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Written 7/5/2022

Like my Revolutionary Girl Utena review, I cannot talk about this anime without giving a hefty set of trigger warnings.
TW for discussions of CSA, trafficking, anorexia, violence in general, and antiblackness.
Unlike Revolutionary Girl Utena, I don't have a good triggers guide for the full show so I instead recommend referring to Does the dog die.

Banana Fish is, in a word, messy. It hits some incredibly high highs, some incredibly low lows, and has an ending so terrible it made me somewhat regret watching it. That's honestly one of the worst things I can say about any piece of media. Whether it's good or bad is one thing. I've watched some awful media and still gotten something out of it. It can help me improve my own writing, evaluate other series more critically, or just be a good bit of entertainment. If I come out of something wishing I hadn't experienced it at all, that's a sign something has gone seriously wrong. That said, I do want to talk about the strengths of the series first.

Banana Fish has some genuinely excellent depictions of PTSD. Often characters who go through trauma are woobified. The trauma is treated more as a plot device to make them more sympathetic without depicting the actual reprecussions that trauma would realistically have. Banana Fish avoids this issue pretty well. Ash's PTSD is given the full weight it deserves. The core PTSD symptoms are avoidance, intrusions, negative alterations of mood, and alterations of arousal and reactivity. All of that can be seen clearly in Ash. Some of the details of his character, such as his anorexia as a response to stress and a tactic to prevent further abuse, are small things that I see often in reality but have never seen depicted in fiction before. Similarly, Ash is a very active character. He fights tooth and nail to escape his situation. This contrasts a lot with his behavior when triggered. His responses of fight, flight, and freeze are nuanced and have consistent circumstances in which they appear according to his character.

Yut Lung is another excellent depiction of a CSA surivor. Yut Lung is especially interesting since he's written to be a foil to Ash. While Ash decided to fight directly and try to escape his life altogether, Yut Lung is a lot more passive. They're the same character in a core sense, just taken in different directions with their philosophies and means of survival. That is something that I think adds to the complexity of Banana Fish's depiction of trauma. Really, Ash and Yut Lung's characters, their complexity, and their relationship to each other in a foil sense is the anime's greatest strength.

Ash and Eiji's relationship is also genuinely beautiful with a lot of heart behind it. Banana Fish often gets billed as a BL or romance anime, something that I think does a major disservice to the anime as a whole. Ash and Eiji's relationship is undoubtedly romantic in nature, but the thing that's more important is their bond overall. I don't mean that in a, "Their relationship transcends labels and sexuality way." Rather, trauma can't be fixed by romance and Banana Fish recognizes that. Eiji gives Ash hope and a person who just wants to be a friend, a support, a shoulder to cry on. He shows Ash that life does not have to be transactional and gives him hope for a life outside trauma. Their chemistry is great, made even better by the excellent voice acting. (Which is another big plus of the show.)

That said, when it comes to the trauma itself, Banana Fish can be at times very graphic and melodramatic. In some ways I have very mixed feelings on this. Banana Fish stops a step shy of showing things outright onscreen. However, what it does show is graphic and at times so excessive it crosses over into reveling in its own violence. I refer particularly to Episode 19 for this one. Where my mixed feelings come in is with a wider discussion about the levels of sexual violence depicted in media. I don't think all media has to be easy to digest or that media should tiptoe around direct depictions of abuse. However, I think there's also levels to it and Banana Fish crosses the wide, blurry line into the territory of vouyeristic.

Another major issue with Banana Fish is antiblackness. Now, this is a review about the anime, but I think the manga does provide important context here. Within it, black characters are drawn in a way that is an outright caricature. This also extends into dialogue. Although the designs are improved in the anime, the core issue of these depictions is not. Skipper, a black child, is the first to die and is mainly used to further the emotions and sympathy of the audience towards Ash. Similar issues feeding into tropes, antiblack ideas and stereotypes, exist with other characters as well.

The thing that ultimately makes Banana Fish cross over into outright unwatchable, regret territory is in its ending. By the end, we've seen Ash be a victim of abuse in all sorts of ways. It's 24 episodes, clocking in at roughly 8 hours of watch time not counting OPs and EDs. Ash has survived all sorts of crazy injuries. Realistically, he should have died of his injuries in the very second episode. Yet, after all the abuse, all the fighting, the chance at a cathartic ending, of Ash finally escaping, is ripped away. He dies at the very last second.

What I find important when analyzing and reviewing media is to ask what messages are encoded within it. What does it mean to have a CSA survivor fight tooth and nail, only to die at the very end? What does it mean that the author thought he was morally in the wrong for killing in self defense? What does it mean that fans often defend this decision by saying Ash couldn't have recovered from his trauma, a trauma that many real victims can and do recover from? I do not think Banana Fish needs to be sunshine and rainbows. It's not that kind of show. I don't even think the ending needs to be fully happy. However, I think it's bleak. The message Banana Fish sends, in the end, is that fighting is useless. There is no escape, only death.

I came out of Banana Fish deeply impacted. It gave me an intense sense of catharsis and has some points that are genuinely incredibly high. In some ways, it navigates its subject matter in an exhausting and questionable way. In others, it navigates it with grace and a level of care and detail I don't often see in media. However, the antiblackness is present entirely throughout the anime. Then the ending drops the ball so hard it's frankly a miracle it didn't break straight through the floor. Like I said at the very start. In a word: messy.