Rokuro Okajima is a young man at the end of his rope: After getting through college he has found himself seemingly trapped in a menial job within a Tokyo conglomerate, and things look set to end in a pitiful whimper for him when, during an assignment to transport an important disc across the South China sea, his ship is attacked by pirates. Taken as a hostage, Rokuro finds to his surprise that the pirates aren’t so bad, and that his employer is less than concerned about his well-being. After rechristening himself as “Rock,” he chooses the life of a modern-day pirate with the Lagoon Company, accepting dangerous jobs in and around the criminal haven of Roanapur.
It’s often said that “Kids want to be Luke Skywalker, but adults want to be Han Solo.” Indeed, as we grow and mature in the realities of the world we often leave behind the black and white morality that serves us well in childhood and accept the tones of grey. The good are not always rewarded, the bad are not always punished. It’s the open acceptance of this reality that Black Lagoon places front and centre. As a main character Rock is quite relatable to most young adults, especially in these times of economic hardship. The idea of facing the 9 to 5 grind for seemingly nobody’s glory than that of your immediate superior and receiving absolutely no loyalty in return is the unpleasant reality of modern employment, especially for graduates who find there aren’t nearly enough jobs to match the number of idealists the further education system is producing. A brilliantly placed sequence sees the executive who ordered his termination sneer at his decision to give up his life as a salary-man, only to himself return home seemingly oblivious to the fact he’s a patriarch to a loveless family he only bears out of social tradition.
Rock’s decision to join the Lagoon Company and the stance he views Roanapur from are challenged consistently across the run of the show. It’s mostly directly by Revy, the talented female gun expert who took Rock hostage during their initial encounter. It’s made clear that Revy hasn’t had an easy life, but she’s not wallowing in self pity, and most of her conflict with Rock comes from her feeling that there are two walks of life and that he is not fully immersed in the same one as the other residents of Roanapur, instead being an outsider who looks down on the life he has claimed as his own. It’s a really effective character drama because all though the various cutthroats encountered on the island often run afoul of one another, the show actually portrays them as quite intelligent and explores some challenging themes of society and the individual’s role within it. Characters such as Revy, the group’s leader Dutch, and their computer hacker Benny, are depicted as complex humans with arguably a better grasp on the world and human nature then Rock. This extends to the characters frequently referencing famous philosophers and American military history/cinema. At the same time Rock is not out of touch with reality, as is explored perfectly in an early episode where Dutch assigns him to run errands with Revy in hopes of nixing the building friction between the pair. This episode offers one of the most unique visuals I’ve seen in quite a while, with cigarettes being used as a metaphor for a kiss. It’s, subtle, clever and powerful.
Actual storylines bear a structural similarity to Cowboy Bebop, focusing on individual jobs the Lagoon Company takes whilst facets of the cast are explored. An early arc sees them hired to reclaim a long lost painting of the Third Reich, whilst clashing with wannabe Nazis who seek the painting as a rallying point for their cause. It’s become a bit of a cliché to use neo-Nazis as antagonists but their usage here is quite well thought out. We’re shown that during World War II surely not every German could have wanted to be a goose stepping fascist; likewise, it treats those who would seek to revive the horrors of the Nazis as the fools they are, with the ones here quickly being shown as short-minded bigots in dress up who can’t even begin to fathom what they’re aspiring to.
The other major arc on the first set involves trafficking the kidnapped son of a South American noble who sends his sole employee, a maid, to reclaim the boy. This sounds pretty laughable until it emerges that Roberta is no ordinary maid but apparently a relative of the T-1000. There’s plenty of intense and brutal chase scene action, here but by the end it does start to push suspension of disbelief that this is a human we’re watching and after the dramatic and explosive start; and the conclusion reminded me more of how many a Hanna-Barbera toon ended, albeit with a bit of the old ultraviolence.
The concluding story of the set has Revy and Rock delivering a message whilst hampered by militants. Although Revy’s side of the story offers a healthy dose of comedy as she partners with a Taiwanese assassin and a marijuana-smoking Irish getaway driver, Rock’s side is more introspective as he is interrogated by one of the militant leaders, an older Japanese male who left the country with dreams of social reform. The comparison between the two is obvious and offers a challenge to the strength of Rock’s own reasons for leaving the country, continuing the critical view of Japanese society seen in the first arc.
Sadly, later arcs are not as strong. The arc which opens the second set (containing the show’s second season, Second Barrage) sees a pair of vampire-motif child assassins coming to Roanapur to slaughter as many as they can. The problem I have with this arc is it quickly shifts from tragic and scary into creepy and uncomfortable. The idea of child assassins who have been driven insane is tragic enough, but the show keeps adding to their insanity and backstory to the point I actually felt pretty nauseated. It stands out in particular when every other crime/racket seen in the show is the stuff you’d be able to get away with in a mainstream action movie.
Additionally, the second half of the concluding episode appears to carry an authoring glitch where the disc stalls and then jumps to the end credits. I was able to rewind and get the majority of the conclusion but this is clearly something to keep an eye out for when purchasing.
Better than this is “Greenback Jane,” a story of a counterfeiter who is brought to the island by Florida gangsters. When Jane escapes, the clueless gangsters end up hiring a surly mob of bounty hunters to reclaim her. Whilst some of these are returning characters, the real fun is that most of them are brand-new personalities, and the show gets some well-rooted black humour out of throwing them against the established players who protect Jane in hopes of benefiting from her counterfeiting resources.
Everything does come together for the final six-part arc, in which Russian mob boss Balalaika recruits Rock to be her interpreter as she negotiates with a house of the Japanese mafia. Taking Revy along as a body guard, this arc serves to test Rock’s entire resolve for having taken an alias and supposedly turning his back on the life he knew. Shocked by the brutality Balalaika unleashes on his former home, he ends up bonding with the house’s teenage heir and tries to save her from a life of crime. I don’t want to give too much away, but this arc quite thankfully bucks clichés and some of the too convenient plot developments you might have seen in other shows treading similar ground. My biggest criticism of this arc, though, is the way certain other long-term characters are contrasted against newer ones. Hotel Moscow is a presence in the show from the very start, mostly as a friendly ally to the Lagoon Company. It might serve to state that we’ve been viewing ‘honour among thieves’ for most of the series, but the idea that the Yakuza, one of the most infamous crime syndicates in the world, is reduced to whimpering disbelief at the activities Balalaika’s forces consider acceptable mob tactics is a little hard to swallow. Given the need for an interpreter it’s not too surprising that the walls created by spoken language is a theme of the storyline and results in the Japanese cast offering a heavy dose of ‘English’. To their credit they actually manage this fairly well, only occasionally mauling lines with odd stresses and even then the sentences are structured perfectly. Mami Koyama’s Balalaika manages to deliver them in a way that would fit perfectly into a legitimate business pitch and Megumi Toyoguchi’s Revy likewise perfectly juggles insults aimed at her opponents. Less impressive is Daisuke Namikawa’s Rock, who thankfully only has to deliver a few of them.
Original creator Rei Hiroe is clearly versed in the history of American and Hong Kong action cinema, and it shows in the frantic action of the series, which mainly consists of gun fights. Pretty much every character except Rock and Benny is at least capable with a firearm, and this results in several intense and well choreographed shoot outs, mixed up later as characters with tastes for bladed and more exotic weapons emerge. At the same time the show is openly aware that such weapons are intended to maim and kill, with moments of black humour in their use but anything truly graphic hidden by strategic scene changes. Horrifying underworld means of ‘removing’ someone are a neighbouring factor, meaning even with the discretion shots this isn’t really a title for young children.
The show is presented with the familiar option to watch with either English dub or subtitled Japanese. I chose the latter for my main viewing, but both casts do a respectable job. It’s particularly bizarre to hear the famous Ocean stable of actors voice a series with such a clear potty mouth, given they usually appear in more ‘polite’ dubs or mainstream children’s shows. However, being a Kaze disc this means you’ll also receive the show dubbed in French, Italian and Spanish as something of an unintentional extra. Sadly, the various subtitle and audio tracks appear to be firmly segregated which means you can’t choose to watch one of the other European languages with English subtitles. Given most anime fans clearly prioritise watching the show in the original Japanese even if they aren’t fully versed themselves, the sets seem to be missing a trick here. It’d be an oddly diplomatic effort to allow fans to watch the various language tracks with localised subtitles and allow us familiarity with the dub talents working elsewhere in Europe.
Black Lagoon gets a hearty recommendation. The series explores and homages many of the themes seen in Hollywood crime thrillers, but does so in way that is not only fresh but contains a clear intellect and dark wit. It’s rare to find a show that can be introspective without being needlessly taxing. Though it is split across two sets, they clearly go hand in hand as one 24-episode story. The conclusion itself is nicely open-ended, presenting a workable ‘conclusion’ to Rock’s journey but playing into reality as nothing in life really has an ending and also leaving room for more. On which note, I’m off to hunt down the original books.
Black Lagoon Seasons 1 and 2 (UK editions) are now available from Amazon.co.uk in both DVD and Blu-ray formats.