• remind me tomorrow
  • remind me next week
  • never remind me
Subscribe to the ANN Newsletter • Wake up every Sunday to a curated list of ANN's most interesting posts of the week. read more

The Moral Relativism of Black Lagoon

by Matthew Roe,

Black Lagoon is an anime defined by its Hollywood-style action and larger-than-life characters. Matthew Roe takes another look at the series to examine the series' unique lens, where everything and everyone are a matter of perspective.

t's easy to look at the words and actions of a person and judge them as socially acceptable, ethically correct, or morally sound. We often see bullies, enemies, and oppressors just as we see the abused, allied, and oppressed - they are solely defined by the label we stamp onto them. But we often forget that our world is not black and white - that we all slop around in the murkiest shade of grey, and nothing as complicated as a human being can be summarized by a single word. What further complicates things, is that the same goes for humans in the macro sense, where entire populations are often summarized by singular elements such as a form of government, or a cultural norm. But we all know that hardly scratches the surface.

However, if we take stock of a person's intent, we are met with a problem. And honestly, one of the best lines I've heard, which summarizes this argument, comes from a 1948 film noir, titled An Act of Murder.

What drives people to extremes is often as varied as the results that they produce. We are conditioned by environmental challenges and trauma to respond to situations in specific ways. Whether defined by affluence, convenience, or hardship, our characteristics build a complex web of contradictions, insecurities, and ideals. We all debate the route, but regardless of how, we all strive for our “best lives.” However, exactly what we mean by that, and whether our ends justify the means, will probably remain one of life's great contentions. So, what could possibly be a better petri dish, to experiment with the depths of the human soul, than an action series so over-the-top that it'd make the Wachowskis blush.

Seriously, I want to see some of this stuff in Matrix 4.

Black Lagoon is a 2006 anime adaptation of the still-running manga by the same name by Rei Hiroe, produced by Studio Madhouse. We are introduced to the mercenary rejects of the Lagoon Company through Rokuro Okajima, a 25-year-old salaryman from Tokyo. While tasked to transport a disc of valuable trade secrets in the South China Sea, he is abducted by the Lagoon crew. However, since he wasn't originally on the menu, things go haywire between them and a band of hired guns, who were dispatched by Okajima's corrupt employers, in order to destroy all the evidence.

While on a desperate call with his boss, it's revealed that the disc contains blueprints for nuclear weapons, which his company was in the process of selling to a warlord. Okajima is now collateral damage in their attempts to brush it under the rug. Faced with annihilation for simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Okajima quickly falls in step, and cooks up a crazy scheme to save the Lagoon. He soon forsakes his life in Japan for a career with these misfits, donning the moniker Rock.

The rest of the series is devoted to the crazy, physics-busting shenanigans of Rock and his new coworkers (Dutch, Benny, and Revy), as they eke out a living in Roanapur, a mecca of crime in the south of Thailand. The city impresses as something crossbred between Frank Miller's Sin City, and the real-life island of Tortuga, which was a pirate haven in the 1600s. You may remember it as that crazy town in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Now, I will be honest, I have not read the original manga. So, I will be approaching the series as its own beast. If you're here, hoping for me to rag on the anime for not being as good as its source material, I am going to thoroughly disappoint you. Without a shred of hyperbole, the story's combination of zany action, sardonic humor, crushingly bleak nihilism, and surprisingly deep introspection (coupled with boatloads of style) make this show one of the best anime series I have ever experienced. In fact, this is securely in my top five, so do with that as you will. But my specific reasons as to why are just as complicated as the characters themselves.

While the various plotlines are fairly straight forward, the overall focus is less about what actually happens in each arc, than how these events cumulatively affect the cast. Smuggling goods and people, psychotic rampages, and showing down with criminal and terrorist organizations almost always become ideological battles between Rock, his fellows, and his adversaries. Though, he most often cracks heads with Revy, but we'll get to that. And before we go propping up Rock as a moral anchor, he's far from that particular vantage.

Rock does appear to be the voice of reason in the group, especially when the antics are so heavily dictated by Revy's bloodlust and greed. He strives to save the innocents who get caught up in the clockwork of Roanapur, and he can often come across as frustratingly naïve, even when his life hangs in the balance. However, his motivations behind these acts are far from altruistic. He projects his ideals onto those around him, and stands back from direct confrontation, positioning other people to facilitate outcomes he's deemed favorable. While he refuses to decide which life he will embrace (that of a pirate or of a typical citizen), he manipulates his new environment as one would a chess match. While he usually insists it's to prevent some impending disaster, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that it is a deep-set result of his prior life. He was controlled and beaten down by his superiors for most of his adulthood, likewise bound by social restrictions and demands. And now, when he is seemingly free, he still must follow rules, whether enforced by the hierarchy of Roanapur, or simply the orders given by Dutch. This is his private revenge on the world.

But, if it appears that I'm saying Rock goes from being a normie to a full-fledged sociopath, it's not quite that cut-and-dry. Just as his life before, he is adapting to his environment. The more that he consciously alters his behavior to suit his needs, the more unconscious change permanently takes place. Whether that's because of the company he keeps, some deeper part of his intrinsic nature, or some hodgepodge of the two, is really up for you to decide. But what is certain, is that he's also the catalyst for other people's transformations, both arbitrarily and emphatically. To be more specific, he changes Revy.

Revy acts as Rock's complement, but not in the ways you might think, as she regularly seems diametrically opposed to him. She considers direct confrontation preferable to Rock's schemes, and though that doesn't make her entirely reckless, she often falls victim to her own temperament. While she considers her methodology to be more forthright, she does come to recognize that Rock is just playing her game from a different angle. Just as Rock's puppetry reflects his life back in Japan, Revy's aggressive opportunism is a direct mirror of her traumatic life in New York City. She is fueled by a desire to survive by any means, and this drive has polluted her reasoning into exploiting situations and weaker people whenever she can. She usually approaches each day as if it's her last, and indulges in the extremes which come along with the lifestyle.

Rock often chastises her for acting so selfishly, yet Revy rarely accepts these remarks as legitimate criticism, even when he has a point. But on the flip side, the same can be said of Rock when Revy takes him down a peg for his self-righteous posturing. This eternal push and pull forces them to act as each other's ballast, and regardless of how much they fight it, they are drawn toward one another. Not in some romantic way necessarily, though Revy definitely has a mild case of the tsunderes, but more because they are kindred minds. However, that doesn't mean they are a comfort to one another. Rock wants to be a hero without fully committing to what that requires, and his ineptitude under fire makes him more of a liability than an asset, on most days. While Revy is fully capable of navigating the world, whether alone or as part of a collective, her scars run deep. She wanted a hero to save her when she was young and powerless, and somewhat resents Rock for his attempts for others, which almost always get him and the Lagoon crew into further trouble. But, she also admires in Rock what is absent in herself, and tries to protect him from the absolute worst that the world has to offer. She'll often claim that he needs to get with the program while she also wants him to stay that idealized fool who strives to see the good in everyone. When Rock has outwardly changed, the relationship between the two also evolves; it's a textbook definition of a complicated relationship.

This characterization is contextualized and compounded by the chaos which swirls around Roanapur. Rock's position as an outsider in both the underworld and in typical life presents a unique outlook which allows him to decode complex situations, and play the field to his advantage. However, despite his best efforts, his plans almost always fall in line with the machinations of the city's most dangerous mafia bosses, most commonly Mr. Chang of the Hong Kong Triad, and Captain Balalaika of Hotel Moscow. But he ends up usually lucking out due to his connections with the rest of the Lagoon squad, since their utility for most of the major powers warrant them a ridiculous amount of free passes.

However, while Revy revels in the destruction she lays in her wake, and Rock plots from the sidelines while largely denying his culpability, Dutch and Benny hardly play about with their advantages on their sleeves. They strive to be low-key and unsuspecting, and always dependable in getting the job done. They accept the darker sides of their contracts as the stark reality of the world, not necessarily reveling in sinister delights, but certainly not caught up in the ethical dubiousness of what they're doing. They manage to keep themselves grounded through cold pragmatism, and calculated risks, which is a direct result of the string of events that led each of them to Roanapur in the first place.

Benny is a college dropout from Florida, who pissed off the mafia and the FBI almost simultaneously, and wound up getting rescued by Revy. However, Dutch's history is a bit of an enigma. Numerous conflicting details often bring the validity of his past into question. Though most commonly, it's accepted that Dutch is an ex-soldier who had fought in the Vietnam War and had gone AWOL with his boat. While outwardly he is just a well-mannered pirate captain with some impressive underworld contacts, he's also a self-educated student of sociopolitical philosophy and psychology, which has cultivated his impressive ability to understand Roanapur, both as individual citizens and as a complete society. But he also makes a point of keeping his personal life shrouded from his compatriots, so even if we know some details about him, they paint an overall picture which is more mysterious than illuminating.

This ambiguousness shrouding Black Lagoon is one the most compelling aspects of the series. We're fed a steady stream of breadcrumbs which allow us to make assumptions and judgements about each of the characters, but the show never over-explains them, allowing the audience to make up their own conclusions. The only character we have nearly complete access to is Rock, which I understand as something unique to the anime, as Rock is not the narrator in the manga. And while I normally am quite against adding narration where it isn't needed (the most egregious example for me being the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner), it actually bolsters the effect of the narrative, as entertainment and a sociological treatise.

Hiroe is on record describing how he takes a ton of inspiration from '90s Hollywood and Hong Kong action films. For example, the Rasta Blasta arc, as well as the Roberta's Blood Trail OVAs, pulls ideas from Robert Rodriguez's Mexico Trilogy. And if you haven't seen El Mariachi, Desperado, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, I have some homework for you.

The bombastic kineticism of Black Lagoon overflows with a genuine love of movie-grade action. From breaking the laws of gravity, slicing bullets in half, to shattering steel between bare teeth, this series balances out its existentially dark foundation with oodles of hilarious kickassery, made all the more entertaining through a phenomenal cast of characters, large and small. Also, since some of y'all have pointed out that I rarely ever talk about an anime's OP, here's where we're gonna flip the script. I have probably listened to this song more times than any other tune introduced to me through an anime opening, except probably the first opening theme to the second season of Attack on Titan. However, the ending themes to both the serialized show and the Roberta's Blood Trail OVAs are going to force me to take a step back from fanboying and actually make some slightly more objective observations.

The first closing song always sneaks into the background of an episode's final moments before rapidly cutting to Revy walking on the beach… and it never works. While I absolutely love Black Lagoon's story, and the many mechanics which make it flow, there is hardly an episode here which ends all that successfully. Too many times an episode would end smack in the middle of a scene, or at fairly weak moment that rarely feels like an actual cliffhanger. While the OVAs are better at pacing the action, the ending song (the American Civil War marching tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) is goofy well past my acceptable threshold. I get why it's used, since the arc is almost entirely defined by the conflict between the American CIA and the gangs of Roanapur. However, with it juxtaposed over a pretty underwhelming slideshow of screenshots, it doesn't make you want to keep going. This feeling is compounded by plenty of moments where the animation, compositing, and modeling just defines the word jank. And in the earlier series, the mid-2000s 3D animation only works about a fourth of the time.

Also, while I've said that Black Lagoon has amazing characters, most of them are underutilized, especially Dutch and Benny. That isn't to say they are inconsequential, or fail to live up to their potential, but simply that we really could have used more of them. This would have gone a long way at helping to better establish the dynamics between the main cast members, as well as their relationship with the many other people with whom they come into contact. People such as Jackpot, Police Chief Watsup, Sawyer the Cleaner, and several other recurring characters are too damn interesting to only get these little tastes here and there. But, this is more a complaint out of gluttony rather than necessity – because as I said before, what is present is more than adequate, but it's so good that I couldn't fathom that more meat on the bones would be a bad thing. But the rest is just a flurry of dismissible nitpicking for me.

Black Lagoon manages to hype me up for some reality-defying action, while simultaneously breaking me down over the absolute cruelty that subsists on all echelons of human civilization. We cheer for the villains, whether due to their affect, impact, or their heart of gold. We find the redemption living within the unredeemable, as well as the mundane evils which persist in our everyday typicality. Whether our pursuits of an ideal life keep us treading water or leads us into the bowels of the abyss, our words, actions, and intent often lie at cross purposes, at least upon first glance. That somehow, we could see destruction, chaos, and exploitation as a means to achieve peace and prosperity. But in reality, what we deem as normal, acceptable behavior is merely a byproduct of the consistent clash between individual and social demands. The ethical and moral implications are often tossed about like hacky sacks, determined by whomever holds the most sway.

Just as Morticia from The Addams Family once said, “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.”

discuss this in the forum (8 posts) |
bookmark/share with: short url

Feature homepage / archives