Reviews of Black Lagoon (2006) and related work
Black Lagoon (2006)
Seen in 2020.
In the 1990s, a junior Japanese salaryman is taken hostage by a small team of expat US mercenaries near Thailand. Betrayed by his company and declared dead, he joins them: Chinese-American street thug Revy, African-American ex-Marine Dutch, and Benny, the laid-back part-Jewish mechanic. They do odd jobs as pirates, plunderers and foils of the world’s mafia, intelligence and terrorist organizations, operating out of the fictional Thai city of Roanapur.
A seinen action adventure, complete with neo-Nazi buffoons. Paying tribute to US action cinema, Black Lagoon was a hit in the USA. The lyrics to the kitsch eurodisco song of the opening credits are in bad English. As in Outlaw Star (1998), even the commercial-break “eyecatch” comes with the sound of a shot, but here it’s inconsistent.
The plot is serialized across a few episodes at a time and the characters are all adults, but as in US genre action—in its contemporary post-9/11 state—life is cheap for ordinary thugs and the main characters have little depth, including a general lack of weaknesses, stakes and insecurities. The gloriously ominous closing credits sequence promises something more, and Revy’s gloom deepens accordingly in episode 6. Instead, we get Roberta, the ex-FARC maid gun bunny, which is not an improvement.
Something a bit darker closes the series: A Japanese Red Army veteran whose black-helmeted coup never happened in the student revolt under Okamoto Tarō’s “Tower of the Sun” instead plays a major role in a communist plot to bomb a US embassy and escalate to killing the US president. The veteran, Takenaka, sees right through the junior salaryman and escapes unscathed to continue his life as an “enemy of the state”, under the cover identity of a more senior Japanese businessman. Like Roberta, Takenaka seems disillusioned and maddened by his life for the ideology, but like Adrian Veidt, he’s no Republic serial villain.
In general, the tone of Urobuchi’s writing is indicative of Japan’s peaceful society. The extremely violent personal backgrounds—even Takenaka’s—are fantasies, stylized for a kind of dark glamour well outside the writer’s and viewer’s ranges of experience. I doubt Urobuchi actually had anything to say about Nazism or communism as they exist in the real world. Granted, there is more depth here than in Hard-Boiled (1992), but the TV-budget action sequences are uglier.
‣ Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage (2006)
Seen in 2020.
“More badass motherfuckers than a supermax prison.”
A second one-cour season. The production was separated from the original only by the fall season of 2006—when the show was off the air—and a new subtitle. The creative talent is the same, the opening and ending credits sequences are the same, and there are callbacks to the first season. The content, however, is a bit different. There are only three storylines: An hour on two abused orphans from Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania, an hour on counterfeiters and Revy’s friend Eda’s “Rip-Off Church”, and finally two whole hours on a single job in Japan.
The counterfeiter story is light-hearted to the point that it features the Lagoon Company battling a wide variety of shōnen-style roughnecks with implausible gimmicks, including one who only uses a chainsaw and one who only uses flamethrowers, even when this makes no sense, such as when they face conventional guns on a fast-moving boat. The other two stories are substantially darker. The one about the Romanian orphans, who are conditioned to enjoy killing as an alternative to rape in pedophile snuff films, is so drimdark that the show elegizes the pair with a special ending sequence, where they take the place of Revy on the beach. Because this plays after they’re both dead, it implies Revy is similarly doomed, which is indeed her belief. The last arc, which almost excludes Dutch and Benny, finally delivers on the menace of the ending sequence: It has Balalaika murdering strangers en masse in Japan, switching sides just for money, and pulling a gun on Rock, who is forced to face his own hypocrisy as the fresh-faced, white-shirted, unarmed assistant to a bunch of raging assholes who are obviously causing nothing but misery.
There are two scenes on a Japanese playground where Revy teaches four young boys about guns. She speaks English, which they don’t understand. In their first meeting, she puts on a show—like the counterfeiter arc itself—until she shows them how people actually fall when they’re shot and killed. In their second meeting, she terrifies them. These two scenes use characters to stand in for real people, as when an alien boy plays with the robots of The Transformers (1984). The Japanese boys playing with Revy are both the makers and the audience of Black Lagoon: People who are basically ignorant and peaceful, having no real association with “badasses”, but fascinated by violence as a show and violence in the abstract.
Yukio’s challenge to Rock’s conscience, his response and the symbolic playground all occur in the last arc of this, the original TV run, which is highly appropriate and brings a sense of closure. They are more satisfying than Takenaka’s appearance in the first season. However, rather than resolving the paradoxes of the show, these reflections do just a bit more than hang a lampshade on the self-contradictory foibles of seinen action. Even in the last story arc, there’s a yakuza swordsman who lives by samurai-style jingi and can’t handle guns but can cut a bullet in mid air (episode 10), which is precisely the sort of romantic bullshit those kids on the playground would love to see. It is the same with the Romanians, Gothic lolitas who can apparently fire an M1918 BAR while running and dodging bullets. Though their deaths are a lot less romantic, the paradoxes remain.
The visual aspect is still somewhat dull, but there is a kind of maturity to the sequel. It has more neat touches than the first season. Episode 1 starts with the Romanians debating whether to attribute a quote to Edgar Allan Poe or Richard Matheson. The “Rip-Off Church” in episode 4, though it has the most nonsensical shootout on the show, manages to refer to something so obscure as Beit Shemesh, probably alluding to 1 Samuel 6:19. Episode 6 has a better depiction of hacking than $100M Hollywood movies, and episode 7 shows what made such an unusual production possible before international streaming: One of the wooden prayer tablets pegged up at a fair reads ｢ＤＶＤがもっと売れますように｣, “I pray we’ll sell more DVDs”.
‣ Black Lagoon: Roberta’s Blood Trail (2010)
Seen in 2020.
Roberta’s Blood Trail was presented by Netflix as a third season of the show, and it did air on Japanese TV back in 2010. However, it has the marks of an old-fashioned OVA. The animation is better, the violence is much more graphic, and there’s some sex, just not of a pornographic fan-service variety. It is dark stuff, like the Romanian twins, including strongly implied childhood rape of Revy, which I hear is absent from the original comic.
Darkest of all, and deliciously serialized from the 2006 productions, is a substantial and logical change in Rock’s character, which you don’t see in otherwise similar US action cinema. The slightly tweaked character design and voice work carry that change tremendously well and the resolution of his arc is suitably pathethic. Less fortunately and as the subtitle implies, the plot centers on Roberta the ex-FARC maid, a nonsensical character in a largely nonsensical overarcing plot. Roberta’s power level is too high, and her battles too many.
As of 2020, further productions in this plot continuity are unlikely, which is fine. There’s closure for Roberta, but not for the Lagoon Company. As in the last half of Second Barrage, Dutch and Benny are barely in this one. More than a brief, exploitative glimpse of Revy’s backstory, and theirs, would have been nice, but it’s hard to imagine a more fitting end than disaster, and not much point in showing it.