"Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage" – Stories Like This Don’t Have Happy Endings
“I’m sorry, but stories like this don’t have happy endings, Rock.”
If Cowboy Bebop is the anime equivalent of a sly, sexy come-on from the coolest human being you have ever seen, then Black Lagoon is the equivalent of a punch in the face from a brash, abrasive biker. Cowboy Bebop, with its impeccable sense of style and characterization and its easy melding of Western and Japanese influences, was the gateway into anime for an entire generation. Black Lagoon isn’t quite as overtly stylish, but it can easily match Cowboy Bebop for characterization and accessibility. It also features blood-soaked, adrenaline-laced action sequences that venture well into R-rated territory, and a dark sense of humor that pushes past black comedy into superblack. The three volumes of Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage contain the full second season of the series, and they make for wonderfully dark viewing.
Black Lagoon‘s lead character is Rokuro “Rock” Okajima, who in the show’s first season abandoned his office job for a life as a modern-day pirate with the Lagoon Company. His colleagues include Revy, a bundle of hostility in Daisy Dukes who can only seem to express herself through violence; Benny, a relaxed computer nerd who serves as Lagoon’s technical expert; and Dutch, a Vietnam veteran who runs the company, selecting their jobs and piloting their PT boat. Their base of operations is the South Pacific city of Roanapur, a seedy cesspool of a town populated by a colorful array of criminal characters. In Roanapur everyone lives with the full knowledge that their lives are only a hair-trigger away from a messy end, and that messy end is more than likely to come as a stab in the back from an ostensible ally.
The Second Barrage begins with a deeply unsettling three-episode story, “The Vampire Twins Comen,” in which Roanapur nearly tears itself apart with the arrival of a psychotically murderous pair of child assassins named Hansel and Gretel. Between the children’s killing spree, the resulting gang war, and the actions of mercenaries and elite Russian mob troops hunting for the twins, it doesn’t take long for Roanapur to turn into a free-fire zone. Except for Revy, the story barely features the Lagoon Company at all, but rather focuses largely on Hansel and Gretel and, to a lesser extent, on Miss Balalaika, the scarred boss of the Russian mobs (a.k.a. Hotel Moscow). Most remarkable is the way the story manages to humanize all three of these characters, even as it depicts them committing cruel and inhumane atrocities. All three are monsters, but Black Lagoon is still able to show us the damaged human beings underneath. It’s the same trick that The Sopranos pulled off with Tony Soprano, at least early in the series. The quote that opens this review comes late in this story, and is both a fatalistic commentary on the on-screen actions and a meta-commentary on the arc and the series as a whole: the conclusion’s emotional impact isn’t any less powerful for being visible from a mile away. If anything, this sense of inevitability makes “The Vampire Twins Comen” even more tragic. Once these balls are set in motion, there’s only one way they can really fall no matter how the characters struggle.
After the emotionally draining arc of “The Vampire Twins Comen,” Black Lagoon takes a bit of a breather with the much less serious “Greenback Jane,” which begins on disc 1 and concludes on disc 2. The title character is a counterfeiter who seeks sanctuary at the doorstep of the Rip-Off Church after running afoul of her employers and fleeing for her life. After a dryly hilarious scene that has the Church staff firing thousands of bullets mostly out of hungover pique, Eda sets up a double-cross to blackmail Jane for cash, enlisting the help of Rock and Revy to pull off her scheme. Honestly, this is not Black Lagoon‘s finest hour, as we soon wish the incredibly annoying Jane would catch a few of the bullets aimed her way. Still, the arc allows the series to indulge in some truly fine hyperkinetic action scenes as a horde of Roanapur’s most bizarre bounty hunters converge on the Lagoon Company headquarters to try to claim the bounty on Jane’s head. The mayhem that ensues dominates the last two episodes of this story arc, managing some hilariously off-beat humor between gunshots. Much of this humor comes from the motley array of bounty hunters who join in, including the slinky, knife-wielding Shenhua (a.k.a. “Miss Chinglish”), who is hilarious in the English dub even though I should probably be offended by her thick, artificial Chinese accent. There’s also Sawyer the Cleaner, who speaks in a creepy monotone through an electronic voicebox and whose weapon of choice is a chainsaw, and Lawton the Wizard, whose affinity for florid introductions leads to a hilarious takedown late in the story. It says something that a corpulent, maniacally cheerful pyromaniac with a big flamethrower is probably the least flamboyant of the hired guns here.
But Black Lagoon‘s finest hour is “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise,” the final six-episode arc spread across half of disc 2 and all of disc 3. Rock is hired by Hotel Moscow to act as interpreter in negotiations with the Washimine yakuza clan, and this takes him back to his home city of Tokyo with Revy in tow as his bodyguard. The rival yakuza clans sense the Washimine clan’s weakness and seek to destroy it on the pretense that it has no hereditary leader, given that the only candidate for that position is Yukio, the former boss’s 16-year old daughter, who is more occupied with college entrance exams than organized crime. The Washimines plan to borrow Hotel Moscow’s muscle to force a peace with the other yakuza clans in return for expanded Hotel Moscow operations in Japan. Unfortunately, like most marriages of convenience, this one dissolves as soon as it is inconvenient, since Hotel Moscow soon senses a power vacuum waiting to be filled, and launches a full-scale, blood-soaked gang war that decimates both the Washimines and their rivals. This move forces Yukio to assume the mantle of leadership, with the massive, katana-wielding mob soldier Ginji the Manslayer rejoining gangster life as her bodyguard. In trying to extract Yukio from a life in organized crime, Rock is forced to question whether he truly belongs there himself and is ready to accept the consequences of such a life.
On some level, “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise” is little more than a collection of gangster story clichés, but it truly shines in the execution. The entire arc is marvelously staged on multiple levels, ranging from tense and meaningful intimate conversations to the few over-the-top action sequences, as well as for the whole, larger-scale story. It’s also surprisingly restrained, at least for Black Lagoon, with many of the more outlandish elements of the series toned downed to focus more squarely on the chess game of organized crime. Much of the show’s more uninhibited humor is removed, although a sequence when Revy teaches a group of Japanese kids how to shoot properly and demonstrates what really happens when a man is shot proves that the show’s dark sense of humor remains perfectly intact. The show even abandons Revy’s tank top and hot pants in favor of a more modest outfit. Indeed, the only wildly unrealistic figures are Yukio and Ginji, an unlikely teenage Bonnie and sword-swinging Clyde. As with “The Vampire Twins Comen,” the fact that we can foresee exactly where all the on-screen action is leading up to does not diminish the emotional power or depth of “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise.” In fact, it’s pretty clear that almost everyone is fully aware that “stories like this don’t have happy endings,” but the combination of obligation, honor, and self-interest means they can act in no other way. About the only one who truly tries to change the outcome is Rock, which gives the show a perfect chance to spotlight exactly why he doesn’t fit in with the seedy side of Roanapur, but also why his straddling of the light and the dark is exactly why he is able to survive.
Like Cowboy Bebop, Black Lagoon is often more enjoyable in the English dub than in the original Japanese soundtrack. Revy is a portrait of a profoundly damaged human being, and I find Maryke Hendriske’s grave, abrasive English performance more enjoyable than that of her Japanese voice actress, elevating her above fanboy fantasy and making her a truly compelling character. Further, although he doesn’t get much work in this season, Dean Redman IS Dutch. However, the use of language is important in “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise,” and many subtle meanings are changed or lost in the English dub as a result. On the Japanese soundtrack, the characters speak in Japanese, English (or at least a close approximation of it), and Russian, underscoring the theme of communication breakdown that drives the story arc. This subtle linguistic trick is lost when the English dub translates literally everything into English, and even radically reworks the meaning of a few scenes. In the Japanese soundtrack, the relationship between Revy and Ginji is highly ironic, since neither one can understand a word the other is saying, but they are the only characters who understand each other perfectly. However, the English dub makes it seem like Revy and Ginji are just using Rock as an intermediary for some unknown reason, and even eliminates one of Revy’s hilarious lines when they first meet. In an ideal world, the English soundtrack to “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise” would only dub the lines where people really are supposed to be speaking English, leaving the yakuza and Rock to speak in subtitled Japanese and the gangsters of Hotel Moscow to occasionally speak in Russian.
Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage was one of the last titles licensed and prepared by Geneon before they shut down US operations, and the FUNimation DVDs are essentially what Geneon would have given us. This means a razor-sharp anamorphic widescreen image, a booming 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack in English and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks in English and Japanese, and no extras worth talking about on any of the three volumes. Still, the major draw of Black Lagoon is the show itself, with The Second Barrage easily topping the first series and vaulting nimbly onto the shortlist of excellent and accessible anime properties. The only downside I can perceive is the lack of news about the reported third season of the show, although this can be mitigated somewhat by the manga volumes being imported by VIZ Media.