Review: "Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail" Deserves to Be Followed
Black Lagoon is one of my favorite anime series, with its over-the-top aesthetic and blacker-than-black sense of humor masking a show of surprising depth. Black Lagoon: Roberta’s Blood Trail is the latest installation, released on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack last year by FUNimation. The last animated story arc, “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise,” was a sprawling epic whose reach occasionally exceeded its grasp. While I still think that arc is superb overall, there are still a few incidents that don’t make much sense, and the arc as a whole has the unique problem of feeling overlong while not volunteering anything obviously extraneous. While Roberta’s Blood Trail is deeply, tremendously compelling viewing with fewer head-scratching plot twists, it also has the same ambitious plot sprawl that it doesn’t quite live up to. This story arc will be far more satisfying to fans of the series, since it pulls in every major character from the show that’s still alive, while expanding on several earlier story arcs. It is definitely not a good introduction to the series, but despite its flaws, it is an excellent addition to it.
The Roberta of the title is the lethal bespectacled maid and former Latin American revolutionary soldier who figured prominently in the first series’ “Rasta Blasta” story arc. Her appearance in the deeply corrupt South Pacific city of Roanapur was in search of her “young master” Garcia Lovelace, who had been kidnapped by a South American drug cartel. At the start of “Roberta’s Blood Trail,” the operations of an American black ops team result in the death of Garcia’s father Diego, to whom Roberta had sworn her undying loyalty and whose kindness was sufficient to mostly domesticate the former revolutionary. His death causes her to abandon her post and take up arms again with the goal of hunting down the American commandos to exact a drug-addled revenge. The commandos have since been tasked with kidnapping a Laotian drug lord, and the tangled paths of organized crime mean this mission will soon entangle the Americans and Roberta with the major criminal organizations of Roanapur and other powerful forces. Roanapur faces a major bloodbath even by its corrupt standards, as conflicting interests soon lock all the players onto a lethal collision course where everyone loses. As usual, the Lagoon Company is caught in the middle, as Garcia Lovelace travels to Roanapur in an effort to recall Roberta, making a personal appeal to the Lagoon Company (and Rokuro “Rock” Okajima specifically) for assistance.
The anime makes a several diversions for the better from the manga source material, with the biggest centering on Rock, the meek Japanese salaryman who abandoned his unfulfilling career at the start of the series to join the Lagoon Company. In the original manga, Rock was largely a bystander nearly ground up by the bloody machinery he is trying to stop. The animated adaptation gives him a much more prominent position in the plot, expanding on his development from “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise” as he takes more definitive steps further into the shadowy underworld he has adopted. Much of his appeal in the past was rooted in his refusal to fully participate in the seedier side of life in Roanapur. While the teenaged yakuza boss of “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise” criticized him for refusing to choose between the light and the dark, the events of that story also proved that his outsider status defined his role in Roanapur and were also the major reason why he could navigate the more treacherous shoals of the criminal world. His actions (and lack of them) in “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise” figure prominently in this story, especially as he makes a fateful decision to take a more active role to prevent or limit the looming carnage. His decisions are rooted in the same fundamental decency he’s always shown, but the decisions he makes and their consequences are a marked shift from his earlier role, making him more interesting and less sympathetic at the same time. It’s a fascinating creative decision, even if (or maybe because) it makes it harder to consider him one of the few truly decent people on the show.
Like “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise,” “Roberta’s Blood Trail” largely sidelines the Lagoon Company itself, which also unfortunately includes Revy, the psychotic, big-busted killer in Daisy Dukes who is one of the show’s most compelling characters. While her relationship with Rock deepens a bit, she (along with Lagoon Company head Dutch and big brain Benny) serve in largely supporting roles in favor of the series’ cast of colorful side characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since these supporting characters have often been as interesting as the main characters in Black Lagoon. In addition to Roberta, Garcia, and Garcia’s new teenaged maid Fabiola, the story gives major roles to Mr. Chang, the charismatic head of the Triads; Miss Balalaika and the soldier/mobsters of Hotel Moscow; and to the American commando team itself, led by a veteran black operator named Major Caxton. As with the best Black Lagoon arcs, all the players reside in moral areas that go from gray to black, but almost all of them also have an odd sense of honor that keeps them from being truly despicable. Indeed, the deep, fundamental nobility of Major Caxton stands in stark contrast to the dirty dealings that he is willingly complicit in. Like Rock, Caxton’s noble motives may make his actions and their consequences even worse.
Like many of the earlier Black Lagoon story arcs, “Roberta’s Blood Trail” provides plenty of opportunity for action, but only one of them early on plays up the series’ trademark black humor. The rest are all deadly serious, despite being completely over-the-top and unbelievable from a strict realism perspective. The bulk of the action is reserved for an extended running gun battle through the streets of Roanapur that stretches through the bulk of two episodes, and involving six different armed factions all operating at cross-purposes with each other. It’s an ostentatiously ambitious set piece, where it’s not a criticism to point out that it occasionally stumbles because it’s really pretty amazing that it works at all. The action choreography shares the same “too much is never enough” aesthetic as the rest of the series, and it’s all brought to beautiful kinetic life by Madhouse’s stunning animation. Perhaps even better than the Roanapur gun battle is the climactic fight that follows, as Roberta faces off against the Americans in a tense and ugly confrontation in a Southeast Asian jungle, largely viewed in shadow and the sickly green hue of night-vision goggles.
As an adaptation, “Roberta’s Blood Trail” carries over some of the flaws of the original while making a few significant improvements. As mentioned, the story can sometimes get too big and complicated for its own good, and multiple viewings can be required to keep track of which faction is shooting at who and why. Like many of Black Lagoon‘s story arcs, “Roberta’s Blood Trail” also seems like it shouldn’t take as long as it does to get where it’s going and that it’s drawing out some story elements longer than they should, but hindsight also makes it difficult to pinpoint any one specific excess that should have been cut. The anime adds a wonderful scene at the start of the arc that re-establishes important characters and relationships and also manages to add more depth to the relationship between Rock and Revy. Curiously, one major revelation involving Dutch is dropped in the anime, though it’s entirely incidental to this plot and I have no idea if it has played out further in the manga. As much as I like the manga, I also think Rei Hiroe’s action staging can be chaotic and hard to follow. The anime shows much more skill at blocking and staging the action, ensuring it’s more comprehensible while maintaining the chaotic sense of combat. Then again, the kinetic action scenes seem more suited to a moving media anyway. It’s also a relatively small thing, but the staging of the covert op in Venezuela is staged very differently in the manga and the anime. The manga dedicates a two-page spread to a bomb blast, while the anime plays it understated by viewing the incident through a spotter’s scope. While the manga’s version is an action movie cliché, the anime quietly underscores the banality of evil and is a nice visible demonstration that something that looks small from a distance can be absolutely devastating on the ground.
FUNimation has released Black Lagoon: Roberta’s Blood Trail as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, with both media packing the full 5 episodes on a single disc. The Blu-ray is excellent, with a solid encoding and full 1080p high definition transfer, along with Dolby TrueHD soundtracks in 5.1 for the English track and 2.0 for the Japanese. Like the original series, I have to give the English dub the edge, making this an anime series that may be better in the dub than it is in the original Japanese. Part of the reason is that so many of the characters seem like they should be speaking English; no matter how good a job Tsutomu Isobe may do as Dutch in the original, a Japanese actor imitating a black man just isn’t going to be as convincing as an actual black man like Dean Redman. The translation and the acting are also top-notch, with the original production crew and cast from the original Ocean Studios dub returning. It’s amazingly great to hear the band getting back together, even if Cathy Weseluck’s voice as Garcia Lovelace is a bit too close for comfort to her performance as Spike the dragon in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Along those lines, I’m both amused and impressed that Tabitha St. Germain is both Rarity in My Little Pony and Roberta the killer maid here (and Martha the talking dog on the PBS show Martha Speaks). I’m a little non-plussed at the fact that subtitles are locked to the Japanese soundtrack, and can’t be turned on to compare the translation of the script in English. This is also not a disc to turn to for extras, since those are limited to a textless closing for the closing credits and trailers.
Regardless of any criticism I have to offer, Roberta’s Blood Trail is an incredibly compelling addition to the Black Lagoon saga. I’d even say the fact that I couldn’t quite decide if I liked the series was one of the tipping factors that made me decide I did. Under its crude, vulgar, lowest-common-denominator exterior, Black Lagoon has always provided a surprising amount of food for thought, and Roberta’s Blood Trail provides a good deal more than you’d expect to mull over.
Now is as good a time as any to briefly note that the original Black Lagoon series was released last year as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, and is easily the release of choice if you don’t already own the series. The set contains all 24 episodes spread across 4 DVDs and 3 Blu-rays, along with all the extras released on the original Geneon Special Edition DVDs and then the FUNimation re-releases. Although the box says the transfer is 1080p HD native, the transfer is a little inconsistent, revealing visible color banding and even occasional scenes that reveal ugly, pixel-heavy, and jagged line work that’s still visible from the couch. However, the occasional video hiccup is a small price to pay for an otherwise sterling high-definition transfer of an excellent series.