Mild mannered office worker Rokuro Okajima is bullied into a business cruise in South-East Asia, whereupon his life takes an unexpected turn. He is kidnapped by a trio of rowdy, foul-mouthed pirates, including sexy sharpshooter Revy, hulking Vietnam veteran Dutch, and techno-head Benny. When it becomes obvious corporate bosses care more about the data disc in his care and regard him as expendable, the newly rechristened “Rock” rebels and falls in with Revy and co. for fast paced, bullet strewn adventures along the south seas as they run errands for the mysterious Balalaika and her Russian crime syndicate.
From its hard rocking, English language theme song (“You make me violate you, no matter where you are!”), to its ridiculously profane dialogue (“I’ll weld your asshole shut and make a new one in your head!”), everything about Black Lagoon screams: “Look how grownup I am!” The cumulative effect is like watching a whiny teenager straining to embarrass mom and dad. Characters wear bad attitudes on their sleeves, much like cigarettes dangle from their lips in a desperate attempt to seem hardboiled. Yet beneath the surface they’re either tedious, over-familiar or nondescript. While the pirates are boorish thrill junkies, Rock proves a total drip and quickly becomes the group’s favourite punching bag. Leggy, gun-toting, tattooed poster girl Revi is all surface attitude and completely dull, despite frequent hints at a past-life trauma.
Episodes One “The Black Lagoon” (the title comes from their sea-faring vessel) and Two “Mangrove Heaven” recount Rock’s transformation from put-upon office drone to risk-taking pirate. Handsome visuals evoke the allure of south sea islands and deep blue waters as an escape from the grey, humdrum salaryman existence, but Rock’s Big Defiant Gesture is undermined by his boss not actually giving a damn. Amusingly, he approaches being a pirate just as he did being a salaryman (“Can I ask you to stop your ship, please?”). While laidback Benny leaves little impression, attempts to paint Dutch as the voice of moral authority are scuttled by his slap-happy treatment of Rock. Rock squares up to Revy in a drinking competition that sees them test their mettle via that manliest of alcoholic beverages… Bacardi.
Things pick up slightly with Episode Three “Ring Ding Ship Chase”, which hints at a conflict brewing between Chinese and Russian mobsters, and features a character named Donnie Yen! Sadly, everyone’s favourite, broody kung fu kicker doesn’t put in an appearance, but Revi kicks off an impressive spurt of gunplay. Leaping from speedboat to speedboat she wipes out an entire armada. Glimpses of Balalaika ruthlessly eliminating her competitors are either suggesting she’ll be more trouble than our heroes realise, or merely the callous posturing of gangster chic. The most intriguing episode is number Four “Die Rükkehr Des Adlers”, which crosscuts between our modern day treasure hunters and a doomed German submarine in 1945. Both the cat and mouse games and claustrophobic tension evoke Das Boot (1981), while there is a nice exchange between a nasty S.S. officer and the cynical captain who disses Hitler’s Reich as: “the empire of a corporal whose paintings wouldn’t sell.” A priceless painting (not one of the Fuhrer’s) proves just what Revi and friends are searching for amidst the sunken sub before they fall foul of heavily armed Neo-Nazis. One reoccurring problem throughout the series is an inability to craft a compelling cliffhanger, but this closer tweaks the interest.
Adapted from a manga by Rei Hiroe, Black Lagoon has been hailed in some quarters for its coarse dialogue, graphic violence and in your face action. Oooh, and the guns go bang-bang too! Seriously, it takes more than sub-John Woo shootouts and lines like “****ing Christ saved us that time!” to mount a convincingly adult-oriented anime. Fans in search of a real, kick-ass bullet-fest should look to Kenichi Sonoda’s Gunsmith Cats (1995), while those hankering for mature storytelling ought to check out Naoki Urasawa’s Monster. Black Lagoon’s attempts to court a western audience leave it looking like a mid-eighties Cannon film, or DTV stinker starring Steven Seagal.