Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Blu-Ray - The Complete Series [Premium Edition]
Rock was resigned to a life of bowing heads and licking boots as a workaday Japanese salaryman. But when a business trip gets derailed by pirates somewhere in the south china sea, Rock finds himself trapped with a rowdy gang of killers and thieves, his fate tied to theirs as they're pursued by even crazier mercenaries. Now, having realized his company doesn't care whether he lives or dies, Rock's going to choose death on his own terms - the death of his old self, and the beginning of a new one as the newest member of the cutthroat Lagoon Company.
It's no surprise Black Lagoon has maintained such an enduring reputation among action fans. Even on the level of base premise, the show presents something fresh and exciting - a multinational cast of smugglers and thieves terrorizing the southern asian coasts, offering plenty of global intrigue and unique villains to cross with. And the execution holds up, too - the show isn't likely to win awards for its art design, but sharp character designs and loving depictions of slum-city Roanapur's squalor make for a sturdily built visual production. But even though Black Lagoon's appeal seems obvious, there's actually a fair amount to unpack with the show, both good and bad. So I'll start right at the top.
Black Lagoon opens in the middle of the action, with protagonist Rock stranded on a boat with two guns pointed in his face. Having been snagged as the courier middleman in a backroom deal of his uncaring corporate overlords, Rock finds himself marooned in the south china sea, hitching a ride with pirates as his old company hires mercenaries to retrieve his cargo. Rock quickly realizes his company doesn't care about his own fate, and seeing a kind of mad freedom in the way his new pirate acquaintances live their lives, he decides to sign on with their company. And so Rock joins reliable captain Dutch, mild mechanic Bennie, and psychotic gunman “Two-Hands” Revy on their merry adventures, stealing loot and transporting contraband and occasionally running up against the less savory denizens of Roanapur's underworld.
Black Lagoon plays out as a series of multi-episode adventure/heist/shootouts, with the Lagoon company taking on a number of jobs that inevitably end up being more complicated than they'd hoped. Though the show is full of details alluding to the various characters' gritty pasts and cold war grudges, violent silliness tends to reign for much of the show's run. The crew run up against a shipful of actual nazis at one point, and later are chased by an unkillable terminator-esque housemaid and a woman who fights with a chainsaw. How much you'll enjoy this material will ride very heavily on your tolerance/appreciation for over-the-top ultraviolence and silly spectacle - for all the show's dramatic pretensions and real-world references, the potential of violence for generating “wasn't that cool” moments often feels like the guiding principle.
If you do enjoy that sort of stuff (think Hellsing or John Woo, probably this show's easiest comparison points), Black Lagoon is very, very good at it. I'm actually not much a fan of violence for its own sake, but I was still drawn along by how tightly composed this show's various adventures tended to be. The show will occasionally build up an action duel in a way that feels a little drawn out, but most of the time scenes charge forward at breakneck speed, varying perspectives and introducing new variables and keeping the audience from ever getting bored. Stories here aren't just a series of direct battles - there are thrilling escapes, high-stakes negotiations, well-laid traps, and all manner of other compelling turns. From the settings to the villains involved to the narrative structure, Black Lagoon rarely uses any dramatic trick twice.
The one running thread through the series is the contrast between the “light” and “dark” sides of society, and how Rock consistently finds himself stranded on the borderline between them. The show's handling of this is inconsistent, and most of the worst material here comes in the show's first half. Rei Hiroe clearly has a fascination with violence and humanity's “dark side,” and though this works well enough as a theme, it's an obsession that bleeds through into almost every character's voice. Most of the show's episodes are punctuated by repetitive, overlong meditations on the captivating, capricious nature of crime. The way characters self-consciously refer to themselves as doomed villains often feel like a teenager's idea of a tormented criminal, and not like actual people brought to actual life positions because of actual circumstances. These overwritten monologues (along with scattered wince-worthy lines from characters like Revy) weigh the story down, and feel totally out of place in a show that also features evil twins and killer maids.
Fortunately, in the show's last third, it actually starts to earn that style of meditative storytelling. In the second half of the show's second season, Black Lagoon moves into an arc that returns Rock to Japan with Revy at his side. Rock is there to act as translator for post-USSR crime boss Balalaika, as she attempts to consolidate power among the yakuza - but as Rock finds himself getting pulled into the yakuza side of this conflict, his position becomes ever more ambiguous. His meetings with the resigned head of a fading yakuza clan reflect nicely on his own tenuous position in the criminal underworld, and his relationship with hardened killer Revy becomes very compelling as the complexity of what each represents for the other grows. These substantial improvements in theming and characterization, along with a more subdued approach to action storytelling, carry through into the excellent OVA, “Roberta's Blood Trail.” There, an assassination in Venezuela ends up setting off a series of events that threaten peace in Roanapur altogether, with Rock being forced to act as chessmaster in an arc that strains his humanity more than any before. Black Lagoon starts as a very silly action extravaganza, but it eventually arrives at some moments with real dramatic weight.
The show's aesthetics, though not truly great, are well up to the task of supporting its dramatic aspirations. The character designs are strong and consistent, and though the animation is almost never impressive, it's rarely ostentatiously bad. The show generally avoids any shootouts that might strain its animation resources, cutting away from serious duels in a way that might frustrate those expecting consistent action, but is certainly preferable to fight scenes full of still frames. The show's backgrounds are also solid, with scenes at sea and on land alternately evoking the beauty of nature and the squalor of the Lagoon company's city and circumstances.
The direction is normally just serviceable, but steps up to exhibit real personality at key moments. The terminator maid episodes nicely convey the menace of its starring character, and Roberta's Blood Trail is a strong visual upgrade altogether, from its starkly palleted backgrounds to the way it consistently creates multiple planes of space in the frame. The music is generally less exciting (a whole bunch of passable but uninteresting electronic tracks), but that too shows off with some fun guitar and bass-heavy stuff at climactic moments. And the show's ending song deserves special note - most episodes end with a slow, melancholy fade into sad strings, adding a nice emotional punch to a show that sometimes seems to be having too much unquestioned fun with its violence.
Black Lagoon comes in a classy chipboard case styled like an ammo carton, which along with the show's four blurays contains some creative physical extras. There's the glossy artbook you might expect (no production art, just a series of character and group portraits), but also a Black Lagoon-embossed dog tag, and even a zippo lighter. On-disc extras include the usual clean opening/closing sequences and some trailers, along with an extended feature starring the dub cast and crew. Interviewees include the dub director, writer, and the actors for Rock, Revy, and Dutch. The character actors mostly talk about their various character motivations (fun fact: before trying out voice work, Dutch's actor Dean Redman worked as both a stuntman and a commercial pilot), while the director covers the production as a whole, and talks about stuff like his excitement at handling a production where so many of the main characters would actually speak English as their first language.
The dedication of the dub staff is clear in the quality of the final product. The performances throughout are very solid, though Revy's voice stands out as not quite matching the original tone. In Japanese, Revy's voice matches the dead-eyed anger of her appearance, and implies violence through an almost monotone sneer. In English, she has more of an emotive and snarky tone, and seems less darkly intimidating than just aggressive. It's a shift in character style that will likely come down to preference, though personally I felt the original voice actresses' take was a better match for the tone the show was trying to strike. The other big difference is the dub script lays on the swears far thicker than the sub, which again falls into preference. And when Revy and Rock end up traveling to Japan, the dub actually handles the awkward language assumptions more gracefully than the sub (mostly by not trying as hard to have actors speak fluently in languages they're not fluent in).
Overall, Black Lagoon is an easy recommendation for anyone who enjoys the old ultraviolence, and even offers some fun for those preferring weightier adventure thrills. I honestly wouldn't recommend it unless you're inherently interested in stuff like serial killing housemaids, because it takes a good season and a half to get beyond that style, but by the end I was solidly on board with the whole production. If wild action is your scene, Black Lagoon is a bloody good time.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Is very good at telling bloody adventure stories; pacing and narrative structure is strong throughout; last arcs successfully reach for more thoughtful drama.
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