labingi: (riki)
[personal profile] labingi
A couple of months ago, I asked for story recs, and [ profile] asphodel did me the favor of recommending Banana Fish, for which I am eternally grateful. I have not read the whole series yet, not least because an Amazon seller has managed to lose one of my orders, but I have read enough (including the end) to attempt some meta, so here goes. I will begin by situating the story within the BL universe (as I know it).

(Light spoilers follow)

Quick Summary
Banana Fish is a manga series published from 1985-94 and set mainly in 1985-86 in a fantastically West-Side-Story-esque New York in which teen gangs work for the mafia. The plot concerns the mafia's development of a dangerous, mind-altering drug called "banana fish" and our heroes' quest to thwart them.

Principal among these heroes are an amazingly ingenious and charismatic gang leader, Ash Lynx, and the Japanese lad who befriends him, Eiji Okumura. Eiji is a former pole-vaulter, who had to give it up owing to an injury. To combat his subsequent depression, his friend/mentor, Ibe, a photojournalist, brings him to America as his assistant. They intend to do a story on teen gangs but get more than they bargain for when they get sucked up into the banana fish conspiracy.

Ash, meanwhile, was an abused child who fled to New York and ended up falling in with mafioso, Dino Golzine, who for years, used him as a sex toy while also educating him to take over the syndicate. When we meet Ash, he is in the process of severing his ties to Golzine. To complicate matters further, Ash's gang and Golzine's Corsican mafia are involved in delicate relations with the Chinese mafia and their satellite teen gang. And Ash is soon to discover that his catatonic Vietnam vet brother was, in fact, a victim of banana fish.

Anyway... lots of plot happens, and Ash and Eiji become best friends while narrowly escaping certain death in various shootouts and kidnappings. The series is (really oddly) categorized as shoujo, presumably because it treats with a rather romantic (but not explicitly sexual) friendship between two young men. I'm inclined to think that the series would have been classed as josei or even seinen if those terms had been in wider use in the '80s. Correct me, someone, if I'm wrong about their history.

Situating Banana Fish within BL
Banana Fish is not BL, as every reviewer from the most action-loving fanboy to the most inveterate yaoi fangirl seems weirdly eager to point out. While it is about as easy to interpolate sex between Ash and Eiji as it is between Starsky and Hutch, the series itself, like S&H, is careful to steer clear of even implied sex. It's just really slashy, in other words. Nonetheless, it's a romance, and it plays pretty liberally with titillating readers: it has the obligatory fake kiss scene, the random sexy drawings that aren't actually part of the story, etc. More to the point, Ash and Eiji are the loves of each other's lives, and romantic or platonic, there's no doubt about that. Thus, Banana Fish rests clearly in a tradition of homoerotic romance.

In Japanese BL, the mid-1980s-early 1990s were a kind of heyday for the strong, sexually abused uke leader. If the two giants of the era are Ai no Kusabi and Mirage of Blaze, Banana Fish deserves to stand with them. Indeed, it narrowly predates both, which makes me wonder about questions of influence. Riki, Kagetora, and Ash embody many of the same literary tropes.

Let's compare: Riki, Kagetora, and Ash are extremely strong and talented group leaders, who are also extremely good looking and, therefore, sexually harassed. All three are rape victims at some point in their careers. All three are damaged by it.

However, all three have very distinct relationships with their respective semes. Riki has a curious love/hate thing going on with Iason, whom the reader is encouraged to find sexy; this relationship displaces Riki's more normative romance with Guy. Kagetora and Naoe, of course, are the Grand Couple; most (but not all) of the sexual abuse Kagetora suffers is at the hands of others. Ash is in a different place. His seme is Golzine, whom he thoroughly detests and who is presented as a disgusting pervert for whom the reader should feel no desire at all. Ash's love interest, conversely, is not notably a sexual partner of any type. Thus, Banana Fish entirely lacks the non-con aspects of the other two. Here, rape is rape and is never titillating.

All this leaves us with the question of what to do with Eiji. If Ash and Eiji are a sort of a BL couple, Eiji stereotypically maps to uke: he is smaller, more helpless, and embodies more feminine virtues: compassion, support, caretaking, etc. (though he is older than Ash, so whichever way you slice it, they are breaking at least one of the yaoi rules). But if Eiji is an uke (metaphorically if not literally), he is uke to an uke, which illustrates an oft-made point: that Banana Fish throws away the yaoi rule book.

Our three ukes are also all different types of leaders. Of the three, Ash is the "best," in terms of being most natively suited to leading others. Ash and Kagetora have many similarities as leaders: both are highly conscientious and care deeply for the individuals under their command. Thus, both command a high degree of loyalty and trust. Both are good tacticians and strong fighters in person, though both are also prone to self-destructive behaviors that sap their strength. Their personalities are similar. I have previously argued for Kagetora as an INFJ, and I tend to type Ash as an ENFJ, a type that excels in leadership. In this reading, Kagetora is disadvantaged by his introversion. A leader needs to mix with his people; this costs Kagetora a lot of energy and results in his spending a great deal of his life in a state of exhaustion. To be sure, Ash also spends a great deal of his life overwhelmed, but he is not overwhelmed by socializing. He is intrinsically comfortable around other people. Though he is also comfortable spending time alone, he mixes easily with many friends and roommates and is thoroughly at home in their company.

Riki is the odd man out here. Of the three, he is the only one whose leadership is predicated on partnership. Riki is most assuredly charismatic, intelligent, courageous, dangerous, driven, etc., but he would not have shaped Bison into the strongest gang in Ceres without Guy to be the glue. Riki does not have exceptional people skills; his powers of empathy and conscience are not far above average. He is a very impressive person, but he lacks somewhat the native connection to people that defines the other two as phenomenal leaders.

All three figures inhabit different stories with different configurations. All three are unique characters. Yet all three are situated within a narrative mode that seeks to lionize the strength of the sexually objectified and abused. Thus, all three exemplify a discourse within BL that is strongly (metaphorically) concerned with women's empowerment.
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