Once upon a time, I was a homophobe.
Back in high school, I sincerely believed that gay and lesbian relationships were unnatural. I even once answered a survey asking whether LGBTQ people should have legal marriage rights, and I proudly circled “no”.
So why and how did I become a writer of a two-part article that is titled LGBTQ Triumph in the first place?
The answer is quite simple actually. I read a book. A book that was on a reading list for a competition that I was gunning for, and a book whose summary gave me no inkling or hint that it was about the romantic feelings that develop between two boys. It was a book that changed my life. The way their relationship written was so real, so raw, and so familiar, that it smacked my homophobia right out of my entire body. For the first time, I finally understood that LGBTQ people have the same emotions, develop the same emotions, and live with the same emotions as straight people do in a relationship. All they’re looking for is their happily ever after.
So what, does this have to do with Banana Fish at all?
It has everything to do with Banana Fish, because it can be that story to you as that book was to me in high school if only you allow it to.
I actually have a lot of qualms with the shounen-ai and yaoi genre in Japan. A lot of rape and sexual harassment happens in stories that are completely played for laughs. The relationship between the two men seems to jump from 0 to 100 out of nowhere. Sexuality is something that’s never really talked about. Characters easily filter into a “seme” aka masculine bucket or “uke” aka feminine bucket. There is often a huge power imbalance in the relationship. All in all, there is no journey of the characters or progression of a story. This overall lack of homage to good writing has, in my opinion, not only given LGBTQ people a bad reputation in the anime world, but also simply created the LGBTQ relationship into a fetish for people that lust after it.
Yet Banana Fish doesn’t fall into a single pitfall that I’ve often seen in other stories. The first thing it did was break genre barriers. Banana Fish is not categorized as shounen-ai nor yaoi. It was published in a shoujo magazine, but the reading demographics had just as many boys reading as there were girls. In today’s standards of storytelling with gun fights, knife fights, and mafia shootouts, many consider Banana Fish to even be “seinen”.
However, it is undeniable that the central couple, Ash and Eiji, in this complicated action story is a gay couple. Akimi Yoshida, the mangaka of the story, erased all doubts and possible speculations of an intense bromance away by giving several interviews explicitly stating that the two had romantic feelings for each other. She took it even further by having supporting characters explicitly state that the feelings between Ash and Eiji went far beyond that of friendship and brotherhood in the epilogue, Garden of Eden, in the manga. From the very fundamentals of the genre, Yoshida-sensei had effectively begun to wipe away the stigma of a gay couple.
The story didn’t stop at just breaking genres. First, we actually see the feelings between Eiji and Ash develop. They don’t see each other, feel this instant cosmic connection, fall head over heels in love, and quickly leap to make out sessions or hop into bed. They start out with mere curiosity and astonishment at each other’s different worlds and personalities. That develops into friendship, which leads to becoming close friends, before reflecting romantic feelings for each other. The changes in their relationship are incredibly subtle and realistic in a violent world of gunfights, and for the first time, you’re allowed to make that emotional journey that gay couples go through that you rarely see in other gay stories.
The power imbalance that is usually portrayed by the seme being a much older man with more political, business, and emotional power in the relationship, is nonexistent in Banana Fish. While Ash certainly has a better handle of the violence that confronts their lives, Eiji has a better handle of mentality and emotional states. Eiji is a rock to everyone’s panic and trauma, regardless of whether it is Ash, Ash’s gang members, or Ash’s allies. The team of protagonists themselves later realize that just having Ash isn’t enough. Eiji is just as much part of the equation to survival, and the two equally respect each other’s opinions and thoughts in the matter.
But their emotional journey and overall relationship, in my opinion, is not enough if the characters themselves did not step up to the plate. Enter Ash Lynx, the supposed “seme” of the relationship who’s tall, strong, incredibly talented at the gun, and seems to check every box of a perfect masculine man — except he is extremely vulnerable mentally and emotionally. He cries so painfully when given the chance to. The problems that plague him do not suddenly get wiped away from the entrance of the magical, caring uke who seems to see his emotions transparently. His problems continue to set an obstacle for him and are the reason why Eiji and Ash would fight in the first place. His emotional vulnerability is his greatest weakness, and it actually wins. It is the reason why the two separate at the very end. Ash Lynx is not here to be the fangirl angst character meant to make girls scream and swoon. He’s a complicated individual and a teenager trying to live through the roughest patch of his already broken life.
Many have complained and believed that though Ash seems to add dimensions to the “seme” trope, Eiji falls into the “uke” one. He’s good at housework, he’s the emotional support, and he’s overall not very useful in a gunfight. But what people haven’t noticed is one of the biggest problems that plague uke characters – confidence. They are meek and uncertain of themselves, and Eiji is the complete opposite of that.
For one, Eiji never wavers about himself. Just as he knows where his weaknesses are (shooting a gun), at the same time, he is acutely aware of his strengths and never backs away from admitting that. He pole vaulted out of what even Ash considered an impossible situation. He faces every conflict with his eyes forward without any fear no matter how formidable his enemies are. And most importantly, he’s not scared to confront Ash. He doesn’t shy away and doubt his ability to judge and provide criticisms for his other half. He steps right up to Ash and starts yelling without hesitation. He’s a “weak” individual in the situation he has found himself in, but he is not weak in his identity or resolve. He doesn’t need Ash to provide him inspiration. He is the one giving it and has been giving it long before he first set foot into the United States.
And to add a little twist, Ash is not the seme. In an interview with Akimi Yoshida, the mangaka said that Ash is and will always be the bottom of the relationship between him and Eiji.
However, in my opinion, the true triumph in this story is not just the incredibly well-written relationship and emotions between the two characters. It is the fact that Yoshida-sensei has given this gay couple a story worth great applause. When trying to make a critical point, authors often discard the other important elements. What they sometimes forget is that for a story to really change and reach people, they have to cover all bases and not just the theme they are trying to portray. When it gets shoved too hard into people’s faces, the masses begin to reject it.
Yoshida-sensei doesn’t give you room to do that. She did not decide to sacrifice her supporting characters nor the actual plot to give room for fangirl moments of a couple. She poured her heart and soul into every aspect of a well-written story that surrounded two men who inexplicably began to develop feelings for each other.
While the relationship between Ash and Eiji develops on the sidelines, the bloodthirsty mafia refining a very morally reprehensible drug for the corrupt government is always at the forefront of the whole story. Beloved characters are killed in the process of the struggle between the corrupt organizations, as well as the victims of the system that these organizations created. The stakes are incredibly high. The action is extremely anxiety-inducing. And more often than not, the viewers and readers have no idea where the story will go or how the story will end. Every step that Ash and Eiji take, every decision their brains make means a matter of life, death, and the preservation of justice.
Banana Fish is not a good story about a gay couple. It is a good story with a gay couple. It indirectly helps normalize the idea of a gay relationship, all the while keeping the audience on its emotional and physical journey. It directly confronts their changing feelings, all the while reminding the audience of a bigger threat that looms over their heads. It is a story that somehow completely centers on Ash and Eiji yet doesn’t completely focus on them.
Banana Fish’s ability to craft a relationship, three-dimensional characters, and a complicated story with twists and turns around every corner successfully provides the LGBTQ community an anime to be proud of that no longer falls under a genre of fanservice and fetishization. It is a triumph so powerful that it managed to even nab the title of first LGBTQ couple in the Anime Trending seasonal couples’ awards.