Monday, November 18, 2013

Black Lagoon (two seasons + OVA) Review

Year: 2005 (2010 OVA)
Studio: Madhouse
Genre: Action, Drama

Synopsis: [ANN]
Okajima Rokuro is a Japanese businessman…in a town full of Japanese businessmen. His normal day consists of social drinking with clients and being kicked around by his bosses. He finally gets a break though, as he’s sent by his company to the tropical seas of Eastern China to deliver a disc…only his boat gets hijacked by a band of mercenaries that were hired to steal it. “Rock” (as he is newly dubbed by his captors) catches the interest of the only female merc “Revy” as she thinks he’s worth a ransom, taking him hostage. However, the disc turns out to be more trouble than its worth, and complicates things both for Rock, and the mercenaries known as Black Lagoon.

I contemplated dividing my review into two parts, one for the two seasons and one for the OVAs, which were produced much later, but after some debate, I think it's more sensible and economic to just comment on the whole set since the OVAs are cannon. I had a lot of expectations going into the series after hearing heaps of good things about it, and I can tell you, it did not disappoint; in fact, I've never seen anything quite like Black Lagoon. It's an extraordinary show, not only in its capacity to entertain, but more so in its willingness to venture into some uncomfortably dark places and tread morally grey grounds.

At the centre of the Black Lagoon universe is the city of Roanapur, there is no better descriptor than "it's the place closest to hell and furthest from heaven" – home ground to the deviants and outcasts of society, it thrives on the edge of the civilized world as a petri-dish for illegal activities. If you stumble upon the city by some misfortune, it's best to hop on a boat and transport yourself as far from it as possible or risk being stolen, abducted, or senselessly gunned down in a shootout – which is common place – before you even know it. There is also the alternative of putting on enough bravado to impress a local gang who might let you into the circle and grant you a small piece of unwarranted safety in a world that preys on weakness and vulnerability at every chance it gets. In short, Roanapur is my last choice for a vacation, if it is a choice at all. But despite being callous, corrupted, and irrelevant to everything good and kind, I find it fascinating, mesmerizing even. Out of all the series I've seen that attempts to understand the darkest pockets of the human mind, Black Lagoon paints one of the most vivid, brutally realistic pictures of the underworld, of violence, and of what it means to live a life tiptoeing the moral line.

Being outside of any jurisdiction means Roanapur is not bound by laws of a civilized society as we know it, but as with any functional society – and it is one – survival depends on order and amidst the chaos of Roanapur, there is an established order held in place by its own set of rules and precariously maintained by its occupants. Our main crew, the Black Lagoon, is not your conventional team of heroes or good-doers with a clear social purpose – far from it, they are a part of the darkness as much as the major players directly implicated in the power struggle. The Lagoon Company lives between the cracks and adopts an interesting vantage point through which we, as audience, can observe the complex politics of the underworld without being manipulated into taking sides.

So what do they do you ask? Simple, they transport cargoes for a living – except cargoes in this case constitute everything from dangerous documents, drugs to even humans. The rule in the line of business is feigning ignorance – you don't need to (or want to) know anything about the goods but the fact they need to delivered. Well, at least, that's how it's supposed to work, until a Japanese business man boards the Lagoon. Now Rock is the oddball of the group because he is an outsider, someone largely ignorant of the life style of an outlaw. It's interesting to see the changes he brings to the group dynamic and the conflict he stirs up as a result, particularly in relation to Revy, the foul-mouthed sassy weapon specialist and physical defense of the group. Rock and Revy make a fantastic team, not because they work well together and see eye to eye, but because they don't. Together, they bring to the scene some of the best and most emotionally believable character drama I've seen of any anime and the confrontation midway through season one is as memorable as it gets – we get a glimpse of Revi's vulnerability and the depth of her brokenness. She may be violent, temperamental and sadistic, but as Rock chips away the rough edges with his ideals, yet to be tainted by the harrowing world of Roanapur, we come face to face with the insecure, self-loathing girl whose childhood had been saturated with violence. The moment Rocks challenges her to look within to confront the part of her self she desperately tries forget, I felt overwhelmingly sad – it's like having your scars, ugly and still bleeding, exposed in the sunlight for all to see and pick at. On another note, you can't talk about the confrontation without paying homage to the famous cigarette kiss – a gesture of reconciliation between two people who just gained a new level of acceptance of one another by way of an intense mental as well as physical clash – which I find poignant and strangely romantic.

How I love Rock for his meddling, while everyone else is in the mutual understanding of keeping to themselves, he probes and questions, and stubbornly indulges in his ideals even when nothing really comes out of it. As he always says, he stands in the twilight and regards Roanapur with the questioning eye of an outsider. From how I see it, Rock's moral goodness reminds everyone of their own humanity and as the sole connection to the world they left behind, his relatively innocuous presence becomes the light that keeps the shadow at bay. His idealism, no matter how futile in practical application, balances the grim atmosphere penetrating much of the show. Though in the second season of the series, Rock undergoes considerable psychological change as two major chapters – the Romanian twins arc and Fujiyama gang arc – mercilessly puncture the optimism and hopes he had been holding on to.

I find the twins arc to be an especially challenging watch experience; provoking and deeply disturbing, it attests to Black Lagoon's dark vision with an unapologetic fierceness. There is no denying the twins are monsters devoid of human compassion, even when they sport a facade so innocent it's hard to believe they are capable of such heinous acts. But more than monsters, they are products of violence, of the human capacity for evil. I find myself as horrified as Rock when she flashes her genitalia to him as a reward for his kindness – it's unnerving, sickening to the core, but more than anything, profoundly tragic. The most depressing part for me is the grim realization that fiction may be exaggerated, but it is reality it draws from and mirrors. I have no doubt many children out in the world today, through extreme abuse, become psychologically damaged beyond repair. And like the twins, their perception of themselves and others may be warped to the extent that a functional existence without destruction is impossible. To me, the best kind of character is one that evokes the emotions in the audience they themselves experience, and Rock fits the bill perfectly. I empathize with him – which is intended I believe given the role he plays – and his frustration and sense of powerlessness resonates with me acutely.

What's fascinating is while Rock gradually gets consumed by Roanapur and his life style with the Lagoon, Revy on the other hand grows more sympathetic over the course of the second season, evident in her attempts in trying to shelter him from further emotional and psychological shock. While in Japan, she tries convince him to leave the Lagoon and return to his previous life, even when she had clearly grown attached to him. Yukio's death snaps something in Rock. She reminds him of himself as they were both helplessly thrusted into a world they have little control over. It is as much about saving her as it is salvaging his own sanity, so the blow is devastating when he ultimately fails.

With all this talk, you would think I'm reviewing an anime driven purely by character drama –which is true to some extent – but Black Lagoon is most and foremost a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping action piece, just one that succeeds tremendously in balancing drama with action. I don't think it's practical to elaborate on what I feel about every character and plot thread, it would likely take me another 20 paragraphs and not even I have that much patience to spare. So long story short, Black Lagoon is one of those anime that doesn't really have a central antagonist who's conveniently responsible for every havoc; the fact of the matter, it works entirely in the grey when it comes to antagonist and constantly blurs the line between right and wrong. Well, of course, unless you regard the entire Roanapur as a foul, morally unsound existence needing to be corrected. Take Balalaika and Chang for instance, the two bosses in the series are neither villains nor saints – they are morally ambiguous and refuse to be neatly packed into pre-labeled boxes. For the most part, they serve their own interest and only take action when there is profit to be gained. And not all that different from political relationships of our modern day world, they are allied when their collective interest is threatened, but all the while deeply cautious of one another. What I want to get across is Black Lagoon is much more than entertainment, it is a socially and politically conscious show that goes beyond mindless actions.    

Also thrown into the odd mix of characters is Roberta, an maid/ex-soldier with superhuman combat abilities and the centre of conflict in the OVAs. Ironically, for the level and scope of destruction she's capable of, she's one of the most conscientious characters in the show, often guilt-ridden over her past. Fearlessly loyal to her new-found family, she goes on a rampage when the master gets accidentally killed during an explosion staged by U.S agents. But with Rock's risky scheme, she eventually gets her happy ending – again reaffirming the message that hate is destructive while compassion propagates peace. Almost uncharacteristic of the series, which is morally ambiguous in all aspects, Roberta's development is well-defined with a clear purpose. Though, our Lagoon company, Rock and Revy in particular, seem more lost than ever by the end of the series. Rock, still standing in the twilight, develops a much darker persona by the event of the OVAs. He grows detached and even manipulative, evident in the way he handled the Roberta episode. As for Revy, we get more fragmented images of her past, this time in more graphic details. Collectively, the OVAs are a shade darker than the previous seasons, both atmospherically and visually. Taking advantage of the upgraded animation, it's also more expressive and bold in its presentation of the bloodbath.

I appreciate the uncertainty that underlies the story because it entails potential for change. Black Lagoon is one of the best action series I've ever seen – thought provoking and unapologetic, it doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence by feeding us senseless violence and self-important morals. For sure, it's not an anime for the weak of stomach and one needs to be mentally prepared for the disturbing themes. Graphically, the first two seasons are actually milder than what I expected but the OVA does take it up another notch. The animation is detailed and dynamic, exceptional even for its time. It sits squarely in Madhouse's comfort zone and the studio put forward their best effort. Madhouse is a studio that does groundbreaking works and always willing to take risks with their production – a creative vision for which I have a lot of respect and appreciation. It's unfortunate that the mangaka isn't in any hurry to progress the story – the manga was on hiatus for three years and only came back on track recently, though still plagued with frustratingly slow release. One of the only drawbacks of the series for me is the lack of development for Benny and Dutch, who are tremendously interesting characters in their own right. But complaints aside, Black Lagoon is a rare beast that will satisfy action junkies and deep thinkers alike. It's violent but doesn't glorify violence, thematically complex but doesn't get bogged by with contrivance. It's an anime I cannot recommend enough.

Overall: 9.5/10

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