Creator: A Madhouse Production
Director: Sunao Katabuchi
Length: 12 Episodes
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+ Witty, insightful screenplay
+ Each episode like a mini-movie
+ Hot chicks with big guns
+/ Outrageous hyperkinetic action
Every so often an anime series comes along that touches the heart. Black Lagoon is not that series. It is edgy, violent, tightly plotted, and even thoughtful but touching it ain't. This series is everything you like about the action genre guns, beautiful women, chases, fights, and witty dialog with nothing you don't such as needlessly complicated plots, endless exposition, and cackling cartoon-y villains. At the same time this series manages to explore, in a thoughtful and entertaining way, such themes as morality, alienation, and existentialism.
4.5 out of 5 · Highly Recommended
Black Lagoon Anime Review
Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 8/22/2008
The anime art form is vast and can contain a wide variety of genres, themes, characters, and styles from the small, deeply personal films of Isao Takahata such as Grave of the Fireflies to sprawling science fiction epics such as Mobile Suit Gundam. Sometimes an anime fan may be in the mood for the existential horror of Mushi-Shi or the kid friendly nonsense of Pokemon but sometimes what you really want, what you require is brainless mayhem, guns, broads, and bullets. Based on Rei Hiroe's manga of the same name, the anime series Black Lagoon delivers on all three. Set during Japan's economic boom of the mid-nineties, Black Lagoon depicts the adventures of Okajima "Rock" Rokuro, a Japanese salaryman who is kidnapped by and then joins forces with the crew of the Black Lagoon, a high tech band of pirates and smugglers who operate out of the sleazy port city of Roanapur, Thailand.
The story is the kind of revenge fantasy we've all had at one time or another and is elegant in its simplicity. Okajima Rokuro is a college educated, white collar salaryman at one of the many giant corporations that has come to dominate the contemporary economic landscape. He is worn out by the daily grind and longs to somehow escape the dreary confines of Tokyo, the ultimate businessman's city. He gets his chance when he ordered to act as a courier for a computer disk containing top secret data and is almost immediately kidnapped and taken hostage by the crew of the Black Lagoon, a band of smugglers and pirates who seem to take on any job that comes their way. Their assignment was to get the disk and didn't originally include kidnapping but simply stealing and delivering a computer disk is only going to earn the crew 20 thousand dollars, so Revi, the crew's resident tough chick, reasons that the ransom that Okajima's employer will likely pay will more than warrant the risk associated with kidnapping. Naturally Okajima doesn't want to be kidnapped but what choice does he have in the matter? Soon he and the crew on their merry way and Okajima begins to develop Stockholm Syndrome ala Patty Hearst, feeling that Dutch, the Black Lagoon's captain, is probably the only one he can trust in the whole wide world.
This series' violence is so over-the-top that it nearly verges on parody. For example, the first episode includes a gun battle in a bar full of assorted mercenaries, smugglers, thieves, and killers. Gun battles happen there so often that the owner has had bullet proof armor installed over the walls. The combatants leap through the air like characters from the Matrix and fire so many bullets that animators must have gotten hand cramps from drawing them all. The first part of the second episode plays out like a gun fight from a Western, if Western gun battles involved Vietnam War era patrol boats, shipwrecks, torpedoes, heat seeking missiles, and helicopters. The third episode features a battle where Revi destroys an entire squadron of pirate attack boats by herself with a handful of guns by jumping from boat to boat and moving with lightning speed. This extreme violence paints our heroes as godlike supermen but the series' intelligent writing reminds us that they are merely human.
This over-the-top violence is balanced by the series' clever, intelligent, and occasionally insightful dialog and fascinating characterizations. Although set in an exaggerated world of criminal undergrounds, back room deals, smugglers, thieves and pirates, Black Lagoon manages to find more insight into the world and human condition than most "straight" dramas. Similar to Peter Chung's series Aeon Flux (perhaps the only American animated series to reach the level of sophistication found in anime), Black Lagoon's screenplay often delves into dark comedy, existentialism, alienation, and moral conflict.
Show More Many of the themes of the series are developed through Okajima's periodic narration. As a new comer to this strange world of smugglers and pirates, Okajima is in a unique position to observe and analyze the people he meets. While not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist his observations are unusually insightful and manage to avoid the pop-psychology clichés that seem to run rampant in contemporary society. For example, after Revi successfully defeats half-a-dozen boats by herself, Okajima notes that something deep within her psyche must be broken in order for her to kill so easily, then again, he notes, something is also wrong with him for enjoying her performance and rooting for her success.
The problem with Okajima is a sense of alienation from contemporary Japanese life, the samurai of feudal Japan has been replaced in Japan's technological corporate culture with the businessman. Loyalty to the daimyo has been replaced by loyalty to the company, committing seppuku to avoid dishonor has been replaced with covering up embarrassing information. This attitude is best exemplified Kageyama, Okajima's boss at Asahi Industries. A department chief, Kageyama is given the responsibility of keeping the company's involvement in an illegal arms deal from seeing the light of day. To this end he first tells Okajima to disappear in Southeast Asia and plans to on faking Okajima's death, he later instructs mercenaries hired to secure the computer disk to kill Okajima, prompting Okajima's decision to sign on with the Black Lagoon crew. Kageyama is so absorbed by his work, when one of his daughters asks about the color of the sea for a picture she is coloring, he says he didn't even notice. The subtle way Black Lagoon holds up a mirror to society, pointing out the hollowness of corporate culture and the hypocrisy of businessmen doing in secret what the thieves and pirates do more or less openly raises it to art and not just another action-adventure.
Action movies are often criticized for their use of humorous one-liners. One-liners, critics such as Michael Medved argue, show a certain disregard for what they term the "sanctity of life". Like most contemporary action movies, Black Lagoon has its share of one-liners and they are funny. However, far from debasing life they are the best way the characters may have for dealing with the grimness of their existence. After all, these are people who have been pushed out of "normal" life and onto the fringe of society. They have taken up a disreputable occupation as smugglers and pirates. They face down death on a daily basis and it's an odd day that goes by without them being shot at or chased. They have two ways to deal with their situation: drink themselves into a stupor (which they do, frequently) or laugh at the situation. The healthier of the two is to laugh and when they shoot someone and then make a cutting remark, perhaps they are not mocking the "sanctity" of life perhaps they are mocking their own absurd situation and the choices that got them there.
Show More Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the series the way it develops its central characters. On the surface they are archetypes we have seen in dozens of action movies, comic books, and TV series – Dutch, the strong silent leader; Revi, the beautiful but deadly tomboy; Benny, the geek with the shady past; and Okajima, the white-collar Joe Average fish-out-of-water. However, as the series progresses, the characters are developed and explored in depth as real human beings. For example, in a standard action/adventure series, Revi would be a tough chick and that would be enough. However, Black Lagoon goes further, hinting at her troubled past growing up in New York City's Chinatown and exploring her personality. Revi is a sadist who enjoys fighting and will kill at the slightest provocation. She's an atheist who doesn't trust emotions, doesn't rely on anyone but her own power but at the same time she trusts and respects her co-workers and has a crush on Okajima, gets jealous at his interaction with other female characters, and buys him gifts. Dutch, the team's leader is Vietnam veteran who became a mercenary after the fall of Saigon. He is a calm, quiet, and competent leader who leaves most of the fighting up to Revi and at the same time functions as the closest thing to a "normal center" as you are likely to find in a band of mercenaries sailing the South China Sea – especially considering that his crew consists of a sadistic killer, a geek with a past, and a businessman with Stockholm Syndrome who joined up almost on a whim. Jewish-American computer expert and college dropout Benny joined the crew when Revi saved his life after he made enemies of both the FBI and the Mafia. Friendly, non-violent, and easy going, he's the crew's computer expert, mechanic, and driver. Usually easily going,
Benny is extremely possessive of his computers and has a harsh reaction to anyone trying to touch them but he saves his strongest venom for Nazis and has claimed "fuck the Nazis" as a family motto. As the point-of-view character, Okajima has the broadest story arc as he is transformed from an anonymous everyman, a spineless subordinate at a major corporation into an accountant, errand boy, and negotiator for a gang of smugglers and pirates. One of his finest moments comes towards the end of the second episode when Kageyama offers him a chance to return to normal life. Okajima throws down his tie, curls his lip into a sneer, and definitely reminds his old boss that they've already declared him dead. He ends his tirade against his corporate master by assuming the name Rock. As diverse as these characters are they are united as makeshift family by virtue of being alienated from ordinary life whether the workaday world of Japan, the structure and discipline of the US military, or even "normal" family life. Family, to the crew of the Black Lagoon is who they've decided it is through shared experiences not who they happen to share their genes with.
A few words must be said about Roanapur. A fictional city in Thailand, Roanapur is the Black Lagoon's home port and where the crew maintains their offices. Much like Dodge City, Tombstone, or Mos Eisley, it is a "wretched hive of scum and villainy". A city that couldn't possibly exist in real life, it is run almost entirely by rival crime lords who have carved out rival territories that they run almost like medieval fiefs. A crossroads between East and West, it's one of the main cities where mercenaries, smugglers, pirates, and terrorists come to ply their trade. It can almost be seen as a parody of Tokyo or New York where thieves and criminals do in the open what businessmen in those cities do in secret. Ironically the main entrances to the city are guarded by a giant statue of Buddha dedicated to world peace and a noose, a symbol of justice. Of course if there were world peace the arms dealers and mercenaries would all be out of work and if there were real justice all the criminals would be in prison, especially white collar crooks. That might be safer world but it would certainly be a less interesting one.
While not quite perfect, Black Lagoon is certainly a strong series. It balances over-the-top action with witty dialog, interesting characters, and insight in concepts such as alienation and moral ambiguity. As a series it demonstrates that even a genre such as action/adventure can deal with deep, meaningful issues, themes, and ideas. It is not nearly as mindless at it may seem at first glance and is more sophisticated than it has any right to be.
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