Despite having a reputation in the west as ‘those violent cartoons’, anime in recent years has tended to scale back its more bloody excesses, partly due to Japan’s tightening of censorship laws and partly due to the decline of the direct-to-video OVA market. Black Lagoon, however, bucks this trend so gleefully, you’d think it was doing it on purpose. And it probably is, as this sharply written, shockingly brutal and impressively stylish show is a textbook example of something that’s a lot smarter than it looks.
Our setup is simple but surprisingly resonant – Japanese salaryman Rokuro Okajima is on a business trip delivering a parcel in the South China Sea, when his ship is attacked and he is kidnapped by the crew of the pirate ship Black Lagoon. They’re made up of Dutch, the cool, calm and collected captain of the vessel, violent and tempestuous gunwoman Revy, and the friendly, nerdish Benny. After helping the crew out of a tight spot, and realising how little his stuffed-shirt bosses back in Tokyo value his life, Rokuro decides to abandon his former existence and join up with the crew, taking the name ‘Rock’. Together the four operate as a motley band of mercenaries out of the fictional port city of Roanapur (supposedly somewhere in Thailand), a haven for thugs, lowlives and gangsters.
We should probably address the content first, because it’s pretty much impossible to ignore. Suffice it to say, this isn’t a show for kids – violence is graphic, continuous and often spectacularly over the top. But to suggest the show is just an endless parade of gun porn is to do it a disservice. Instead it possesses a fantastic sense of style, embracing its exploitative roots to produce something reminiscent of 70′s grindhouse cinema. Animation, supervised by famed studio Madhouse, is generally great and the fights feel incredibly dynamic, as well as reassuringly brutal. There’s few anime that manage to convey the sting of bullets or the flash of a knife as well as this one.
In such a mad, mad world, it’s lucky we have such a great cast of characters to anchor us in place. Rock is a great protagonist, an essential connector to the audience because he’s basically a proxy for us – a normal person thrown into a violently out of control world that he has no idea how to handle. He’s definitely the meek one, but crucially he’s no pushover or scaredy cat – when the chips are down he’ll come through with the smart idea or the unexpected attack. Co-star Revy is a little more complicated, but surprisingly deeper than the psychotic sex-bomb her initial appearances suggest. Her antagonistic relationship with Rock is one of the series’ strongest, and despite often standing as his ideological opposite it’s clear they value each other a lot, and the subtlety of their relationship adds a great deal to the story. Dutch and Benny receive a little less focus, but there’s still time for the show to flesh them out and show us sides of them that wouldn’t be first apparent, and through it all the strong bond between the crew shines through. This strong character work is one of the things that lift the show beyond a mere bullets ‘n’ boobs distraction.
The same applies equally to the villains, who are a superb bunch, full of all the larger than life craziness you’d expect. From gangs of neo-Nazis through to gun wielding nuns and housemaids packing more weaponry than a SWAT team, every bad guy the Lagoon crew face off against is an instantly memorable opponent. But while the show often goes for all-out silliness, it’s equally likely to ask searching questions of the villains. The criminal underworld in Black Lagoon is a murky, morally ambiguous place, and a running theme throughout the show is the nature of being a ‘bad guy’, especially since our heroes aren’t exactly squeaky clean either. The show demonstrates intelligence and a strong use of its early 90′s setting here, often giving the bad guys histories linked to greater conflicts and political disputes, such as the Afghan-Soviet War or the FARC uprising. These people are often damaged mentally and emotionally, and while their villainy is never in question, these suggestions that they have been hurt by others adds considerable emotional tension to their battles with the Lagoon crew.
Black Lagoon then is often attempting to juggle two almost entirely different tones, one a cheesy, gross-out action flick and the other a more sombre look at the criminal lifestyle. At its best these two mesh well into an enjoyable experience, but they can also sit a little uncomfortably alongside each other. This gives Black Lagoon an inconsistency that can be a little difficult to accept, but can also enhance its more powerful moments. Perhaps the most striking example of this comes with the twin assassins Hansel and Gretel, who appear in episodes 13-15. These two child killers look like they’ve been ripped from a darling moe anime, but instead they represent the show’s darkest hour, as it unleashes a truly disturbing story of torture, abuse and madness that will make the blood run cold. It’s a moving, powerful example of the show daring to go to the dark places behind its cartoon villains, but it can be a little difficult to reconcile such horror with the same series that ramped a boat into a helicopter. At the same time, this contrast of styles does much to make the show what it is, and whether you find it effective or incongruous will probably vary. It’s arguable, and probably true, that the show is trying as much as possible to make you uncomfortable, and this is just one way it achieves that. Just be warned this is an adult show in more than just the obvious ways.
The aforementioned Madhouse produced animation ably keeps up with the pace most of the time, though there are a few quality drops here and there, while the South China Sea makes for a pleasingly different environment. The Japanese audio is a decent effort but I for one watched as much as possible in the excellent English dub, which offers pitch perfect voice acting and a well rewritten script which remains mostly faithful to the original while smoothing out some linguistic rough edges and peppering in some delightfully salty language. There are no extras included on the six disc set here, but it’s worth pointing out that this box contains both the original series and followup The Second Barrage, for a complete 24 episodes.
Black Lagoon is a shining example of what anime can achieve at its best. Bursting with style, attitude and flair, but also delving deeper beneath the surface to explore the forces that drive its characters and the lengths they go to. Its occasional tonal inconsistency comes when it can’t quite marry those two halves together, but the fact that it tries and succeeds most of the time is a testament to its quality. I’d go so far as to call it essential viewing for any fan of the medium.
Black Lagoon is available to order now on Amazon as a complete DVD boxset and will be available as two season Blu-ray boxsets on 30th July.