For Eiji— with Love and Squalor (Banana Fish first impressions)

“What happens to who?”

“The bananafish.”

“Oh, you mean after they eat so many bananas they can’t get out of the banana hole?”

“Yes,” said Sybil.

“Well, I hate to tell you, Sybil. They die.”

“Why?” asked Sybil.

“Well, they get banana fever. It’s a terrible disease.”

-an exchange between Seymour Glass and six year-old Sybil Carpenter, A Perfect Day for Banana Fish, J.D. Salinger

Feature writers are gifted with dialogue. Their task is to then craft a story around those words, which can be a blessing and a curse. How much should be left on the cutting room floor? Should you, the writer, become a narrator?

How much of yourself should you put in a feature?

The line between feature and fiction is often blurred. Authors of fiction draw on their own experiences. Their works are full of personal anecdotes and even when a writer tries to avoid taking a more personal tack their point of view will subconsciously bleed into their words.

What does this have to do with J.D Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish and Akimi Yoshida’s Banana Fish manga, or the recent anime adaptation?

What is a bananafish?

Novelist and short story author Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger was drafted into the United States military and served with the Army’s 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in World War II. Following the Normandy campaign, Salinger met with Earnest Hemingway, whose works had been influential on Salinger, en route to Germany. Throughout his time in the army, Salinger wrote and was featured in The Saturday Evening Post. He continuously submitted short stories and poems to The New Yorker, which were rejected. Following the defeat of Germany, Salinger was hospitalized with combat stress reaction, often a precursor for post-traumatic stress disorder. Later in life, with the physical events of the war behind him, Salinger told his daughter that he could never rid himself of the small of burning flesh.

Although Salinger is best-known for the story of disaffected youth Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, many of his other works include fragments of his military experiences— Caulfield himself in later mentioned as missing in action in Salinger’s This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise. Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish was initially titled The Bananafish. It became his first published story at The New Yorker and follows war veteran Seymour Glass on the day of his suicide.

Both stifling and purposeful, the dialogue in A Perfect Day for Bananafish is smothering. What at first glance appears to be a meaningless conversation between Seymour’s wife, Muriel Glass, and her mother takes up half of the short story. It imbues Seymour’s conversation with Sybil with a creeping dread, and revisiting the conversation in an effort to solve the mystery of why Seymour did it only brings up off-handed mentions of what is likely post-traumatic stress disorder — Seymour’s reaction to Muriel’s grandmother passing away, something involving trees, and another incident with photographs from Bermuda. We read no interactions between Seymour and Muriel or his mother-in-law, although we see him through their eyes. Muriel takes on an optimistic or careless demeanor, as if acting that everything is normal while she and Seymour are on vacation will make his problems disappear. Her mother is actively suspicious of Seymour in a way that’s less empathic towards him and more scared for Muriel’s safety.

Banana Fish begins with Griffin Callenreese, a soldier in the U.S. military, who murders members of his own squad in a drug-induced frenzy. After he is incapacitated, he says two words, “Banana fish.” The series then cuts to his younger brother, 17 year-old gang leader “Ash Lynx” (Aslan Callenreese) in New York City as Ash meets with mafia boss (Papa) Dino Golzine, is selected for a magazine feature by Japanese photojournalist Shunichi Ible and his assistant, Eiji Okumura, and tries to solve the mystery of banana fish.

Correlations between Salinger’s Glass family and Banana Fish‘s Callenreese brothers are readily apparent. Seymour, the eldest, is affected with PTSD and it leads to his suicide in A Perfect Day for Bananafish while younger brother Buddy Glass effectively becomes Salinger’s alter ego and is said to have written or narrated several of his short stories, especially those involving the Glass family. Like Seymour, Griffin is described as a poet and intellectual and much of his personality is given to us from close acquaintances or family like Max Glenreed and Ash. However, Ash also shares a lot of qualities with Seymour himself, particularly his general distrust or disgust in other people and his personal draw towards the innocent or genuine, like Eiji. Despite remarkable street sense and intuition, there’s a sense that Ash wants to rediscover his own innocence or trust in others. In Banana Fish‘s first episode, he gives a guileless Eiji his gun in an unprecedented display of trust, and their relationship only grows from there thanks to Eiji’s own resolve, reminding Ash and us as the viewing audience that genuinely believing in others doesn’t mean helplessness.

The bulk Seymour’s dialogue in A Perfect Day for Bananafish is with a six year-old child, Sybil Carpenter. Seymour is shown to be standoffish and rude towards other adults, but willingly opens up to Sybil, to whom he tells the story of the bananafish: a fish so gluttonous, it swims into a hole with a lot of bananas, eats as many as possible, and then is too large to leave the hole, dying from what Seymour calls “banana fever.” The bananafish has been said to be a stand-in for many things, including general gluttony, materialism/consumerism, and depression as the shadow of Seymour’s death is cast upon re-reading the story.

Although the question of why Griffin shot his squadmates hangs over Ash’s actions in Banana Fish, mirroring Seymour a bit, it’s worth reiterating that Ash has a lot in common with Seymour as well. He is surrounded by gluttonous people, like Dino, and was presumably sold to Dino as a child prostitute at a young age. Ash tries to use this to his advantage as much as possible, going as far as to allow himself to be raped in prison in order to get a message out to Eiji. Understandably, Ash doesn’t like to be touched by others and this is mentioned whenever anyone besides Eiji reaches out, similar to Seymour’s final conversation, where he berates a woman in the elevator for looking at his feet. Eiji is the exception, and if there is a way out of Dino’s clutches for Ash, Eiji will certainly be involved.

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