Dec 26, 2010
immortalrite (All reviews)
In many respects, Black Lagoon is difficult series to review. At its core it is a show which takes what is an essentially interesting and engaging story and then promptly covers it with a rather thick layer of absurdity and an aesthetic love of violence for its own sake. That is to say, for a series which outwardly claims to be "mature" and "realistic," in one sense it succeeds, and in another it fails. [It should also be mentioned beforehand that this will be a review of the first 12-episode installment of the series only, and not the Second Barrage]

Beginning with the positive side, Black Lagoon can be seen first and foremost as story of transformation, namely, a transformation of two of its main characters, Rock and Revy, during the course of the narrative. What the series does particularly well is illustrate how these two individuals are changed for the better not only through their respective circumstances, but through their interactions with one another.

On the one hand, Rock goes from being a whiny, non-confrontational sycophant who has spent his entire adult life working for nothing but a comfortable mid-level position in the business hierarchy to someone who is not only courageous and willing to stand up for himself, but also someone with an unapologetic sense of virtue and ethical character (denounced by Revy as mere residue of his pampered upbringing); in fact, his later insistence on keeping his shirt and tie in a way symbolizes how he has not left the beliefs of his old life behind completely, but rather has managed to strike a kind of sensible medium. The rather dire nature of his initial circumstances (that is, unexpectedly joining a crew of pirates) slowly forces him to realize that there are fundamentally better things in life than climbing the corporate ladder and sucking up to others in a value system of decadence and wealth. Shortly after becoming a hostage on the Lagoon, he himself states that "I guess this must be what they call the Stockholm Syndrome," suggesting that, already at the first episode, he indeed feels more liberated being surrounded by pirates on a ship than pirates in an office. Throughout the series, Rock realizes more and more how hollow and meaningless his former life was and how strangely pleased he is with his new line of work. This does not seem to necessarily be praise of piracy, but rather more simply a love of adventure and, at the same time, a denouncement of the phony smiles and hypocrisy of modern Japanese bourgeoisie culture.

Revy, on the other hand, of course begins her transformation from the complete opposite end of the spectrum. That is, she starts off as a trigger-happy loose cannon with poor judgement, someone who believes that might automatically equals right and that all problems can be solved by threats of physical violence--which is, after all, how she manages to keep Rock under her thumb for the better part of the series. She also exhibits a kind of adolescent pseudo-nihilism, thumbing her nose at compassion and believing that monetary gain is the highest good and the only law. However, through her experiences with Rock she begins to exhibit a more human emotional side, and perhaps begins to realize that she is not as nihilistic as she would have others believe; this is demonstrated particularly well in the final arc, but even more so in her verbal/physical confrontation with Rock in episode 7, which arguably comprises the best and most thematically significant scene of the entire show. It is here that Rock finally stands up for himself, and Revy's full hatred for him is revealed: she hates him not only because he has just shown her that "you can't solve everything with a gun," but also that it is possible for one to be steadfast and virtuous at the same time, even in the face of death. It is here that he points out that she has merely been hiding behind a complex of presumptuous self-victimization and pretentious nihilism and that a person's origins (either privileged or impoverished) cannot act as a surrogate for personal responsibility. It is also here that Rock informs Revy that she was the one who "shook me awake," thereby illustrating that he is indeed conscious of her instrumentality in his own transformation. Thus if the show has a point, and I believe it does, it can all be summed up in this relatively brief, five-minute altercation. Also, notice that it is only after this scene that Revy even begins to treat Rock like a true comrade.

In addition, it is worth mentioning that Black Lagoon's semi-episodic narrative style actually serves this thematic touch rather well. When I first watched it about a year ago, I was disappointed that the given premise of the series (a naive businessman flees his corrupt superiors who attempt to hunt him down) was only carried through the first two episodes. On second viewing however, I realize the importance of having a variation of story arcs, which allows one to focus more on character study than on a linear story, and certainly in this respect marks out the series as a deservedly more mature, seinen title.

However, this is where my praise must end.

To begin, it is important to keep in mind that Black Lagoon is of course still essentially a gun-slinging action series, and in this respect is falters somewhat drastically. That is, for a series which markets itself as something "mature" and "realistic," there is a very noticeable lack of either of these qualities in the bulk of the action-oriented scenes. Firstly, in nearly every hostile encounter, it appears as though Revy is of basically superhuman power and speed, as well as being somehow impervious to physical harm. In episode 1, she takes out an entire squad of trained mercenaries armed with automatic weapons using only two 9mm pistols; she jumps into their midst, kills all of them will relative ease, escaping without a scratch. In episode 3, when the Lagoon is being chased by Chinese mafia, she destroys five boats of men (again, armed with automatics rifles) singlehandedly, again, and does so without a scratch, again. Not only that, she accomplishes all this while leaping from boat to boat, apparently immune to all incoming gunfire. Again in episode 5, when the crew must retrieve a painting from a group of neo-Nazis, Revy is shown casually strolling from one room of their ship to another, killing everyone execution-style, and meeting little to no resistance, despite the fact that they were heavily armed. There are several other examples later on as well, particularly episode 12 where Revy and Shenhua play "tag team" in killing hordes of nameless enemies from the back of a jeep, being sure to make it look as "cool" as possible, regardless of the inherent absurdity. In fact, the only time Revy is even injured is during the fight between her and Roberta the maid-- someone equally as overpowered to superhuman degrees.

In perspective, all of this seems rather half-baked and juvenile. The "maturity" of this kind is simply the maturity of any run-of-the-mill "M"-rated shooting game: plenty of blood and gore, but little necessary attention to how even semi-realistic gunfights might actually take place, even between very skilled opponents. It is almost as if Black Lagoon is uncomfortably stuck somewhere between the lighthearted (and completely unrealistic) bullet-dodging of a Trigun and the brutality and blood-soaked sadism of a Higurashi. There is something very reminiscent of Kill Bill in the grotesqueness and ease with which the blood so freely flows, and despite its more mature side, there is a very strong and unexamined suggestion that violence for the sake of violence is inherently appreciable and makes for quality entertainment by itself. Normally this would be less of an issue, but in a supposedly "realistic" setting where there are no superpowers or cybernetic implants, in practice Black Lagoon seems to take great pride in throwing many such suppositions to the wind. Granted, while some of the show's "stunts" can be amusing in their inherent ludicrousness (e.g. destroying an assault helicopter with a torpedo), most of the time these willy-nilly takes on violence and death simply feel unpleasant and out of place.

As far as technical merits go, this being a Madhouse production there is little that needs to be said. The animation overall is rather excellent and well detailed, although perhaps there is an overly liberal use of CGI, particularly when it comes to animating cars and other distant moving objects. The character designs are Death Note-esque with an obvious tendency towards the cartoony and exaggerated, particularly during comedic moments. For an action series, there is a very effective contrast between the grit and smoke of urban warfare and the beautifully drawn tropical waters and open spaces of the less-inhabited parts of Southeast Asia (particularly the underwater scenes). The soundtrack complements this contrast well by providing a mix of hard rock/metal during most of the gunfight sequences and soft, acoustic guitars and droning ambient during the quiet and contemplative moments, which are surprisingly numerous. A big deal has been made about the English dub, and for the most part, this would be well-deserved. Being an Ocean Group production, the casting and performances are all of the highest quality, particularly when it comes to voicing all manner of distinct accents (Chinese, Scotts-Irish, Spanish). My only complaint about the dub is Maryke Hendrikse's rendition of Revy, which I felt had a kind of unnatural roughness and sounded rather forced and uneven, as opposed to the original Megumi Toyoguchi, who hit a much more convincing medium between gruff and feminine.

Therefore, while Black Lagoon certainly deserves to be praised for what it does well (as seen in its insightful story of personal development, realization, and transformation as well as its social criticism), it is difficult to consider it masterpiece-level work given its obvious penchant for over-the-top absurdity, particularly in its B-level portrayal of violence. It is well paced, looks great, and is sure to entertain all diehard Quentin Tarantino fans, but is not quite consistent enough in either its realism or maturity level to really be considered a work of genuine excellence.