I’ve been re-watching “Black Lagoon.” For those of you who don’t know, it is a bit of genuine seinen noir about the adventures of the er… um… “transportation” company, Black Lagoon. They operate out of the mythical pirates’ den, Roanapur, in southern Thailand near the South China Sea. Business is a combination of piracy, gun-running, drug smuggling, item retrieval, and criminal transport – sometimes voluntary, sometimes not.
The anime starts out vaguely light-hearted and then quickly descends into a body count and a level of darkness and despair that Quentin Tarantino can only envy. The real story doesn’t kick in until episode 9, Maid to Kill. Everything previous is getting you familiar with the characters and the environment.
Rokuro Okajima is a low-level salaryman tasked with delivering a disc with secret information concerning certain illegal activities of his company. (He knows nothing of the contents.)
Things don’t go quite the way his employer had planned. The freighter he was a passenger on is intercepted by Black Lagoon and he’s kidnapped with the disk. He and his disk get redirected to Hotel Moscow, an organized crime group made up of expatriate soldiers who served in the Soviet-Afghan war.
His company ransoms the disk but writes him off, sends an assassin after him, and declares him dead. Rokuro has nowhere to go and no life to return to. Black Lagoon, in an act of charity, takes him on as an extremely junior member. He gets the nickname of “Rock” because… well every pirate needs a cool name and “Rokuro” isn’t cool. He has more than a little adjustment to do, going from a nervous wage-slave kowtowing before superiors who don’t even acknowledge his existence to the violent and blood-soaked existence that is the life of the underworld.
The other members of Black Lagoon include Benny, a tech wizard and hacker par excellence, Dutch the leader, and Revy.
Dutch is a huge, heavily muscled Black man who claims to have been a swift boat operator in a Mekong Delta in the American-Vietnamese war. He deserted and went mercenary, eventually founding Black Lagoon with the other lead character, Revy.
Benny was a whiz kid from the University of Florida who got into hacking for fun and profit until he ran afoul of both the FBI and the US Mafia. He’s not a person for guns and claims Jewish descent. He was on the run and likely soon to be dead until Black Lagoon took him in. This sets a prior history up of Dutch and Revy taking in strays. It makes Rock more believable.
Revy is the co-lead in this story. She is a kireina josei from hell. I hate to call her a protagonist. She is attractive. She’s strong. She partners with Rock on their adventures and is protective of him – when she isn’t ready to kill him.
But… she has an extreme violent streak that takes joy in killing. When she “sees red,” Revy has a propensity to go berserk and kill everyone in sight – including innocent bystanders. Dutch calls it her “Whitman” streak after the University of Texas mass shooter Charles Whitman.
The anime is full of references to the history of the 60s and 70s. (Even the title is an homage to a famous B movie of the mid 50s, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.) Most people today will completely miss them. That’s sad because they add to the atmosphere.
There are two regular seasons and a third season released in 5 OVAs, all by Madhouse. The manga was first released in 2002 (haven’t read it) and season one opened in 2006. Given the age of the characters relative to Vietnam and Afghanistan, it must be set in the 80s. In 2002, Dutch would have to be at least 70 years old.
Revy is not the only character with a berserker streak. Along the way she meets and clashes with other women with such tendencies. It is almost always women. And even children.
Revy – aka “Two Hands” for her pistol shooting style and originally Rebecca Lee – has a painful history. She is Chinese-American and was born into poverty. Her father beat and otherwise abused her. When she ran away from home, a cop caught her then beat and raped her. When she was returned home, her father continued to abuse her so she shot him.
Over the next few years, Revy had more negative interactions with the 27th Precinct culminating in prison time where she apparently escaped. Her attitude to the world is nihilistic, that is to say, nothing matters to her. Human notions of morality are baseless and worthless and God doesn’t exist or is irrelevant. All that matters to her are guns and money.
This is pretty much Dutch’s attitude as well except he doesn’t go berserk. Benny still retains some values from his previous life but has accepted the reality into which he’s been thrust. Rock is the one with the problem. He can’t easily suspend his bourgeoise sense of morality – and his tendency to tilt at windmills is an element in most of the arcs in the series. He wants to save people and in this environment, it turns out to be virtually impossible.
So what is it all about? There is a more than a passing resemblance to another anime classic, Cowboy Bebop. The crew of the Bebop are not as nihilistic and the blood does not flow as copiously. Bebop is seinen that was still intended to be compatible with a shounen audience. Black Lagoon is something I’d want to keep young kids away from. Both are considered examples of “noir” anime, that is anime that shows the seedy underside of the world.
You can see a parallel structure with Revy being clearly a much darker version of Spike and Dutch is a much darker shade of Jet. (Pun intended!) There’s even a correlation between Benny and Ed. The correlation fails between Faye and Rock. For that to work, she’d have to start out as an ingenue and slowly toughen up as she develops into the thinker of the group. Faye was a part of the world’s seedy underside from the very beginning.
Everybody is involved here, the CIA, the KGB, the NSA, Nazis, Colombian drug cartels, FARC (Colombian communist rebels), the Mafia, the Yakuza, the Triads, US Special Forces, Golden Triangle poppy growers, even the Catholic Church – and Black Lagoon doing business with them all. I could not begin to talk about all the characters who have important roles in the show.
More important is the concept of the “discovered” family. Both Bebop and Black Lagoon are about dysfunctional families that are created when people who have no family band together in a dangerous enterprise. They stay together because they have no other place to go. It is interesting to note that the Rock-Revy relationship is more like that of siblings than business partners and doesn’t appear to be at all romantic. (Of course, they could change that with another season.) For a show about the criminal underworld, there is almost no sexuality and none at all among the main characters.
Black Lagoon is also about damaged people. We don’t get into Dutch and Benny’s brokenness much, presumably that would be manga material and I don’t read manga. Revy’s brokenness is front and center. It drives her to madness with her guns.
Rock was damaged by experience as a wage slave but far more damaged by his company’s callous dismissal of his very existence. All of the crew refer to themselves as walking dead doing the dance of death in the city of death.
The people they encounter are also damaged goods, birds with broken wings who found a way to survive. A maid who was herself terribly damaged in the Colombian drug wars fighting to save a boy who had everything taken from him. A girl who ought to have been studying for college and flirting with boys and giggling with girlfriends being swept up by Yakuza intrigue. Two young siblings, sexually abused and turned into sociopathic monsters. All are damaged goods who Rock wants to save.
Rock has not been beaten down as much as Revy. He still maintains some notion of right and wrong. When he broaches the notions of morality to her she often reacts angrily. He is dredging up painful memories she had suppressed and feelings of helplessness and violation she had long left behind. It is to protect against those feelings she becomes Revy the two-handed and Revy the destroyer. There is weakness under the steel facade.
Yet when Rock appears to be sinking into the miasma of Roanapur and becoming just another pirate, Revy gets angry as well, telling him he has to leave the city. Revy sees a tiny candle of hope still burning within him and as much as she derides him for it, she doesn’t want it snuffed out. In fact, every pirate he meets sees something special in him, something not yet consumed by the dark.
So, that is Black Lagoon, a story about damaged people forming a grudging family. About an office worker whose world gets turned upside down yet keeps trying to do some good, to save someone, anyone, from the night. About a woman filled with despair and rage. And about a seedy underworld that only exists because the “good” people of the world insist on their criminal luxuries. Revy has hardly begun to heal and Rock has hardly begun to save people. There really could have been more seasons.
But maybe there doesn’t need to be. Perhaps what they have found is all they’ll ever have.