. After killing off a majority, we see that he has gained a form of dementia, and keeps repeating one line, over and over: “banana fish”. This manga was created by Akimi Yoshida (who also made Kisshō Tennyo) back in 1985, and it's the most manly shoujo to date. In fact, Frederik Schodt, popular translator (whose works include Phoenix, and Rose Of Versailles) remarks that it's “...one of the few girls' manga [a]...male adult could admit to reading without blushing.” The series, Banana Fish –which ran until
1994 with a total of 19 tankobon volumes– now remains one of 50 best classic manga of all time.
It's very hard to say how the plot, narration, and pacing came about in Banana Fish. Even as you begin the manga, the overwhelming intensity is just there, even if any characters haven't been fully introduced. It is certainly not a straight-forward series: there is no “beginning”, no “rising action”, no “climax”. As it chronicles and documents the lives of NY gangs (and gang warfare), it does so extremely realistically. It can fluxuate between something that can only be described as “tension, strain, bombs, and anxiety” and a calm, relief-filled respite. This is easily the best part of Banana Fish: there is no filler, and the way it goes about presenting the story is invigorating and interesting. The plot is air-tight.
As a result of such an amazing plot line, we are also given the characters, along with the development that comes along. There is no “real” main character in this, as there are several ones that are heavily expanded on. But that's not the amazing part about it. All major main characters are introduced extremely early on (and no, there isn't a problem about memorizing names here!). There is no character in this introduced for the sake of plot. There is no Person XYZ who can offer a solution to the problems they face. Oh no. All major characters are given three dimensional personalities (along with some sort of backstory that is frequently talked about and expanded on) and they all have inner, realistic struggles which can apply to most of us. In short: yes, they're pretty great.
Ash Lynx, as an example, is the head of his gang. Blunt, rude, and often recognized as juvenile, we are led to believe that's all we should expect. But that's not so. Although he has killed, he is no heartless thug. It's important to note that, although he's got years of trauma under his belt, he is still the softest gang leader out there. The tough cynicism he takes on conceals a wish to be treated as a normal human being, for he has never wanted the life that Dino Golzine has given him. In contrast to him, we're introduced to Eiji Okumura (who is equally as interesting): a fresh-out-of-highschool althete who has travelled to New York to be a photographer's assistant. But that kind of description doesn't do him justice.
Although I won't say that every single one of the characters are memorable, but a great amount of the complex ones are.
The atmosphere and the setting in Banana Fish is spectacular. I, myself, haven't lived in NY, but the amount of time and research that went into understanding the city as a whole is great. It wasn't just some label stuck on the city to make it feel pretentious or whatnot, I mean, I'm sure some of us have read a manga that use NY as a foreign city to make it seem 'cooler', but this was not the case. Banana Fish made me feel like I knew NY (and I probably really don't, so that is just a testament to the incredible, “slummy” atmosphere Banana Fish created). It was the little things: actual street signs, large neighbourhoods, or building complexes in relation to certain areas. And it wasn't just NY that was researched, there was also the nature of drugs, which is a key plot point. The planning and effort were used to their fullest during the creation of this manga –brilliantly.
Despite how many times I've said how good this is, what really stands out is the fact that it was made for girls (as it was serialized in Betsucomi). Although Banana Fish can be easily treated as a seinen (or a mature shounen/josei) it is probably best read as shoujo. This manga is proof that, although most modern shoujo are bad, classics (or “hidden gems”) of shoujos still hold promise. Reading this can drastically change one's opinion on shoujo for the better, which is amazing on it's own. Not only that, but this manga holds tons of historical value to the 80's and 90's, as it was extremely popular in Japan. Back in 1998, the japanese magazine Comic Link hosted a poll for the "50 Best Manga", and unsurprisingly, Banana Fish ranked #1.
That kind of respect and praise definitely holds merit in the manga world today.
To be completely honest, there were some minor nitpicks I had when reading this, but by the time the final few volumes came around, the mangaka, an experienced professional, had not only noticed them, but also fixed/rectified them. And they weren't even “problems” per se; the criticisms I had were just some minor things I thought would give the manga that extra edge. And it did.
Certainly, there should be no disagreement. Banana Fish is a gritty, detail-oriented masterpiece, as well as a big milestone. Lines such as “Know how to use a M-16?” to “He's got a grenade launcher!” will not be found in shoujo today, which makes Banana Fish just that much better. There is a little something for every kind of manga reader to enjoy in this (and yes, I may be specifically looking at you fujoshis). So without a doubt, it gets a full 10.0/10.0 from me. Definitely, definitely check this title out; I really don't know what else could be said.
And finally: I will put a warning on this manga, as there is harsh rape and paedophilia portrayed; so caution to younger readers.
Through and through, this is a series that has been misrepresented in how it is advertised. Whether it's the slightly odd name "Banana Fish", the inappropriate shoujo/shounen ai genre label, or the old artwork and the age of the series as a whole, this manga has no shortage of deterrents to make people shy away from checking this series out;
A fact which truly saddens me.
"Banana Fish" is not as goofy as its name, nor sappy as the genres it's associated with, and the age of the series does not in any way detract from the impact it has on the reader. My hope in writing
this review is that people who happen to stumble across the page for "Banana Fish" by chance will ignore all that may drive them away from reading this manga, and give it a chance.
Because this manga deserves it, it really does.
I'm sure everyone who's reading this review has at least skimmed the summary for the manga in question already, so I'll spare you all the repetition. What I will say though is that the story of "Banana Fish" is much more complex than any three sentence long summary could accurately summarize. It's long, and intricate, and quite frankly, has many times where it takes some energy to read. This is the one apparent weakness in the otherwise well executed carefully planned epic that is this series: pacing. Overall, the pacing works, especially during the high points of various action sequences, but in order to set up those action sequences there are sometimes chapters upon chapters of strategic exposition and planning, and it can drag quite a bit. Not to mention the series is 19 volumes long, and I would guess around 4-5 volumes of that is set-up material, which can be a bit of a chore to slog through to say the least.
I'll use this as a lead in to my second point: it drags like a shounen, mainly because this manga is much more like a shounen than a shoujo. One of the biggest issues with the lack of popularity of this series is that a manga containing 19 volumes of gangs, rifles, gore, drugs, guerrilla warfare, and an almost complete lack of women and romance is being advertised as a women's romance. That is not to say that women cannot enjoy this series, I myself, a female, adore "Banana Fish". However, I feel it necessary to stress that this is not a lovey dovey romance series like your typical shoujo, and if that's what you're looking for, you should pack your bags and look elsewhere. For everyone else looking for a solid, smart, and satisfying action story, look no further, but beware the pacing.
While the artist does significantly improve her craft over time, it is clear that the art for this series is not its strong point. The style is very dated and it takes a long time for the author to settle into their style, and even then, the art isn't exactly anything to write home about. From a character design standpoint, one can easily differentiate between the cast, with the exception of some of the adults, who can be told apart by facial hair alone. One thing I will give the artist credit for, though, is matching a more serious and harsh style to the equally harsh and action-packed tone, rather than using flowers and overly large eyes that would seem out of place within the series.
The most important thing with the art is mainly to learn to look past it, since it never distracts from the story, and the series has a lot to offer beyond some of its artistic shortcomings.
The characters are easily the strongest point in this series. Whether it's the ice-cold genius gang leader Ash, or his innocent and quirky foreigner best friend Eiji, all the characters are very likable, well rounded, and most importantly, well fleshed out. I mainly judge good character development by whether or not the characters are round and dynamic (multi-faceted and developed) throughout the course of the series. In this regard, I really can do nothing but commend the author, since every character in the cast (which is actually quite large) changes and develops, for better or worse, over the course of the series. This includes protagonists, antagonists, minor characters, major characters.... There is not one person in "Banana Fish" that I could point to and say that they were the same person as they were 19 volumes ago. Even characters that get minimal screen-time show changes caused by the events of the story and their reactions to the actions of other characters. One character who does deserve special mention is undoubtedly the second main character, Eiji Okumura. The world of "Banana Fish" takes place in the gang culture of New York city, a setting that most people who pick up this series would not be familiar with. In this case, the Japanese foreigner, Eiji, serves as the eyes that help us relate to and understand the setting and characters, since he himself is as ignorant as we are. This combined with his charming personality and incredible character development over the course of the series makes him a relatable rock for readers who might feel estranged from this manga at first due to the setting. Overall, the characters were masterfully handled throughout "Banana Fish", and if you are on the fence on whether or not you should read this series because of the plot, I would definitely recommend the read for the characters.
Though the plot and characters of "Banana Fish" can be described as nothing short of amazing, these factors would mean absolutely nothing if the series was not thoroughly enjoyable as well. Fortunately, I can say that this manga is as enjoyable on a personal level as it is on an objective level. During my first read through of the manga, I marathon-ed it in less than 48 hours! While I have mentioned there are parts where the story can drag, that does not at all hinder it from being extremely engrossing. That being said, this series is long and complex, and takes a fair amount of investment in order to get the most out of it, and if you don't tend to enjoy long epics, this probably won't be an exception... By a long shot. However, this series can easily appeal to a broad audience (were it actually advertised correctly), and for that reason alone, I would recommend anyone who finds the series even a bit intriguing to give it a shot. One thing I will say, without spoiling anything, is that the ending receives mixed reviews, and if you're looking for a series where everything is happy go lucky and roses by the end, I would tread carefully with this one.
Regardless, "Banana Fish" is really quite fantastic both in concept and execution, and is definitely a series I would recommend you buy at the end of the day. Unfortunately, hard legal copies of this manga are hard to come by. Many libraries have disposed of their old copies due to lack of popularity, and small print runs have made this series a rarity on used bookshelves and often frighteningly expensive through online sales. Still, this series has left enough of an impact on me that I continue to collect used versions, and herald it as one of my all time favorite manga.
And that, my friends, is why you should give "Banana Fish" a chance.
Because this manga deserves it, it really does.
Who knows? Maybe a spike in popularity will encourage a new print run. It already happened before in 2006, why not again?
Overall rating: 9 (an overlooked classic that deserves your time)
This is hands down, one of my favorite manga of all time.
Part of the why the story is good comes from how it is told, there's no worthless filler stuck anywhere, it's pure story all the time. The story is always moving forward, there's not even chapter breaks. There are also some spin off manga (two of which I have read, the ones that Viz published in the back of the last volumes) that tie coherently within the rest of the story and help explain a few things that are in the "nice to know" type category. Another thing I found important is that
I could see where all the plot points evolved from, I never felt any sense of deus ex machina anywhere.
Characters are just as strong as the story, Ash isn't the only main character, even if he is the most interesting of the main characters. The characters all feel real and realized including the way that they interact. Even bit characters who only show up twice in the series are memorable (like The Fly).
Easily the weakest aspect of the series. The art is never unclear as to the action, it's just not the best thing ever basically. A lot of the characters have a similar facial structure and for quite a while, I confused two characters with very similar mustaches and hair styles/color. My complaints here are mostly minimal though, artwork does improve during the series and it never takes away from enjoyment factor either. But this is not a series you read because the pictures are pretty to be sure.
I rarely give out 10s, but this series made me feel so attached to it that I actually cried at the end of it for several reasons. The addition of the two side stories that Viz decided to publish only helped the series out. I think this is a must for fans of drama with some action series if slight yaoi undertones don't bother you (that are never shown onscreen so to say). It's epic to say the least, it might be classified as Josei, but I think that this is just as much for the Seinen crowd too.