When typical salaryman Rokuro Okajima takes a trip for his company to the port of Roanapur in the South China Sea, he has no idea what he’s getting into. As part of an industrial espionage plot, he gets kidnapped by the modern-day pirate crew known as the Lagoon Company. But when the Lagoon Company finds itself a targeted by other mercenaries hired by his boss, it’s Rokuro, or Rock as he comes to be called, who comes up with the plan to get them out of their predicament. Declared dead by his company, Rock decides to stay on with Lagoon and their mercenary adventures.
Originally a manga by Rei Hiroe, Black Lagoon was created as an homage to and melange of many things: James Ellroy novels, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino films, and a mix of inspirations from the real life pirates of the South China Seas. It follows the tales of the Lagoon Company, consisting of the aforementioned Rock; the ex-US Marine team leader Dutch; their mechanic, communications, and computer expert Benny; and the most iconic member of the team, street-urchin girl turned lethal assassin, Revy “Two Hands.”
One thing you have to do when watching this series is leave your morality at the door. These are tales of crime and criminals, having much the same visceral appeal as The Sopranos and The Godfather. The fictional city of Roanapur is controlled by various crime syndicates, like Chinese Triads, Italian mafia, Colombian cartels, Lagoon’s regular business partners, and the Russian mafia contingent known as Hotel Moscow. This last is led by the forceful Balalaika, an ex-Soviet military captain whose no-nonsense pragmatism and incisive strategic mind drives many of the plotlines throughout the series. Also of note is the Rip-Off Church, a faux-Catholic organization that uses religion as a front for their arms supply business to many of the groups in corrupt Roanapur.
In general, the plots are self-contained to two or three episodes at a time, and act more as character studies than overarching storylines. Rock’s naivety works well as a foil for the jaded viewpoints of Revy and Balalaika in particular, though often these two imposing women instead end up teaching him the realities of the violent life he’s chosen. Viewers who enjoy violent themes, double-dealing, and crime capers will find much to like here.
The character design is a lot of fun, based on Hiroe’s original manga, with each character having a distinctive look. Revy’s devil-may-care attitude is personified by her cut-off tee shirt and shorts, and Rock’s straight-laced personality is echoed in his starched white shirt and tie. Dutch looks tough and capable with his shaved head and imposing musculature, one of the few times I’ve seen an African American depicted in anime without devolving into a slightly-racist caricature. Benny’s whole demeanor can be told at a glance with his half-shaven appearance, ponytail, and Hawaiian shirt. Perhaps the most distinctive character is Balalaika, who would be the typical gorgeous anime blonde, if it wasn’t for the burn scars from her military past. She in particular cuts an imposing figure, usually dressed in a militaristic business suit, smoking a cigar, and owning any scene she is in.
Overall both the Japanese and English voice casts capture their characters well, with one exception. Maryke Hendrikse, the voice of Revy seems to only have one note: angry. Where the manga and the Japanese performance reveal a hint of vulnerability behind Revy’s facade of cast iron, the way Hendrikse growls and chews her way through dialog seems forced, especially in the more quiet moments. It might not be as noticeable if this was a supporting role, but as Revy is the principal female lead, it gets old very quickly, making Revy as a character lose her appeal.
It’s definitely not kid’s stuff, as there are many casual killings and bloody scenes, all of which are executed (pardon the pun) with gorgeous, stylish animation by Madhouse studio. It also is an area of criticism, particularly with the English dubbed version. When compared to the Japanese original, the producers made a decision to insert many more curse words as dialogue. While it sounds natural to the ear, one wonders why they thought it was needed. But then, with an opening theme that talks of violation, you know right away what sort of story you’re watching.
The complete set includes both season one and two (dubbed “The Second Barrage”), along with a behind the scenes piece from the English version produced by Geneon (and distributed by FUNimation), as well as the usual promos and clean opening and closing sequences. The set includes both DVD and Blu-ray versions, so depending on how your library system treats the different media formats, this may present some cataloging challenges. However it is cataloged, it should go on the adult shelves due to the bloody violence and cursing, particularly in the English dub. Black Lagoon doesn’t try to be anything more than a violent escape, but it provides an excellent diversion nonetheless.