A violent, visceral tale
by KEVIN KNODELL
“Know what? You should go back to Japan. You’re just not cut out for this,” says Rebecca “Revy” Lee, a Chinese-American smuggler with a penchant for violence. “Well you’re the one who invited me,” Rokuro “Rock” Okajima shouts back.
The two are arguing after a particularly stressful job. Rock, a former corporate accountant, was kidnapped by Revy and her fellow smugglers — the Lagoon Company — some time ago. After Rock’s bosses refused to pay his ransom and left him for dead, he turned his back on his comfortable life as a company man.
Instead, he offered up his services to his former kidnappers as a bookkeeper and negotiator, handling the business end of their often violent enterprise. Now, together with Revy and the Lagoon Company, the mild mannered Japanese businessman finds himself facing down bloodthirsty mercenaries, shady intelligence agents, ruthless criminals and fanatical terrorists throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
This is Black Lagoon, the manga and anime series created by Japanese artist Rei Hiroe. It’s a violent, visceral tale of intrigue set in the surreal world of South Pacific piracy. It’s also a biting commentary on Japan’s culture of isolationism and occasional war profiteering. While you might enjoy the violence, Hiroe obviously does, he frequently reminds you that you should feel really bad about that.
Some slight spoilers to follow.
Black Lagoon takes place in the fictional Thai city of Roanapur. As the show explains, the Japanese military built up the coastal city into a port during World War II to support the war effort. But it wasn’t until the aftermath of the Vietnam War that Roanapur became flooded with refugees — and its character truly began to solidify. In the chaos, the city became a hotbed for smuggling and prostitution.
“[Roanupur is an] evil city caught between the east and the west founded during the Cold War and nurtured by many who came here to ride the wave of the illegal drug trade sweeping across the continent,” Rock muses in the opening narration of one of the episodes. “The edge of the world, the crucible of hypocrisy, a place where those whose souls have been destroyed in the relentless search for money and power reside.”
By the time the series begins — sometime in the 1990s — the town is under the control of hardened criminal syndicates. The most powerful is Hotel Moscow, a ruthless band of Russian ex-soldiers led by the battle-scarred female paratrooper Balalaika. The Russians maintain a shaky truce with the local Triads led by Mr. Chang — a Hong Kong cop turned gangster who occasionally does the bidding of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Every inch of Roanapur is touched by war, international crime or terrorism. But Hiroe built his fictional metropolis in part around the works of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. The action is highly stylized and the dialogue sharp. This is a fantasy world of outlaws and bandits, filled with outrageous acrobatics, flashy gunplay and beautiful women.
Hiroe also grabbed inspiration from real life conflicts and groups — drawing liberally on real stories of piracy and violence during the 1990s. The Pacific Ocean remains a violent place as depicted last year in the New York Times series the Outlaw Ocean. Pirates and criminal gangs frequently fight over smuggling routes moving drugs, guns and human cargo.
In Black Lagoon, the Lagoon Company is caught in the middle. The company is a band of smugglers sailing on a former American PT boat and led by Dutch, a Vietnam vet who deserted the Marine Corps to work as a hired gun in Thailand.
The audience sees this world through Rock’s eyes. One thing that sets Black Lagoon apart from other anime series is that with a handful of exceptions, Rock is almost the only Japanese character to be seen. The other Lagoon Company employees are all Americans, and their clients are usually Chinese or Russian gangsters.
A major theme is Rock’s transformation from corporate accountant to underworld power player. He’s wound tight, coming from a culture that values conformity and obedience. But as the series progresses he gradually becomes more comfortable with this new world.
Black Lagoon’s factions range from South African mercenaries, Islamists and even neo-Nazis. As ruthless as many of these groups are, in many ways it’s Hiroe’s home — pacifist Japan — that’s depicted as the most ruthless of all. Though few Japanese characters take part in the violence directly, Japanese firms and individuals profit from war, crime and suffering in neighboring Asian and Pacific countries.
When Rock’s bosses at his company left him to die, it was to cover up a shady arms deal the firm had secretly orchestrated. When Hotel Moscow hires Rock to act as its interpreter in dealings with the Yakuza — a job that takes him home — he finds himself increasingly detached from his culture.
Revy accompanies him, and frequently experiences racism. “Everyone sees me and shouts gaijin, gaijin!” she tells Rock. “I hate this country.”
Rock increasingly finds himself more at home with arms dealers, pirates and gangsters than with his own countrymen. For him, the international gangsters who admit to their crimes are preferable to the Japanese CEOs who hide their dirty dealings behind a façade of respectability.
But as Rock becomes more comfortable with this world, he begins to exhibit a streak of ruthlessness that rivals some of the other Roanapur players, even his cohorts at the Lagoon Company. Though he rarely touches a gun and never takes a life himself — ever the calculated businessman — he comes to have few qualms about orchestrating the deaths of others.
In Hiroe’s world, it’s “civilized” society, the one that cringes at the sight of violence while simultaneously profiting from it, that’s truly monstrous.