-MONTHLY FILM & TV REVIEW-
Black Lagoon volumes one - three|
director: Sunao Katabuchi
300 minutes (15) 2006 MVM DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Richard Bowden
A creation of eastern production team Madhouse and American Geneon from an original
graphic novel by Rei Hiroe, Black Lagoon (aka: Burakku ragûn) is an
adult-aimed anime series which turns out well above average, even if not quite on the consistent
level as such standalone Madhouse features as Millennium Actress (2001), or Tokyo Godfathers
(2003). At the heart of Black Lagoon is Japanese salaryman Okajima Rokuro. He's initially
introduced as the downtrodden menial of a Nipponese corporation, working out of his depth in the
South China Seas during a risky exchange of nuclear weapons data. This is done with the help of
a heavily armed 'shipping company' - actually waterborne pirate mercenaries, who ply their dubious
trade out of the torpedo gunboat Black Lagoon.
Seen as dispensable by his indifferent superiors once this initial business is concluded,
Rokuro is unexpectedly adopted by the mercenaries, who spot in this bewildered white-collar
recruit something that his old dismissive employers haven't. His new colleagues include Revy,
a embittered girl fighter, lethal in action with her two pistols and who loves to steal, Benny,
a more sympathetic technical guy, and Dutch, a bulky African-American (his air of effortless
cool throughout perhaps modelled on Samuel L. Jackson), war veteran, and owner of the boat.
Calling himself by the new name of 'Rock', Rokuro faces a steep learning curve as the new member
of the modern-day pirate crew, but joins in several violent and tense episodes.
Much of the particular flavour and interesting tensions within Black Lagoon can be put
down to its split production origins, a dichotomy also reflected in dramatis personnel. Besides
Dutch there's a Jewish-American (Benny) and Chinese-American (Revy), as well as Rock's Japanese
presence. At the same time, set pieces familiar from American action cinema jostle for screen
time with characterisation and some graphic styling typical of homegrown manga. As the varied
team undertake a series of assignments (at least in First Barrage, the name of the series'
initial half, reviewed here), it gradually leads to an escalating tension between Rock and Revy.
The new recruit, out of the boardroom and now onboard, so to speak, seeks to establish himself in
a new and bewildering world, where he has a chance of gaining the respect previously denied him.
Revy has issues and internal strife all of her own, increasingly aggravated by the new arrival.
It's the relationship between these two that's at the heart of the series, and gives events a
centre of gravity. As white-collar Rock gradually grows into his new relationships, so Revy has
to face up to new emotions and truths. Confrontations will make her doubt the real strengths of
her much vaunted self-reliance, and how much her troubled past still influences her. It becomes
obvious that, despite her best efforts, a problematic relationship is forming between her and
the new arrival. Meanwhile, Rock's corporate-inspired guile, outwardly conservative image, and
sly negotiating skills gained in a past life prove an increasingly valuable asset, even as he
assesses his past existence in the light of the new.
Operating out of the south Pacific city of Raonapur as the 'Lagoon Trading Company', Dutch's
small professional team one held together by a quirky mixture of greed, bravado and camaraderie.
Their main, continuous interaction is with a former Soviet military officer known as Balalaika,
a big wheel in the crime world they inhabit and service. She quickly uses the Lagoon Company to
help secure her ascendancy. In events after that, concerning a group of Nazis and a sunken submarine,
she is largely absent, but comes to prominence again as events proceed, notably during the episodes
of The Unstoppable Chambermaid. Here she helps to adjudicate at the finish, bringing to a
climax stormy events between Revy and the murderous servant Roberta (a peculiarly enigmatic figure,
demure but full of unstoppable violence), which have played out with a due nod to The Terminator.
Towards the end of this first series Rock and Revy again provide the most interest from point of
character until, at the close, we learn some more about her personal history from the CIA, which
continues the process of humanising her, putting her life more in context.
It's no surprise then that the closing credits of each show are shown over a notably melancholic
sequence, reflecting Revy's trademark emotional desolation. The viewer follows her feet and lower
legs along a beach watching her slowly discard cartridges, shoes and trademark twin handguns into
the sand. Then, with a final flourish, Revy turns abruptly and confronts us with another weapon,
as if warning against any attempt at communication. In contrast to the interest generated by such
handicapped and resentful psychology, other parts of Black Lagoon are less rich in character studies,
as individuals too readily give up what secrets they have. For instance, the Nazis faced by the team
in the three-episode Die Ruckkehr des Adlers sequence are stereotypes, cardboard fanatics with
none of the originality we find elsewhere. Only the claustrophobic scenes set inside the sunken
submarine, rife again with tension between Rock and Revy, give this section much interest.
It's been a while since director Katabuchi's previous work appeared - the little known but,
at least to those who've seen it, well-regarded feature Princess Areti (2001), and this
present show is his first series since the juvenile Famous Dog Lassie (1996). One is
willing to bet that Black Lagoon shows a considerable advance in sophistication over both
of those. Certainly a good deal of his new series is taken up with violent set pieces that, typical
of the genre, often bring an episode's climax. This is all orchestrated with some é�lan, but
in matters of sex Black Lagoon remains surprisingly reticent. Some viewers will note the coded
lesbianism of Balalaika, or the constant smoking and cigarettes, those small symbols of virility,
which are passed round or enjoyed by characters during the film. There are the hot pants of the
busty Revy, clearly geared towards the fantasies of a male audience even if her continuously sexualised
character remains an erotic aspiration only. She even expresses a surprising innocence early on when
accidentally confronted by Balalaika's pornography ("do you mean he is actually going to put
that up her ass?"). Mostly, adult sexuality is confined to the background: mute whores in bar
rooms, or the surrounding street life.
If the vividly realised experience of Black Lagoon can teach Revy - or us - anything more worthwhile,
its the importance of establishing one's place in life with dignity, all the while discovering and
valuing real friends. Worthwhile relationships are at a premium in a lawless city such as Raonapur.
Those like Balalaika can only purchase the loyalty of associates; Nazis combine together through
blind political obedience, Taiwanese assassins are necessarily hirelings, or servants like Roberta
remain emotionally stunted. On Dutch's small, intimate boat however, people interrelate on a far more
critical level. Here genuine loyalty and trust can quite literally mean matter of life and death.
DVD extras on the set are fairly limited. Of principal interest is the 15-minute 'making of'
documentary, which emphasises the importance of characterisation to all concerned, as well as
the anticipation the series created among fans. The Stateside voice talent seem overly pleased
with their contributions, which, to this viewer at least, are adequate rather than outstanding.
Tantalisingly, we learn that the Lagoon Company was inspired by a real life organisation, although
details are brief. Such a striking revelation cries out for more expansion than we are given here,
and would have given the series' peculiar flavour more contexts. There are also trailers, a music
video, an alternate opening as well as a 'clean' version of the striking end credit sequence.