Amidst all the furore surrounding Geneon’s uncertain future there were several new titles that I feared would never make it to UK shelves; one of those was Black Lagoon. It’s fair to say BL’s reputation preceded it: I’d heard a lot about this action-packed tale of kidnappings, gun-fights and double crosses on the high seas so it was a pleasant surprise to see the show in my review pile. Fortunately I wasn’t disappointed by what I saw either.
I’ll admit that there are plenty of bounty hunter-style shows around with similar setups involving a Joe Average thrown in amongst an assorted bunch of hard-up criminals who do cool things to eke out a living, but Black Lagoon somehow manages to make one hell of an impression. For one thing it has Studio Madhouse in charge of the production (a reason for me to love it right there); secondly it has Attitude. The capitalisation was wholly intentional, by the way. Black Lagoon has a whole boatload of Attitude and then some.
The fish-out-of-water Joe Average in this case is a hapless fellow named Rokuro Okajima. His life in the humdrum white-collar rat race ends when he is kidnapped by a bunch of mercenaries who are given the task of seizing a data disc that Rokuro had the misfortune to be carrying while on an overseas business trip. The mercenaries may have a well-armed boat and a taste for rum but that’s where the resemblance to old-fashioned pirates ends: left high and dry by his unscrupulous employers while captured at gunpoint and held for ransom, Rokuro’s captors become new-found ‘friends’ as they find themselves up to their necks in industrial espionage, Russian mafia types and all manner of other low-lifes.
When the action scenes are exhilarating to the point of the outrageous (the finale to a boat chase in particular wouldn’t look out of place in a John Woo or Die Hard movie), it takes a colourful cast to make it more than just a forgettable adrenaline rush. They’re an interesting bunch actually, having the token shady pasts and devil-may-care attitudes but offering plenty of entertainment value with the way their personalities bounce off one another. Dutch is your laconic muscle-bound team leader who negotiates jobs and keeps the others in check; Benny is a technical whiz with a penchant for loud shirts; and Revy is an especially bad-ass take on the feisty gun-toting female (imagine Cowboy Bebop’s Faye Valentine crossed with Full Metal Panic!’s Melissa Mao after spending a few months hanging out with the A team).
Throwing poor old Rokuro (who soon gets nicknamed Rock by Revy and co) into this mismatched group of hardened bounty-hunters is a predictably amusing culture shock, as he gradually grows used to their seat-of-your-pants lifestyle: I’m looking forward to seeing him gradually toughen up as he comes to terms with the fact that his yuppie days are over. Perhaps understandably he finds the danger of his position terrifying and unfair, but he soon makes at least some effort to adjust and make the best of things, which is a bonus.
What I think what makes the crew so interesting inside their tough-as-nails archetypes is that they have a camaraderie going on but conversely don’t thing twice about taking enemies’ lives while shooting first and asking questions afterwards. The bottom line is that Revy, Dutch and Benny are essentially cold-blooded killers; a point hammered home repeatedly by frequent and quite brutal bloodshed that is quite ‘grown up’ and not very cartoonish by anime standards. Nevertheless, moments of friendship and humanity shine through every now and then to keep the viewer on their side and looking forward to another gun-toting confrontation.
As you’d expect from Madhouse, Black Lagoon certainly delivers as an actioner: the firearms and other equipment for instance are drawn with impressive authenticity so look solid and convincing. The frequent bursts of gunfire and explosions are accompanied by a hard-edged rock soundtrack that keeps the pace and accentuates the show’s aforementioned Attitude – the metal-tinged op theme should prepare the unwary for the grittiness that follows. This attention to detail is impressive, which ought to make this show appealing to viewers who appreciate more than just fan service and comedy – not something we see very often, which makes this all the more recommendable. With a shipload of neo-nazis as their adversaries next up on the horizon, I can’t wait!
You only have to look to the likes of Cowboy Bebop and the series it inspired to see how effective and well-used the likeable outlaws idea is but Black Lagoon brings a slick delivery and a vicious edge to keep things interesting and exciting. It isn’t original, deep or meaningful, nor does it intend to be; this is no-nonsense, in-your-face action with a memorable cast and impressive presentation. At this stage in the game there emphasis is on introducing the characters and grabbing your attention rather than telling a complex story; in that sense Black Lagoon succeeds admirably, and in great style too.