The greatest entertainments of any era either totally embody their moment in time, or seem outside of time altogether. Black Lagoon, now back on Blu-ray in a budget-priced reissue set, started in the first category and has since bounded vigorously into the second. Like the long-running Rei Hiroe manga it adapts, it melts down and blends 1980s and 1990s action-movie influences — Hong Kong gun-fu epics, Hollywood slam-bangers like Lethal Weapon, the direct-to-video boobs-'n-explosions antics of Andy Sidaris. Done well, that stuff has a timelessness all its own, but Black Lagoon has another layer atop it all: some of the finest characterization, storytelling, and thematics of any anime or manga. It has something to say about its characters and the way they elect to ignore, confront, or exploit the chaos of the world around them. It knows it's a thrill ride, but it never settles for being just that.
From salaryman to shadowrunner
One day rank-and-file salaryman Rokuro is kowtowing to his boss in his highrise Tokyo office, and the next thing he knows he’s getting punched in the face on the deck of a pirate ship somewhere in the South Pacific, blood on his shirt and guns stuffed up his nostrils. He's been taken hostage for the information he's been gormlessly carrying around for his employers. They’re annoyed that the disk he was holding isn’t going to earn them more than chump change, so why not squeeze a little more sugar out of the deal by ransoming him back to his own employers? Problem is, Rokuro's employers wrote him off as expendable.
The crewmembers of the pirate ship swim out of the chaos one by one. There's Dutch, the big and balding Samuel L. Jackson / Laurence Fishburne type who leads the crew, plays Papa Bear to his cohorts, and provides for them a calm center that the rest of their world does not. Benny, the hacker, keeps the ship and their various communications apparatus held together with the requisite baling wire and chewing gum. And then there's Revy, the tattooed Chinese-American gunslinger girl, voted Most Likely To Live Fast, Die Hard And Leave A Terrific-Looking Corpse.
They don’t have patience for “Mr. Japanese” at first, but as he calms down and tries to think about his situation instead of simply freaking out, he discovers two things. He’s got a remarkable aptitude for improvising, and he's more willing to dive into the deep end of the pool than he thinks. When the Lagoon crew finds themselves holed up at one end of a river with a war copter waiting for them, Rock busts out a solution. It is so suicidally insane that the rest of the crew can’t help but try it out, and the way the plan plays out generates a massive laugh. Without trying, Rock's found a place among this misfit cadre, for however long he can survive.
Condemned to live in interesting times
Most of the work for the Lagoon comes courtesy of Balalaika, a Russian giantess whose beauty is marred by both her total cold-bloodedness towards her enemies and a nasty burn scar on her face. Loyalty works both ways for her, though: when a Chinese gangster lets his jaw flap a little too readily for her taste, she trusses the guy up in his hotel room on top of a pile of plastique, blasts him into orbit, and lets Dutch listen in on the mayhem as a way to put a smile on his face. She’s content to hire the Lagoon crew rather than bring them wholly into her fold, or go into theirs—maybe only because she prefers to enjoy the outlandish way they get themselves into and out of trouble at arm's length. There is, in fact, no Chinese curse that goes "may you live in interesting times", but with this crew, there might as well be.
A classic example of the kinds of missions they get into comes early on. The crew is charged with transporting a kid, Garcia Lovelace, heir to a wealthy family that’s fallen on hard times. Something’s fishy about the whole deal, but Rock’s the only one of the bunch who has qualms (at least at first) about the fact that they’re transporting a kid to be sold to the highest bidder. There’s someone else who’s mighty upset about it, too—the Lovelace family maid, Roberta, with her shotgun umbrella and the tenacity of the T-1000. Some of the same moves, too: there’s a moment straight out of Terminator 2 itself where Roberta smashes her way through the rear window of a moving car. Revy doesn’t take kindly to there being more than one tough-as-depleted-plutonium female in the vicinity, and when the two of them run out of bullets to shoot at each other they go at it Lethal Weapon-style, with bare fists.
The show follows Hiroe's manga almost to the letter. Not hard given the glacial pace with which it comes out, but that also means it's faithful to the parts that matter the most — the story and storytelling, not only Hiroe's outlandish action setpieces. One of the grimmest storylines in the whole series involves Hansel and Gretel, a pair of sweet-faced Chechen kids — two of "Ceausescu's orphans" — who have become murderers-for-hire. Grim because of what happens, but also how everyone responds to it: Rock is appalled that these things happen, and enraged that he came into the picture too late to do anything about it save stand back and allow the underworld to close ranks on the kids. One of the costs of the life Rock has committed himself to is knowing full well there are almost never any happy endings for anyone, them included. This plotline also allows Balalaika a chance to show how she is more than just calculating intelligence and brute muscle; she has a certain degree of world-weariness that only we in the audience, and maybe one or two others, ever get to see.
The sound and the fury, and the soul
My first encounter with Black Lagoon — as a comic, that is — made me wonder if it had been devised specifically to sell overseas. This was long before anime and manga exports amounted to a substantial slice of the revenue for those things, although trans-Pacific coproductions weren't uncommon then. By all accounts Hiroe was just making something in frank homage to all the things he liked, so it’s probably less a case of tailoring the material for maximum salability than the material itself being an indirect product of one of its many possible audiences. After all, one of the characters is named "Donnie Yen"—no earthly way is that a coincidence—and then there’s the scene where Revy blows away a whole shipful of mercs while singing along to White Zombie’s “Electric Head Pt. 1” blasting away on her headphones. She simply doesn't care whether she lives or dies, but that makes her grudging drift towards Rock — and thus, back towards life — have all the more impact in its tiniest manifestations.
One possible pitfall with adapting this material from a comic to the small screen is letting the action usurp everything else before and after. The action in the show is rendered with the same spectacular glee as it appears on the page, even more so given that it's animation, but the showrunners understand its place. It's just as important to linger on, say, a scene where Revy and Rock lock horns and reveal more than they want to admit about themselves. Look at the scene of the two of them in a park in the next to last episode, where Revy realizes she may not be able to get Rock to change his mind, but might be able to do something to change the minds of the kids who think gunplay — especially the stylized, Hollywood version of it — is cool.
Those things, and the ways they are staged and played off, form a core to the story that it needs to shore up against its more outlandish — sometimes outright tasteless — elements. I wasn't a fan of things like Sawyer, a mute woman assassin who uses a chainsaw, or the broadsword-wielding Chinese assassin Shenhua who speaks in Chinatown English and gets abuse from Revy for her diction. Because these elements don't come with as much of their own share of contrast or catharsis (see: Revy and the thawing of her humanity, if only in miniature), they sit uneasily. I know they're theoretically part of the milieu, but that doesn't mean I have to applaud them just because they show up.
What works best is when the show treats the underworld as a state of mind and a way of life (and death), not just a collection of tropes or action sequences. The best example of this is across the last six episodes of the show, a plotline involving Rock serving as interpreter for Balalaika when she's brought in to help a yakuza family get revenge on a rival. Some of why this storyline works so well is because it mines a rich dramatic vein that's likely familiar to Hiroe but perhaps not to many of his Western fans: yakuza-war stories like Battles Without Honor And Humanity, where the code of the underworld is tested against changing times, often violently, and found wanting.
But I think the main reason this segment works because is because of the contrast it gives us. The daughter of the family chooses to embrace the criminal life entirely when she has the chance to do so, as opposed to Rock who keeps trying to live with one foot out of the underworld. There are, strictly speaking, no good guys in their world, and Rock is made to feel as though he's lying to himself by choosing his very narrow, very difficult path. But there are people who elect that much more to do the less terrible thing, and sometimes even the outright good thing, and (the show seems to be arguing) in a world this morally conflicted, that may not only be the best you can hope for but that might well prove to be enough.