East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Into the Black Lagoon

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It was a very stressful day, the prelude to a week that promises – you guessed it – even more stressful. But not everything was bad, and as a recipe of my own devising was broiling in the slow cooker, I was finally able to get to the bottom of the first season of Black Lagoon.
That’s a good way to wash away some stress.

I found out about Black Lagoon a few years back, as I was doing a research on the classic Universal monster, the Gill Man, aka The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Google searches being what they are, I stumbled on this thing called Black Lagoon
Japanese anime. Does it feature a Creature? No, it looks like straight action.
Straight action anime, references to a movie I like… let’s check it out.

But I actually never went beyond the second episode in the 12-episodes first season.
Basically, other stuff got in the way.
Odd jobs, the need to pay the bills, a general feeling I was not up to the sort of action that the series promised.
But this time around it was different, and in one week I watched the first season, and I’m here to report.

The premise is pretty classic: back somewhere in the 1990s, mild-mannered young company man Rokuro Okajima is so low on the company’s totem pole that he’s six feet under. Sent to the South China Sea to deliver some mysterious data, he’s captured by mercenaries belonging to the Black Lagoon Trading Co., and finds out his company is up to some very shady dealings. And when his bosses write him off as collateral damage in closing the deal, Rokuro finds his only hope for survival is joining the people that captured him and become, essentially, a pirate called Rock.

And admittedly, that’s a great premise.
Playing foil to Rock’s smart but over-anxious straight guy are Dutch, a soft-spoken African-American and the team boss; Benny, a non-combatant tech savvy guy; and Revy, the trigger-happy muscle of the team and the sexy girl on the show (that apparently takes her fashion guidelines from Lara Croft).
Based in the lawless playground of Roanapur (sort of a South-Eastern Asian Casablanca), the guys take jobs from all comers, keep themselves on the good side of the Russian mob and try to stay afloat.

Based on a popular manga series, the anime is 12 episodes (basically four hours) and it plays as two movies stitched together – the Black Lagoon Trading Co. team has to take on various gangsters and terrorists, a boat-full of neo-Nazi treasure hunters, and an unstoppable killer that makes Terminator look like a windup toy.
The episodes are action-packed and filled with bits lifted from movies – be it John Woo or Quentin Tarantino, or the Blues Brothers – and if the story appears to be thin, one does not look for thickness in action-adventure thrillers.

Not everything’s perfect – many have pointed out that the series lifts a lot of elements from Cowboy Bebop, that is generally a better product. In the music department Black Lagoon is sorely lacking, and the animation is good, but just not Cowboy bebop-good.
But there are a lot of good bits – the supporting cast, the cross-and-double-cross structure of the stories, the main characters and the venues of their capers.
In the end, Black Lagoon is a good way to waste away half an hour while waiting for dinner to cook, and it does deliver the promised gunfights, explosions and wild action. And you can’t really hate a series that features gun-running nuns and combat chambermaids.

The series also manages to slip in some serious idea about the meaning of loyalty, friendship and trust, about the existential dread of a nine-to-five job, and some nicely observed commentary on how being a wage slave is not so different from being a mercenary in some lawless South Asia city.
Everybody smokes because they are, you know, badasses, and Revy’s speech is riddled with cuss-words, but that’s life on the wrong side of the tracks for you.

So here I am, with a second season to go (called The Second Barrage) and a follow-up mini-series. Enough to keep me happy to the end of the month.
Because sometimes it’s fun to imagine what it would be like, to be lost in the South China Sea, with killers out to get us, and a cool gun-crazy chick by our side. Even without the Gill-Man around.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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