Summer 2018’s Banana Fish is a down-and-dirty gangster anime, based on the 1985 manga of the same name. It’s set in the underground gang world of New York City and follows the exploits of young punk Ash Lynx as seen through the eyes of Eiji, a Japanese rookie journalist who falls into his messy life.
It’s pretty rare for an anime to show a complex view of America, rather than just having one or two stereotypical foreigners show up as background characters. But here, they’re the main characters, with their own struggles and relationships and goals. So let’s take this opportunity to explore how Banana Fish portrays Americans from a Japanese point of view.
New York City in the 1980s
Banana Fish’s anime is set in 2018 (as shown by the clothing styles, smartphones, and the absence of the World Trade Center), but keeps the same seedy underground atmosphere of the ‘80s manga. And that was a smart decision, since New York City in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was just the right setting to represent lawlessness and desperation.
The Big Apple may look plasticky and squeaky clean now, but it was overrun with crime just a few decades ago. The 75th precinct in Brookyln was so violent that, on average, there was a murder every 63 hours. This was mostly caused by the rapid spread of drugs like crack cocaine, and led to a surge in gun ownership by criminals as well as regular citizens trying to protect themselves. The story of Ash Lynx, who was trafficked for underage sex by the mafia and trained himself with a gun in order to survive, fits into this era perfectly.
Transposing Banana Fish to 2018 still works, though. Even after the police put a stop to the crime wave by implementing better communications technology and cracking down on minor offenses to prevent bigger ones later on, New York City is still dangerous under the surface. In America’s largest city, it’s no wonder that these heinous crimes still happen – you just have to look harder to find them. And Banana Fish doesn’t shy away from showing every grim and gory detail for its Japanese audience to take in.
Friends From Different Worlds
If you look at the character America from Hetalia Axis Powers, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Japan stereotypically views Americans. Bighearted and driven, but also pretty oafish and tactless. Always clutching a hamburger, shouting at the top of their lungs, and demanding more firepower. And this is backed up by real data, too: a 2015 Pew study showed that Japanese people tend to think of Americans as inventive, but not particularly hardworking or honest.
It’s easy to see how Eiji got a preconceived notion in his head about how Ash and his gang would be flashy and unflappable. But once he experiences the eye-for-an-eye reality of how they live, he begins to understand why they carry guns in the first place. Ash even tells Eiji in episode 7 that he wishes he lived such a peaceful existence: “I envy you for not needing a gun in your life.” That boisterous, gun-crazy Hetalia version of America disappears once Eiji realizes that the real people who live there have complex reasons for being so different from him.
Of course, not everyone in America is a gun-toting badass with a heartbreaking backstory and a chip on their shoulder. But this hard-hitting gangster series aims to dismantle the standard Japanese stereotype of Americans by showing how real events and societal conventions can cause people to act a certain way. And once Ash and Eiji finally understand one another, they grow closer than ever.
Living in a relatively peaceful country with strict gun laws, Japanese people can have a hard time understanding Americans. Especially when compared to how violent New York City was when Banana Fish was first published, the two countries seem like polar opposites. But luckily, this anime gives a nuanced look at how these wildly different cultures can come together... and make a really cute boys love story underneath all of the gang warfare.
What do you think about American stereotypes in anime? Who’s your favorite anime foreigner character? Do you agree with how Banana Fish portrays the United States? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks so much for reading!