Ah, Black Lagoon, what a joy it is to see you again. New volumes of Lagoon were getting as infrequent as Pink Floyd albums were (back when we could still be expected to have those to begin with). The last time Black Lagoon hit these shores was a good five years ago, when I was living in another part of the country, working a different job, when something like Ganriki.org was nothing more than a neat idea — and when all the insights gleaned through running a site like this were still a long way off. In short, when I was another person.
But if I was a different person five years ago, does that mean the person who enjoyed Black Lagoon for what it was, once upon a time, can no longer enjoy Black Lagoon for what it is? If everything I not only liked, but admired, about the series was nothing more than an artifact of my inexperience, that would be heartbreaking. Something I'd once savored would now be not just unsavorable, but also unrecommendable.
The good news is that the elements that made Black Lagoon special were never the superficial ones — the lawless setting, the rogues' gallery of characters perpetually at each other's throats, the over-the-top violence. Many other manga and anime have had those things; few, if any, have exhibited the same electricity and magic Black Lagoon has. The even better news is how the newest volume in the series serves as an example of why that is so. Under the spent lead and ethnic slurs and puddles of blood staining the pavement like so many oil slicks, this remains a story about a man trying to figure out how to do the right thing in a world where there is no right thing.
Bad men (and women) in a bad world
Most people reading this ought to know the story, but here's a quick recap for everyone else. In a disreputable port city ("Roanapur") somewhere in Southeast Asia, three mercs — ex-vet and perennial heavy Dutch; wizardly hacker and FBI fugitive Benny; hair-trigger gun-bunny Revy Two-Hand — take on a fourth member of their crew when a Japanese businessman is sold up the river by his corporate bosses. "Rock", as this newcomer is dubbed, goes from relative naïf to a man between two worlds. From his former life, he brings his sense of justice and his diplomatic skills; from his new life, his grim understanding that justice and diplomacy amount to little when you've got the barrel of a gun shoved up your nose. He can't have it both ways, or so his comrades tell him: his urge to do good won't just get him killed, but also injure the very people he claims to be helping. Perhaps it would be better for him to simply be the bad man he knows he can be, and which he has been time and again when the situation demanded it.
The most recent set of hijinks in volume 10 further all these ideas, and expand on them in ways I had been hoping would become a more prominent element in the ongoing story. Benny's forger girlfriend Greenback Jane — she originally showed up back in volume 6 — has a plan to hire a hacker to break into a major German defense contractor and make off with various secrets that can ostensibly be sold off to the highest bidder. The one doing the actual wetwork in this job is a woman named Feng Yifei, a Hong Kong import who's relieved of her wallet, luggage, and patience within minutes of landing in Roanapur. It doesn't help that she has to do her work in a hotel room that was a crime scene a scant few days ago — the kind where they have to hire a special cleaning crew to deal with the mess, and which Revy describes in gleeful detail as having been discovered only when maggots started coming out of the keyhole. (A good example of Black Lagoon's humor at its, uh, blackest.)
The whole operation turns out to be a scam in more ways than one. Feng is in fact a People's Liberation Army cyber-soldier, and Jane set her up on this mission specifically to screw her and embarrass mainland China in one swoop. Feng is left twisting in the wind by her own people, and when she all but blows away Revy and Rock (the only other two members of the crew she can get her hands on), Revy all but blows her away — and the only thing that keeps the two of them from shredding each other is when a a hit team (a typically colorful band of maniacs) come gunning for Feng to boot.
A little less trigger happy
A less ambitious or thoughtful story would have turned this into a story where Feng, Revy, and Rock run like hell for the rest of the book with this band of maniacs in hot pursuit. Instead, the book explores something that occurred to me, but which I was unsure the story would have the nerve or the wherewithal to deal with: the fact that Feng's predicament closely parallels the one Rock himself endured when he first joined the Lagoon crew.
Rock recognizes this himself, and for that reason reaches out to Feng to help her. Revy's dubious, to say the least — didn't this chica just try to blow her head off, and didn't she do her damndest to return the favor? — but she's been around Rock long enough to know, or at least suspect, he's not doing this because he's gullible. Later, Revy tracks Feng down, but not to blow her head off; rather, it's to take her to a watering hole and see if maybe each can help the other out. (There's another subplot involving some Italian gangsters making things difficult for everyone.) Not only does Feng drink Revy under the table, but the two even make a certain connection with each other: Feng wants to take control of her destiny, even if that only amounts to choosing a messy death or a clean one, and even Revy can't deny the pride and determination needed to decide such a thing.
Most of what Black Lagoon has been about has revolved around Rock and his evolution from timid salaryman to man-between-two-worlds. But I see now at least as much of it, if not always as overtly, has been about Revy and her edging back from her kill-crazy, white-knuckled attitude. In her own twisted, limited, difficult way, Revy is learning to listen and think that much more, instead of simply react. She's still nothing we could call a "good" person, but she is putting the traits she does have, for better or worse, to more constructive use. Maybe that's about all you could ask from anyone in this setting.
Improvement, not one-upsmanship
The rest of what makes Black Lagoon, well, Black Lagoon, is all here in abundance. Rei Hiroe's art started off accomplished and has done nothing but become all the more polished and precise with time, in much the same way Takehiko Inoue's Vagabond or Hiroakai Samura's Blade of the Immortal did. Some of the best moments in this issue are action shots, as you might expect — the whole at-pointblank-range shootout between Revy and Feng, for instance, and all that follows from it. But a few of them are just simple faces or reaction shots, as befitting a story that begins and ends with its characters. A flashback moment where Rock rips off his tie; a second where a stupefied Revy allows cigarette smoke to leak out of her mouth; and many more.
One thing I am grateful for is how Hiroe has not attempted to turn Black Lagoon into a one-upsmanship machine, something that seems all the more important in light of how apprehensive I was coming back to this series in the first place. Then again, Hiroe has been wise enough not to do that from the beginning. After delivering something like the "Hansel & Gretel" chapter — which began in black-humored horror, ended in tragedy, and pushed a lot of audience buttons all the way through — he didn't try to make whatever came next all the more extreme for the sake of seeing how envelope-pushing he could get.
I am not always thrilled with the choices of subject matter in Black Lagoon; when the neo- and not-so-neo-Nazis showed up early on, for instance, I winced, if only because I am so very, very tired of Nazis as easy go-to villains, even in a story that is ostensibly informed by pulp-story origins. But what I come back to time and again with this series is how all the things that are ostensibly red meat for the mayhem fans — the violence, the ethnic slurs, the posturing and the dirty politics and the sleaze — are all ultimately background and local color. The reason the John Woo gun-fu epics worked as well as they did was not merely because they came up with endless varieties of creative mayhem; they also presented us with strong characters involved in difficult emotional dilemmas. Those things mattered as much, far more so really, as the stuff the stunt crew could come up with.
What I worried most about with Lagoon was how, on coming back to it, I might find myself putting it on the same shelf as Kite: a project that was transgressive and edgy in its time, but which had no redeeming value apart from its eagerness to shock. But Black Lagoon came somewhat later in the game, and by the time it started hitting these shores it was already clear you needed to do more than be crass to get and keep an audience. Hiroe learned that lesson well, learned it thoroughly, and from what I see has never stopped figuring out new ways to apply it.