I despise the term “turn off your brain”. If I wish to engage in something that isn’t intellectually stimulating, but is still entertaining and thrilling nonetheless, that’s still a worthwhile experience. My tolerances, preferences and penchants are still active even when I’m watching something that isn’t highbrow or novel. I don’t need to “turn off my brain” in order to enjoy something extravagant or scurrilous, because there’s obviously something there that attracts me and keeps me engaged. Somewhere within the ludicrous levels of violence, swearing and offhand behaviors in Black Lagoon, for instance, lies more value than you would think.
Let me preface my appreciation for Black Lagoon, by stating that I did in fact watch the dubbed version. Firstly, because if swearing is a big part of the enjoyment factor for something then I’m going to hear in English. Secondly, watching the Japanese version boggles my mind, because it completely eliminates Rock’s purpose in the show. He’s the translator guy, who translates Japanese to the other characters. The show just feels more international in its appeal and design, and less anime (if you catch my drift). But whatever, if you prefer to watch it subbed, go right ahead. Personally, I find the obscenities far more gratifying when voiced by Maryke Hendrikse (Revy), because through her excessive use of the entire alphabet of swear words and insults somehow manages to mold it into something grand and vigorous.
Roanapur; the seedy underbelly of Black Lagoon, is a city of vice and corruption, where justice is warped and retribution is an unspoken rule, violence is more commercial than revelry, and it’s practically customary for people to be accosted by a hail of bullets and explosions. There’s also a church and a convent, where even the nuns fire guns and the Mother Superior is an arms dealer. It’s a refreshing take on the criminal view with intriguing reasons as to why lawbreakers break the law.
It’s remarkable how well the show actually manages to pull off being filled with Michael Bay-esque tropes and at the same time be something actually compelling. There’s a nice blend of over-the-top action and aggressive reactions that while fun and exciting on their own, also lend themselves to being quite humorous. For instance, the scene where Revy and Eda are drinking in a church, and Jane comes knocking for help; just when they’re about to turn her away some guy fires off a round through the door and breaks Revy’s glass, provoking them to retaliate in kind. Revy and Eda’s irrepressible enraged frenzy incites a shoot-out on a comical scale, with them unrelenting in their two-woman barrage of bullets, and escalating further to the point where Yolanda pulls out a golden desert eagle that fires explosive rounds.
There’s something to be said about a scene where the main characters jet their boat off a ramp and torpedo an apache helicopter (and its pilot) in the face. And that “something” is “fucking awesome”. But it’s also a laudable accomplishment that the series is able to make you forget the unrealistic nature of a lot of scenes, and still maintain coherence and consistency within the show, while also managing to arouse intrigue from its characters to its worldbuilding. There seems to be an organized chaos about this show that somehow comes together and works, despite its ridiculous and impractical stunts. Behind all the boisterous action and vivacious dialogues, there is still structure and progression.
I commend the show for being uncompromising in its rambunctious portrayal of violence, excellent pariah-type characters who don’t conform to stereotypes, and anomalous relationships. Protagonist Rock is introduced as a weak-willed hostage, who decides on a whim after both a near-death situation and being betrayed by his (now former) boss to join Dutch’s crew of mercenaries, where he moves on to become a translator and client of Balalaika’s.
Black Lagoon is atypical when it comes to portraying character relationships, preferring to adopt the show-don’t-tell-approach with its relationships to a staunch degree. “Two Hands” Revy is a sarcastic, ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, very competitive and trigger-happy, dual-wielding, gunslinger with plum-colored hair who’s barely holding her shit together. She’s like a pressure cooker who needs to run amok every now and then just so she doesn’t pop. She recognizes that all she has is her job and her guns, and without that she has nothing left. She knows she’ll never be ‘normal’, and comes to idolize and care about Rock in a strange way.
Rock represents the righteous anchor of the group. He’s the humble and good-natured one who is often surprised by the barbarity of the crime world he is now apart of. He tries to solve issues without resorting to violence, usually only able to minimize the bloodshed at best.
Benny is similar to Rock, in the way neither of them are fighters – Benny’s a computer engineer. Though, while Rock has a tough time ignoring all the violence and corruption around him, Benny is able to turn a blind eye to the dirty work Revy and Dutch tend to do.
Dutch is the leader and negotiator of the group, who is always committed to completing missions, even when they come into conflict with his morals – most frequently making contracts with Balalaika of Hotel Moscow. He’s generally a friendly, and easygoing guy who always keeps his cool even in the most dangerous of situations. Being the most level-headed of Lagoon Company, Dutch commands the respect of his entire crew, able to keep Revy in check when the situations calls for it, and has even earned some admiration from Balalaika.
There’s a natural, non-explicit feel to the way relationships build between the members of Lagoon Company. Dutch’s relationship with Revy is one of trust, where he seems to be one of very few people she feels comfortable opening up to, but still puts on a front that makes it seem like she hates him as much as everyone else.
And with that comes character insight and development, most prominently featured between Rock and Revy, as their relationship begins with them as antagonists, then advances Rock toward crew status, Revy becomes Rock’s bodyguard, and there’s subtle implication at a potential romantic development between the two as well. There’s a scene where Rock leans in to light Revy’s cigarette using his, and they don’t remark how close their faces are together, or act embarrassed about it. It’s a nice, small interaction and a good example of how the relationships build naturally.
Yet, out of all the brash, ferocious, exuberant and tenacious madwomen in the show, it’s Balalaika who reigns supreme in terms of status, superiority, and love of violence – having earned both fear and respect from almost every living soul in Roanapur. She’s the experienced veteran who’s able to keep herself calm when she needs to, as well as generate both fear and respect from all the outlaws and psychotics running around Roanapur. Under her leadership, her comrades and her became insuppressible killing machines during their time on the front lines in Afghanistan, accumulating a lifetime worth of skills and experience from war.
Upon returning with her soldiers they founded Hotel Moscow, a Russian gangsters organization, based in Roanapur where illegal activity is the norm and drug lords and Mafia bosses run rampant. Quite often, she acts as the peacemaker, stopping the violence using her intelligence and tactics. There’s a great sense of camaraderie within her organization, and despite her subordinates’ concern for her well-being, Balalaika is actually a well-rounded fighter and skilled strategist, as well as a master tactician and strategist, capable of pulling off operations without so much as lifting a finger or suffering any casualties. She loves violence just as much, if not more than the other women in the series, but is still capable of carrying herself with an air of civility and professionalism.
The equal representation of violence across both genders is a refreshing change of pace. Not that there’s a scarcity of bloodshed on either side, but I find I’m less likely to see women gun-toting with carnage in one hand and cruelty in the other, with glee stretched across their face – at least in Western media (aside from comic books) that is (quite a plentitude in anime). Which at the time I first watched Black Lagoon, was one of the draws for me – the renegade attitude against traditional expectations. Even still today, I find myself drawn to things that present untraditional or mutinous ideas and attitudes. There’s a certain allure to “Fuck what society thinks!” type outlooks anime like Black Lagoon offer. And no, I don’t just mean dark and gritty for the sake of being edgy. I mean at the core that’s what the show wants to wear as its coat, while gradually undressing itself and revealing something more serious, reflective and profound. The nihilistic themes and grounded reality beneath all the absurd violence and profanities put forward ideas of privilege, power, self-indulgence, desperation, belonging, deliverance, vainness, and compliance versus defiance.
By the end of Roberta’s Blood Trail everything implied becomes raw and undisguised. And the show somewhat touches on dark, but still important subject matter, such as: dangerous degrees of devotion, loyalty, trust, and futility. Revy immerses herself in violence and mayhem to drown out the sorrow and deep-seated psychological issues caused by her alcoholic and abusive father, and the cop who arrested, beat, and molested her. Preferring to forget the trauma caused by her childhood abuse and her subsequent killing of said abuser, Revy chooses to avoid her emotional pain by indulging in violence, drinking and other distractions.
Rock starts to become more comfortable with corruption, and enjoy his new life of crime, developing a similar mindset to Chang, and finding that being callous and manipulative which gives him a sense of power of others to be psychologically rewarding. This new change in Rock perturbs the others, notably Revy and Dutch, who are concerned by his new behaviour and misinterpret his motives as a way of getting a larger reward. They fear that Rock is being corrupted by Roanapur and as a result is showing a darker side of his personality, where he is shown to be cunning, sadistic and ruthless, even though his motives are good; wanting to save someone.
Black Lagoon doesn’t sugarcoat what the characters do. There isn’t any justification for anyone’s actions, and the characters themselves are aware of that. But there are reasons, and the series does still manage to evoke a sense of sympathy and understanding for why the characters are the way they are. Everyone recognizes they are broken or messed up to some extent, and admit that ‘normal life’ is an impossibility for them. And I appreciate that a series like Black Lagoon, where kick ass women, a chain-saw wielding mute, nun arms dealers, ex-servicemen Russian mobsters, drug traffickers and a city filled with gangs at every corner takes the time to engage with those issues and subject matters, and deal with them in a curt and candid manner.