(Content Warning: homophobic slurs and spoilers for major plot points throughout the Banana Fish manga, including discussion of rape and childhood sexual abuse.)
Ask readers about their favorite gay couples in comics and you might get any number of responses: Wiccan and Hulking, Batwoman and Renee Montoya, and Midnighter and Apollo, just to name some of the heavy hitters. My favorite is a pair who never use the words “boyfriend” or “husband” and who only kiss on panel once, but whose relationship is nonetheless the most affecting portrayal of intimacy between men I’ve ever seen in fiction.
I’m talking about Ash Lynx and Eiji Okumura from Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish. The series ran for ten years starting in 1985 and stars Ash, a New York City gang leader with a history of rape and sexual abuse going back to his early childhood. At the start of the manga he meets Eiji, a photographer and assistant to Shunichi Ibe, a Japanese journalist who’s come to America to report on American gang violence.
Equally important to where the two boys start geographically, and in terms of social standing, is where they both stand emotionally. Ash is closed off, distrustful, sharp to a fault, and scarily competent for someone so young. Eiji is also nursing emotional problems of his own as he tries to make a new life for himself after his old status quo as an athlete fell apart following an injury. Nonetheless, Eiji is more outwardly friendly than Ash, and has an air of innocence and emotional authenticity that Ash has long had beaten out of himself.
Toward the end of volume one, Ash’s gang’s hideout comes under fire and the pair finds themselves trapped in an alley with a seemingly insurmountable wall blocking their path as danger looms closer. Luckily, there’s a conveniently placed metal pole. Eiji used to be a competitive pole vaulter, and he still has it in him to try one desperate jump over the wall (with no mat or protection of any sort on the other side) in order to run to find help.
Later on in the manga, Ash remarks that this was the first time anyone ever helped him without looking for something in return. This action is largely emblematic of their developing relationship as a whole. Eiji is consistently earnest and supportive of Ash in a way he’s never experienced. Ash, meanwhile, worries about putting Eiji in danger but nonetheless comes to care for him and slowly feels his walls crumbling even as his anxiety keeps him scared of the implications.
One of the most striking examples of this comes in a pivotal scene from volume seven, where Ash and Eiji have their first real conversation about about Ash’s history of being sexually abused. The discussion by extension covers Ash’s history of physical violence and killing in self-defense, and Ash’s emotional reaction: disgust at himself because he seems to feel nothing. Eiji, emotionally intuitive and caring as he is, is Ash’s peak supporter. He points out how Ash is hurting regardless of his negative self-image, and it’s here that we get the first of several moments that are effectively love confessions:
Following Eiji’s bold declaration, Ash rests his head upon Eiji’s lap and asks the other boy to stay with him for the time being, though he won’t ask for forever. Eiji simply smiles and says “Forever” and he lets Ash rest up against him. This scene, with Ash laying bare his emotional damage and Eiji reacting not with revulsion but with love and acceptance, is a critical point in the series. It sets the blueprint for how the pair will continue to interact throughout, with Ash continuing to struggle with his traumas and feelings of self-loathing while Eiji does his best to pull Ash back from the brink and to be an uplifting presence in his life.
The physicality of the scene is also important. Due to his history of abuse Ash has difficulty being touched by others, but in select moments, he is able to begin working through that in his moments of emotional intimacy with Eiji. Banana Fish is not a series where a gay couple is less sexual or emotionally forthcoming due to censorship; rather, it is specifically a slow build of the relationship between two men learning to come together despite trauma and internalized homophobia.
This coming together is beautifully depicted throughout the series in the pair’s domestic life, when they move into an apartment that serves as Ash’s base of operations throughout all the gang warfare and government conspiracy (this is a crime drama, after all). The pair find themselves butting heads at times as well as teasing each other gently and not so gently. This, too, is a form of emotional intimacy that Ash has never had before. As a result of withdrawing within himself and having been surrounded by adults who either abused him or did nothing to stop said abuse, Ash has never had anyone he can simply joke around with and play pranks on. This, too, is a daily comfort and form of healing, one that even encompasses ridiculous shenanigans like this:
I also want to specifically address the language used to describe the pair’s relationship. The most frequently used term, both by other characters as well as by Ash and Eiji themselves, is “friend.” Now, there are certainly contexts where this term could be viewed as reductive: family members refusing to acknowledge a gay relative’s romantic partner for what they are, for instance. Calling a gay couple friends is offensive when the term is used to flatten or deny their intimacy. That’s not what’s happening here at all, however. There’s not a single character in Banana Fish who uses the word in such a context. Here, its usage speaks to the time in which the story takes place and to the context of the characters’ relationship as they learn to love each other even if they don’t use the same words that we might now use to describe them more brazenly.
When Ash and Eiji describe each other as friends, and specifically as the best friends each of them has ever had, I’m reminded of the historical romantic use of the word. For example, Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” suite of poems from Leaves of Grass. It doesn’t take years of literary analysis training to realize that the friend mentioned in “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” isn’t a platonic relation to the speaker. Likewise, the titular couple in “We Two Boys Together Clinging” doesn’t need to be more specifically defined for the context to still illuminate what they are over a century later (hence, why the poem’s opening lines are tattooed on my shoulder).
Nostalgia may not be exactly the right word, but it’s at least in the ballpark of what the language used in Banana Fish elicits. I am emotionally invested in gay history, partially because I have been around long enough to be openly gay across what already feel like entirely different eras. Ash and Eiji’s use of language makes sense given the time in which it was written (over a decade before gay marriage was solidified as the one queer cause that an entire liberation movement would be reduced to in the public eye). To put an even finer point on it, the manga began and takes place during the Reagan and early AIDS era, one marked by willful government mishandling of the disease that was tantamount to genocide.
Given the fact that Ash and Eiji grow to love each other in that societal context, it’s unsurprising that they don’t immediately declare themselves to be formally dating and start checking off the boxes of Modern Representation Standards. Not to mention, their own internalized homophobia may not be delved into explicitly all that often, but it still exists as a force on the page. It lessens over time, but we do get some exchanges like this:
In this series full of beautiful language surrounding gay love, some of the most potent comes at the end. Eiji is preparing to fly back to Japan and hasn’t seen Ash in days, partially due to physical circumstances and actual danger, and partly due to Ash’s internalized complex that he has to stay away from Eiji for Eiji’s own good. Eiji writes a letter to Ash detailing his feelings, which he then has his friend Sing deliver. Ash, struggling with his feelings of shame while also desperately wanting to see Eiji, reads the letter and we the reader learn what it says as he does. Along with acknowledging all the pain Ash has been through, Eiji states his thoughts and emotions as plainly as he knows how.
How much more forthright can a love letter get? I won’t delve further into spoiler territory, because I don’t want to give everything away, but I cannot overstate the emotional impact Banana Fish has had on me. For months after first finishing it, I couldn’t even think about either ending (there’s the actual series conclusion as well as an epilogue short story titled “Garden of Light”) without ugly-crying.
Ultimately, Ash and Eiji’s relationship and Banana Fish as a whole exist at a unique junction of genre, era, and context that nonetheless feels timeless and just as relevant now as it did 30 years ago. Language evolves and the specific homophobes in power change, but Banana Fish depicts a resolve that continues to endure: queer people living, loving each other as boldly and warmly for as long as they can and with what words they can grasp from a world that would rather they weren’t able to speak at all.
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