Black Lagoon: Blood, Bullets, Beauties, and Crime on the South Asia Seas
For this week’s installment of Animanga Viewpoint, I’m going to discuss the franchise that causes me a great deal of personal internal conflict: Black Lagoon.
Straight up warnings for the squeamish: Black Lagoon is definitely adults only fare. The content includes graphic violence, nudity, prostitution, rape, gangland crime, along with an absolute and complete disregard for human life and human decency. This is primarily because Black Lagoon is a noir story about criminals being, well, criminal.
Thus the beginnings of my internal conflict come into focus. I am, at heart, a person given very much to trying to take the high road and lead an upright life. I don’t romanticize crime or criminals and I believe that taking a life is something that should be done when you have no other choice and then only with great regret. Pretty much every character in Black Lagoon is my figurative nemesis.
And yet, I still read and enjoy each issue.
Okay, allow me to perform my quick, trademark overview. The story of Black Lagoon centers on the semi-piratical crew of the Black Lagoon, a World War II PT-boat whose primary utilization is for various kinds of smuggling based out of the fictional outlaw city of Roanapur, Thailand. The captain of this ship is a hugely muscled black man named Dutch who claims to be an American veteran of the Vietnam War. (As an aside, authors like Rei Hiroe need to let go of Vietnam for characters. The youngest US grunt who actually pulled a trigger in ‘Nam is now pushing 60. Give it up and let the archetype go.) Also aboard the boat are two other original crew members: Benny, a super geek on the lam from both the FBI and the Mob, and our main female protagonist, Revvy also known as “Two Hand”, who is the gunslinger/troubleshooter for the team and about one hair short of shooting anything that moves.
The kickoff of the narrative begins with the arrival of Rokuro Okajima to the wonderful confines of the seas of Southeast Asia on a delivery mission for his Corporation. Unbeknownst to him, he’s been set up as a sacrificial lamb in a double-blind game with nuclear weapons technology up for grabs. When the crew of the Black Lagoon jump Rokuro’s ship looking for the data discs they’ve been told to “acquire”, then end up taking our hapless salary man along as a spur of the moment hostage.
Things go from bad to worse when it comes to light that not only has Rokuro been set up as a patsy from the word go, but that everyone aboard the Black Lagoon has been lined up for a trip down the same express elevator to Hell. The end result of this is that Rokuro teams up with the crew of the Lagoon to turn the tables on the corporations and thugs that are out to use them and come out ahead of the game in the end.
And Rokuro becomes “Rock” and the newest member of the crew.
So, this first mission introduces us not only to Rock and Revvy, about whom most of the stories eventually turn, but also to Balalaika, the burn-scarred yet still alluring commander of a battalion of expatriate former Spetznatz troops known as “Hotel Moscow” who are now an extended arm of the Russian mafia. There’s also Mr. Chang, the Chinese Triad’s local rep in Roanapur. Oh, and don’t forget the “Church of Violence” with their collection of rather extreme gun-toting nuns like the well-endowed and completely conscience-free Eda – who is a lot more than just that.
In fact, every volume of Black Lagoon just explodes with extreme lawless characters and their matching acts of over-the-top larceny. Lesser-presence characters like Sawyer the “cleaner” and Shenhu the assassin liven things up every step of the way.
Black Lagoon is technically a “girls with guns” manga because the preponderance of main or significant characters involved with each story tends to be female. Revvy, Shenhu, Balalaika, Sawyer, the terminator-maid Roberta, etc., they all are way too heavily armed and ready to spatter blood at the drop of a beer bottle. That having been said, there’s also strong male characters throughout. Dutch is unflappably calm and yet you can sense the man’s looming presence in both his dialogue and the art. Rock starts out beyond his depth, but he quickly adapts and changes in order to survive. (Especially at first, when Revvy is about one click short of killing him herself when they first team up.) There’s a faint tinge of romance here and there in the telling between Rock and Revvy, but it’s as hard to get hold of as the smell of cigarettes in a strong wind. Frankly, given the background and fundamental danger involved with establishing any kind of relationship with any of the women in Black Lagoon, Rock’s better off keeping it that way.
See, the thing is, Black Lagoon won’t give you a hero to cheer for. Even Rock, who starts out trying to do the right thing, eventually does stuff that you can’t really endorse. Revvy’s a murdering psychopath, in all honesty. Balalaika has a wish to die in combat that could well take all of Roanapur with it someday. Dutch is enigmatic and without conscience. Lenny’s out for himself above all and doing his best to keep his head down otherwise. See?
And yet, the characters have “grab”. You end up, well, not directly empathizing but more along the lines of being interested in what happens to each character and where they came from. The stories are well told if not very savory. Each character has a past and a destiny. Now, most of the destinies are probably related to ending up being rendered by Sawyer in her little backroom abattoir, but that still counts.
Rei Hiroe’s art is definitely not lacking either. There’s depth in his detail and rendering of everything from characterization to backgrounds. The action sequences flow in a way that conveys the impact of what’s happening while not leaving the reader too overloaded to follow along. He manages to convey both the allure of the women along with their more dangerous aspects simultaneously. Revvy is a classic case in point. Physically, she appears at first to be overwhelmingly sexy and curvaceous if you can ignore the guns she sticks in the faces of her victims. However, it doesn’t take long for you to notice the wear and tear her life has placed on her, which usually shows up in the details of how her eyes are drawn. That’s the mastery of Hiroe’s art, the subtle details that create an impression that you only become aware of over time.
I consider Black Lagoon to be a worthy read because of the mastery of character development, involved and intriguing story lines, and awesome art. I hate the activities and twisted criminality that is depicted in the setting, but I still can’t help enjoying this action series.