illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000 digital 
illustration (c) Josť Villarrubia 2000
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By Christopher Butcher.

Banana Fish Volume 1
Creator: Akimi Yoshida
English Adaptation: Yuji Oniki
192 Pages, Black & White
Published by Viz Communications Inc., 1998
$15.95 US / $21.50 Cdn

Stop me if you've heard this before.

In Japan, the comic industry is much healthier and more diverse. There are a multitude of formats, genres, and stories, and everything is much better and more interesting. These are, from my point of view, all true things. Because, as far as I'm concerned, the Japanese comic publishing industry is the only place that something like BANANA FISH could have gotten published, and I'm very glad it did.

Published in North America as part of the mature readers manga anthology PULP, BANANA FISH is a crime thriller. With homosexual overtones. Yes, you read that right. Finally, what gays have been asking for for years, stories that feature Gay Characters in prominent roles that just aren't about being Gay, but also don't ignore the gay parts of their personality. WILL & GRACE is nice, QUEER AS FOLK is better. But something that had openly gay characters living their lives while being moved through another story? How great would that be? It would be as great as BANANA FISH is.

BANANA FISH is about a the terrible secret of a Vietnam Vet named Griffin, and the horrible price his experimentation with a drug named Banana Fish takes on him, and his younger brother Ash. After a psychotic episode in Vietnam, Griffin is transferred back to America where Ash takes care of him. Despite being left in a near catatonic state, he will still mutter the mysterious phrase "Banana Fish", leaving Ash baffled.

Meanwhile, Ash is a street youth, and the leader of a gang of other kids. An expert marksman who leads through "his flair and good looks...", Ash deals with local Mafia boss "Papa" Dino Golzine, running his protection rackets. When a man who is on the run from Golzine's men ends up whispering a cryptic message before dying in his arms, Ash begins to pull back the layers of history surrounding Banana Fish, and the layers of history regarding his own, tortured history with Golzine.

Banana Fish is an incredibly compelling piece of work, right from the first sequence. Though at times the story can veer towards either stereotypes or cliches, generally it stays on track as a gritty, realistic crime drama. More importantly, you begin to really feel for the characters throughout, and though that feeling is often revulsion and pity, it still makes for a compelling read. Of particular note was that while this story was serialized in it's original telling in Japan, and in it's original North American presentation in PULP, the book doesn't read as a collection of scenes, but rather as a solid, flowing work. Too often it seems that manga collections are a series of short-stories, randomly collected into rougly-200 page trade paperbacks. Banana Fish avoids this by employing a cinematic pacing, and series of scene changes that move the story forward and leave you wanting more, rather than breaking the book into small chunks that make it easy to put down. One caveat though, some of the early scenes were translated in a very corny way, and strangely enough, in a surprisingly racist way. This clears up almost immediately, but it is jarring and surprising on Viz's part. I'm assuming that this was in an attempt at "realism", but it comes off as very crass and I would hope that it's something that they'll look at fixing in future printings of the book.

The cinematic feel is only enhanced by the truly outstanding artwork. The panel layout, framing, and rendering is all top-notch. Even a newcomer to comics, or manga in particular, won't be put off by this book. It contains some very clean, and beautifully rendered artwork. My only complaint is that the characters just look too similar to be easily distinguished. Particularly in the opening scene, where there were about four identical characters. Having read further in the series, I know this improves to the point where all of the main characters are easily recognizable, but in volume one at least I did some major double-takes on the artwork, trying to figure out why certain characters were switching sides from the police to the Mafia, and vice versa.

The gay under- and overtones are very subtle at first, eliciting reactions like "Did he just say that?", "Did he really mean that?", before coming to the forefront of the story and eliciting reactions like "Eww. Marvin is disgusting." But the story never gets bogged down in the themes and, just the opposite, those themes intertwine with the larger story and help to move the story forward (like all good character background and subplots should). Some of the work is uncomfortable, but in an NYPD Blue sort of uncomfortable, which is really high praise as far as I'm concerned.

So if you're a fan of Crime Fiction in comics form, whether that means SIN CITY, JINX, RED TIDE, or 100 BULLETS, make sure you check out BANANA FISH from Viz. Particularly if you're not a fan of manga; it'll change your opinion of manga from top to bottom.


Christopher Butcher is the Editor In Chief of PopImage.

PULP MAGAZINE - The online home of PULP, the anthology that publishes BANANA FISH.
PopImage Forum - Discuss this message at the PopImage forum.