If Revy had met the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger says it would have run back into the lagoon with its tail between its legs.
"Pray. That's about the only thing you can still do while you're alive."—Balalaika
Black Lagoon steps away from the beaten path of most anime. Though its central concern is the plight of a stranded Japanese salaryman, Black Lagoon has a healthy dose of American perspective. Unlike the typical modern action anime, Black Lagoon's humor—if it's there at all—is extremely dry and dark. It eschews synth pop in favor of pure heavy metal. Its dialogue is peppered with profanities, and not corny ones. Finally, Black Lagoon is a co-production—a recipe that many associate with sanitized, dumb, expensive bombs. For these reasons, fans of typical anime might want to pause before stepping over the threshold. But fans of explosive action who appreciate an unadulterated, balls-to-the-wall rain of bullets and babes can sit back and strap themselves in.
Facts of the Case
Madhouse and Geneon team up to bring Rei Hiroe's manga to the small screen. A downtrodden salaryman of a mega-corporation named Okajima Rokuro is sent without knowledge into a dangerous exchange of nuclear weapons data. His superiors are already planning Rokuro's funeral.
Unbeknownst to Rokuro's superiors, his captors are not honorless savages. Since they only want the data, they haven't riddled him with bullets and dropped his body into the nearest ocean. Rokuro talks with Dutch (a burly, black veteran of Vietnam), Revy (A curvy, hot-blooded, foul-mouthed gun nut), and Benny (a mild-mannered misfit who runs the team's communications and I.T.), and decides they aren't all bad.
When the board of directors finds out Rokuro is still alive, they ask him to sacrifice himself for the good of the corporation. Deeply insulted and aware he has no future with them, Rokuro takes the nickname "Rock" and joins up with the Black Lagoon. Between running jobs for Russian mobsteress Balalaika and navigating this new den of thieves, Rock is up to his ears in action.
Co-production used to be a black mark. American companies would supply 50 percent of the money and 50 percent of the ideas, diluting the purity of the Japanese production team's take on their own material. Whether poor communication or unwillingness to cooperate was the culprit, co-productions were usually great-looking, vacuous affairs that were the worst of both worlds where story and character were concerned.
But the tide has turned in recent years. High-profile co-productions like The Animatrix have provided a blueprint. A recent example, Highlander: The Search For Vengeance, employs the best of anime style and characterization while broadening the appeal of a Western franchise. Co-production can work, and increasingly is working.
This brings us to Black Lagoon. Unlike The Animatrix and Highlander: The Search For Vengeance, Black Lagoon is not affiliated with a franchise. Its American ancestry could be described as Firefly meets Apocalypse Now. Black Lagoon features a ragtag band of unwilling mercenaries who used to fight for a cause; Benny is even a reasonable facsimile of Wash with his blonde hair, Hawaiian shirt, and quick tongue. Rock is like Simon, a white-collar professional who takes up with roughneck mercenaries against his will. Instead of trawling the outer reaches of space, Black Lagoon patrols Asian rivers and coastlines, warding off attacks right and left. Black Lagoon is mercifully unadulterated by slapstick comedy interludes and exaggerated facial expressions; you'll find no steam-red faces and exhaled "X" marks here. The characters do not pull frying pans out of thin air and beat each other on the head while running around frantically. No, these characters drink in bars and hurl sharp insults at each other while watching their backs. There are no high-pitched origattos here; just lots of f-bombs. Because of its mixed parentage, Black Lagoon thrives equally in dub or sub mode. The American actors from Ocean Group actually nail the characterizations with more authority than their Japanese counterparts, which is an unusual turning of the tables.
Black Lagoon's Eastern influence is clearly Cowboy Bebop. Revy is a blithe fortune hunter with a dark past. The crew takes questionable jobs in an episodic, loosely linked format. And like Cowboy Bebop, Black Lagoon is driven by an attitude that stems largely from its soundtrack—in this case, an aggressive heavy-metal riff that takes no prisoners. Of course, the Eastern production team Madhouse is no stranger to hit anime. Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Cardcaptor Sakura, Chobits, Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and the aforementioned Highlander: The Search For Vengeance are but a few of the venerable studio's works. They leave nothing on the table in Black Lagoon. The animation is fluid and creative, primarily gun-centric: gun-barrel perspectives, sensual gun fetishism, explosive shootouts, that sort of thing. If the central plots are breezy, the hard-boiled dialogue and gunplay provide plenty of punch. Madhouse also takes no shortcuts in the character designs. Each character is fully detailed and has a rounded personality.
The resulting fray will please your adrenaline receptors. Revy takes the lead in this department. She's welcome eye candy with her skin-tight T-shirts and very brief cutoffs. But Revy is not window dressing. She pumps out a two-fisted rain of death, taking down hardened mercenaries or speedboats with equal ease. Her success stems from a nasty personality and no apparent respect for Death. When Revy smiles, you'd best get a head start on your retreat. A fallen angel in the purest sense, Revy is an inviting character even if she's a cliché.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Black Lagoon sets up a "strange bedfellows" scenario between Rock and the rest, but doesn't seem in a hurry to develop it. Though signs of a character arc are present, Black Lagoon has not committed to anything. The best I can figure is that Rock will have a chance to bring down his former corporation, but that scenario could play out in a multitude of ways. After four episodes, the basic plot has not moved much.
Cowboy Bebop and Firefly are great influences that share lots in common: most notably, character intertwinement that makes the violence meaningful. Black Lagoon is setting that up, but hasn't done so as quickly as either of those two shows did. As a result, Black Lagoon seems like a loud, glossy exercise in attitude over substance. It might be exactly that, and does action and attitude very well. But if you're looking for depth, there hasn't been much yet.
There also aren't any extras, unless you get the two-disc metal case version.
With an ass-kicking soundtrack, fluid widescreen animation, great character design, snappy dialogue, and great English dub, Black Lagoon (Volume 1) is a solid bet for American action fans. Just don't look too deep into the story or characters and let the bullets whiz overhead.
Guilty of disturbing the peace.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2007 Rob Lineberger; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.