Friday, November 30, 2012

Banana Fish: Volume 1

by Akimi Yoshida, 191 pages

1973, Vietnam.  An American soldier inexplicably turns his gun on his fellow soldiers, killing several before he's shot by his best friend.  And the only clue he offers for his mindless rampage?  The mumbled phrase, "Banana Fish."

Fast-forward to 1985, New York.  Eiji Okumura, a young photographer from Japan, arrives with his senior, journalist Shunichi Ibé, to gather information for an article on youth gangs.  Using their contacts in the police department, Eiji and Shunichi set up a meet with a well-known local gang leader, Ash Lynx.  A decent enough young man ground tough by years of abuse and privation at the hands of his "patron"--sleazy crime boss, Papa Dino Golzine--Ash has developed deadly aim and a bleak outlook at odds with his pretty face; but he's good to those loyal to him, and his band of street kids look up to him.  Jealousy has turned a few of his boys against him, however, and when he stumbles on something bigger than his crew's usual small-time crime and lands on the wrong side of the powerful Golzine, Ash's enemies join forces to get back what he took, find out what he knows, and then take him out, starting with an assault on the gang's favorite hang-out.  Unfortunately for Eiji, that's just when he and Shunichi are sitting down for a chat with their wary subject.

This classic genre-blender (it's a shojo series written for older teen girls, but with enough bloody action to appeal to shonen's intended audience of boys) has been on my to-read list forever, so I'm excited to finally jump in.  The art is very eighties, with the mustaches and headbands to prove it, but you don't care because the story is complex and mysterious, the characters well-defined and intriguing, and the sparks between them--be they the kind that lead to gang wars or soul-deep bonds--effective.  The plot moves smoothly from jungle to precinct office to street corner to warehouse to prison and everywhere in between, leaving clues, adding personalities, and building a mystery as it goes.  The series doesn't tiptoe around sensitive subjects, like child prostitution, rape, murder, abortion, and drugs, but it doesn't sensationalize them, either, and while the language can get colorful, the in-panel violence isn't gratuitously graphic.  It all serves the story, builds the characters, and pushes the plot forward.  There's enough humor--among the kiddos, the cops, Eiji and Shunichi--to bring some levity to the proceedings, too, so as dark as it can be it never feels oppressively so.  Besides, it's hard to take some of those party shirts too seriously.  :P  I'm hooked already and look forward to reading more as it all plays out according to creator Yoshida's carefully-laid plans.

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