Rokuro "Rock" Okajima is your typical, average Japanese salaryman. He finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets caught up with a delivery company that "sometimes break the law to put food on the table." Does he really belong in a world working with criminal gangs from across the globe getting him into some very hairy positions? Or does he belong in this world more than he is prepared to admit?
It would be very easy to put Black Lagoon into the category of "guilty pleasure". It is violent, dirty, at times (very) offensive and quite gross. It features some of the most questionable characters, from the typical low-life, criminal gang member, to highly organised criminal gangs via corrupt nuns. When you try and describe this show to someone you, the viewer, do not come off well. Irrespective of how it comes across when described, Black Lagoon is a high-octane action-thriller with the emphasis and work put in all the right places. It is fun. It is a lot of much fun to watch, and that is what leans it towards that guilty pleasure label.
Black Lagoon is animated by Madhouse and directed by Sunao Kitabuchi, who also had a hand in writing Black Lagoon for a TV format. It is one of the few anime that I have watched and read the manga for, and it is a very good adaptation of Rei Hiroe's creation. The stories taken from the manga are fairly faithfully told in the anime and as you would expect, the character designs translate well. The Black Lagoon manga is very kinetic, there is a lot of action and dynamism within the frames on the page and in the way those frames are laid out on the page. This creates its own sense of camera movement which lends itself easily to an animated production. The significant difference between the two formats is that I felt there was a greater sense of chaos in the scenes of combat in the manga and, being in black and white, there is a greater sense of dirt, grime and an implied darkness pervading the tale.
Black Lagoon is about the crew of the Black Lagoon, an old PT boat from World War 2 that happens to be used for delivery purposes. Sometimes these deliveries are not strictly legal and the clients may not be the most upstanding members of society. Lagoon Company crews the Black Lagoon. The crew comprises Dutch (the boss) an ex-Vietnam soldier who always keeps a cool head; Benny the Hawaiian-shirt wearing IT guy who is on the run from an American government agency; Revy "Two-Hands" the hot-headed bad-tempered muscle and Rock, an ex-salaryman Revy kidnapped for some reason at the very beginning of the story.
The bulk of the stories revolve around Rock as he tries to fit into the world he find himself in. He chose to be in this world and it is a big change for him. He sees all of these colourful characters around him and that across them, there is *almost* a hierarchy of goodness. Of course everyone is out for their own self interest but at times they act selflessly for the greater good, for better local stability, to keep an external police force at bay or simply because it is the right thing to do. His unique set of skills, diplomacy and thinking, complement those of the Lagoon Company and in this world of gang one-upmanship someone with a cool head who can act strategically and tactically is an asset.
The stories and arcs within Black Lagoon are well told, have a great sense of pacing and are generally not appropriate to be discussed at work. It is a stereotype-view of that criminal world that is quite familiar to the viewer, especially as it references pop culture and films. As such it is easy to become absorbed and accept what you see. The actions and behaviours are completely congruent with what we would expect even though they tend to be at the extreme ends of our expectation. That goes for policing, justice, religion and any other subject you can think of. Because it can be quite extreme , there were times I found Black Lagoon to be a struggle to watch. Some of the content at the beginning of the Second Barrage (with the characters of Hansel and Gretel) left me uneasy, at times revolted and was quite uncomfortable to watch (it is one of the few arcs I have not revisited). The images and the story are still very present in my memory which I think is both a good and bad thing. Had this been a live action film or TV show I think I would have stopped watching but because it was animation and even though I was absorbed into the world, I knew it wasn't real so was OK with it. It is certainly interesting what you can tell/show in animation and in live-action and how we respond!
It would be easy to describe Black Lagoon as a show built using a "database" or list of things that you should and shouldn't really include in stories and TV shows. The entries, which I will not spoil because part of the charm is seeing where they go next, are wide and varied. Some are extremely funny ... OK. a couple are the man who thinks he a super-hero and the gangland "cleaner". Of course we get the predictable World War 2 references but we also get some long, thoughtful stories of organisational take-over. It is definitely an anime aimed at late-teens and "kind-of" adults in the vein of say Hellsing Ultimate.
Being animated by Madhouse the animation looks clean, polished and is very fluid. I liked the black and white of the manga and had this gone for that kind of look I think Black Lagoon would have been a very striking production. The colour palette is both vivid and sun-bleached. At night we have neon signage and sharp contrasting colours. In the day we see Roanapur as a faded town in South-east Thailand where people are just trying to get by. The jungle and countryside are full of rich dark greens and browns. All of these differences give the setting for the stories a bit more credibility and create a nice looking, functional background in which to place the action.
The character designs for the cast are OK. with the stand-out regular characters being Revy (short-shorts, tank-top, gun holsters and tattoos) and Balalaika (power suit, heavy military overcoat, war-wounds, big hair and a big cigar on the go). Rock is a bit plain or bland to look at and has the feel of the audience self-insertion character. As for the other characters they look fine but their personalities and actions make them stand out more than their look. Given how inappropriate this show can be I was concerned that the female characters were there for fan-service. Only one of them seemed to be there for that purpose, the others (including a maid) are there to cause explosions and carnage, a different kind of fan service. Again there are parallels to be drawn with Hellsing with how the characters are designed. All of the lines are thick and strong and there is the fan-service (from the female characters a bit but mostly in the detail of the way the weaponry is drawn).
Rock is the protagonist and of all of the characters we are introduced to, he is the one we are supposed to relate to the most. He is the bland everyman that you could project yourself onto. He follows a gradual development through the show but there are key moments when you have to wonder why he does what he does and whether he enjoys it. Has his personality and behaviour been changed through being exposed to violence and the darker personalities of society, or is he finally able to act out how he truly feels? Everybody in the show does bad, immoral and at times disgusting things but you begin to wonder whether Rock is free in this new world and that in gaining that freedom, he can be himself. Certainly some of his actions are shocking even to those he works with. This came out more strongly in the anime and is a credit to it because for all of its explosions and firefights at its core, Black Lagoon is driven by its characters and their interactions. The action is great but it punctuates the character motivations more than if it were "just" there for the sake of it. Because of his blandness you can easily ask what you would do under those circumstances. I'm not saying that this is an overly-intellectual show but it does raise interesting questions about human behavior.
A few years later (2010) Roberta's Blood Trail was released. In this we were treated to the back-story of the terminator-like maid, and see her take on those who thought it appropriate to attack her adopted family. The action in this mini-series is frantic and full of energy. Unfortunately this negatively impacts the story and I am sad to say makes it a lesser-sibling to the Black Lagoon series. Its animation is crisp and entirely consistent with what has gone before it (which I would expect). It offers nothing new but it is an all-out unrelenting action piece. As expected, some of its content is a bit ... questionable. Whereas in the two series there was the sense that the characters are growing (especially Rock and Revy) it feels as if they have done that, are fixed in their characters and nothing will change. The descent of Roberta from "prim and proper" maid to a crazed and rabid hound is interesting but comes from nowhere. We have a couple of hints in the series when she appears but this is a whole new level. I think I wanted more from this feature and as such felt a bit disappointed. It is a good action piece but I found it a bit forgettable.
When I think of action-based anime Black Lagoon (the series) is high on my list of recommendations. The animations is good but the story and its pacing really stands out. It knows who its audience is and as such it is clear and unambiguous in what it will show and what kinds of stories it will tell. It's certificate is completely congruent for its content, characters and ultimately its audience which other shows could learn something from (I'm looking at you Deadman Wonderland). At no point was I unclear who this was aimed at. It is a very enjoyable action-thriller with good development of the main characters and some nice side stories exploring group dynamics and filling out the world. The Second Barrage contains a wonderful story arc encompassing criminal gang growth, politics, ambition and moral choices. It is full of violence, foul mouthed language, deprivation and corruption and raised some interesting philosophical questions. Most important of all it is a lot of fun.