AICN Anime-Black Lagoon Preview
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Column by Scott Green
Anime Preview: Black Lagoon
To be released by Geneon May 22, 2007
The grail sought by anime producers and North American distributors has been a work that would graft ideas that North American audiences would find intrinsically accessible onto the appeal of anime. In theory, this would offer surer odds for global success. Audiences beyond the faithful anime consumer would be drawn to this manufactured break-out hit. While ratings figures on Afro Samurai, the most recent, high profile case, seem to indicate a mild success, none of the current releases produced by this approach have realized the imagined potential. Production I.G, Cartoon Network and Bandai Entertainment put their heads and resources together and produced IGPX. Volumes of the rollerblading NASCAR robot series eventually wound up selling for below the suggested retail. Bandai then worked together with Bones to produce Eureka 7. The series garnered more support, but primarily from existing anime consumers. A slow video release and low profile TV airing would point to a less than stellar commercial reception.
Black Lagoon was animated by Madhouse, with sponsorship from Geneon Entertainment. Expect this one to throttle the previous track record of lackluster reception for coproduced works. While its level of violence is a substantial liability in finding a high profile spot on North American television, Black Lagoon is ready to weigh in as a serious contender for supplanting Cowboy Bebop's audience. By out Hollywood action-ing Hollywood action and setting a tone that is neither ponderous nor disengaged with the state of the world, Black Lagoon is an aesthetic success. In all likelihood. commercial success will follow suit.
The thumbprints of a planned North American release comfortablely direct Black Lagoon's layout. Peppered with smart American culture references, while the series is cast from the same mold of an action junky's favorite work, it is composed of unexpectedly new or sparklingly polished material by Madhouse's animation. The work's pacing is organized in such a way as to streamline internationalization without detracting from the better characteristics of anime series scripting. Story arcs that satisfyingly span about three episodes look customized for the American DVD market. On a longer range, its two 12 episodes seasons dynamically move the characters from their initial state to one that is informed by the events of the incremental plots. Globalization is carried forward to the extend that though the series was produced for Japanese TV in the Japanese language, within the context of the work itself, English is the lingua franca being spoken by its characters.
Black Lagoon's greatest hit making asset is that it manages this North American ready approach without diluting what makes anime compelling. Injecting character study into its hard violence, the anime's unadulterated edge puts as much weight into its punches as it can muster. It is a work that revels in violence, which relies on violence for its attractiveness; it also sets its view on a traumatized addiction to violence. While the series is not interested in rubbing the viewer's nose in their fascination, this tone is not oblivious to the fact that people are fighting in real wars or to the fact that people are victims of real crimes. By minimizing the sappy endings, acknowledging the sickness and the consequence, Black Lagoon ensures that the "guilty" part of guilty pleasure has never been more real.
Black Lagoon bursts open with MELL's English vocals electronica "Red Faction," which heralds the anime's blazing star attraction, Revy. The cold morality of a Leone western warrior, sexual suggestiveness grounded closer in feasible reality than over repeated fanservice and a volcanic demeanor lay a foundation. If nothing else, the hot Chinese American by way of New York gunslinger chick unmistakably screams for attention. Sporting banded tattoos, tight muscles, a tighter shirt and Daisy Duke cut off jeans, willfully killing with a pair of ambidextrously wielded Beretta 92Fs, she presents an unabashed cocktail of boiling blood and shed blood. Revy's abrasive charisma is established in an attitude that is antisocial in the true psychological sense of the word. While tracking a sociopath like Revy would have made for a challenging soul focus, she's a thrilling strong arm for the anime. Despite a the presence of a number of characters like Revy who play off each other throughout the series, Black Lagoon's wide angle focus pushes the anime closer to a tapestry than an ensemble.
Beyond Revy, the most visible costar is an exotic context for the familiar cowboy theatrics, played by fictional Roanapur, Thailand. The locale's introduction is accentuated by an almost Wizard of Oz style shift. Black Lagoon initially sets its gaze on the muted grays of Japan's office corridors and the trudging crowds of its business districts. This Kansas reality is framed in a corporate hierarchy enforced by bullying, hazing and governed by strict business protocol. In that environment, warfare is settled by the banal decisions of men in suits.
Tropical tones and sunlight flood in as the view is caught by piracy in the turquoise waters of the Sea of Heaven. Black Lagoon's point of view character, young Japanese salaryman Rokuro Okajima, later "Rock", is welcomed into the Valhalla of Roanapur by a punch to the face, a bloody nose and the barrels of a pair of pointed guns.
Despite the nautical violence, the city is still surrounded by a ring of tranquility suggested in a harbor greeted by monumental Buddhist statues and the natural jewels of the groves and aquatic life. It is not until the bridge to the outlying town that the hangman's noose crops up and all the bird start repeating "I'll kill you." Marked by the cheap glitz of neon lights, low rent prostitutes and a western free for all of card games with guns on the table, the city itself is a hive of expatriate scum and movie character villainy. Founded or transformed as a Viet Nam war dumping ground, the city became a mound of emotional baggage washed ashore on paradise. Animating the locale, Madhouse does not lean on the street walker and the signage as shorthand for the character of the environs. Through the natives, the particular buildings, touches as simple and significant as the textured patterns of carpet in a hotel and a sense of how the inhabitants shaped the place, Black Lagoon's images constantly ensure that Roanapur is a specific place.
Rock reacts to betrayal at the hands of the Japanese corporate system by jumping ship to the mercenary odd job enterprise at Lagoon Company. The business' operation chiefly works by hijacking and moving material via PT boat. While Revy is the quartet's primary trouble shooter, its other gunslinger is its proprietor Dutch. As with Revy's position, a woman who is the engine of violence that men explicitly rely on, Dutch stands as a smart example of subverting standard role expectations. Dutch's design would seem to unequivocally state "enforcer": an African American with stacked muscle, goatee, piercings, sharp shooter shades and utility vest. Yet, his sharp mind does not only apply to canny combat strategy. He's not a genius, he provse fallible and his business does not command the top of the heap, but his acumen for smartly managing people and complex social situations is evidenced by thriving in a deadly, cutthroat environment. It's a difficult scramble, and this seldom haphazard group does not find themselves perennial losers like the crew of Cowboy Bebop.
Lagoon Company is rounded out by Benny. Like Rock, this character doesn't pick up a gun, and has not acclimated himself to fighting. Though Black Lagoon is frequently stumped for compelling utilization of Benny, cool headed comfort in danger and situational self satisfied expertise does make this character an appreciation worthy contributor to the series. With long blond hair, a scruffy face and Hawaiian shirt, he may be the rare case in the series where a character is less attention grabbing for a North American audience than the character may have been for Japanese viewers, but in that respect the Jewish American hacker does demonstrate a substantial aspect of the anime's appeal.
Rather than Japanese characters with a light ethnic touch, who can stand in for anyone, Black Lagoon's characters are specifically ethnic and from a range of backgrounds. Through the main cast and the array of incidentals, the anime offers its viewer the opportunity to see their own ethnicity. Subjects range through the various syndicates, including the likes of Russian veterans of Afghanistan and unforgettably singular muscle for a South American cartel.
Not every depiction is complementary. There are plenty of loser button men and low echelon outfits lead by men in cheap suits. At its least objectionable, the neo-Nazi's are not exactly cartoons, but, to the degree that anyone firing live rounds can be, they are more of a nuisance problem than an exciting threat. While the Italian criminals are not presented as mafia caricatures, they swim the shallow end of the market. Apart from the principals, the work does not entirely steer clear of stereotypes, and there are cases where coolness is dimmed by regressive notions. A stoned Irish driver and a batty pigeon speaking Taiwanese assassin in particular are not as inclusive as they could be. The blade spinning Shenhua injects spectacular wuxia into the series, but another giggling, ineloquent Chinese woman makes for a poor addition to anime's ledger on that account.
The world of Black Lagoon is populated by a menagerie of villains. Including Lagoon Company, at most, they are sympathetic. These career criminal enterprises seldom make a distinction between victimless and explicitly targeted crime. Beyond cadre loyalty, there is little honor among thieves.
The anime uses this to tap into the notion of pirates as a society removed from society, where general rule acceptability has been cast off. Not only is Roanapur a place of omnipresent vice: tobacco and alcohol as well as prostitution and gambling are everywhere. It's also a place of invented identity, whose inhabitants can attempt to cling to their past or attempt to shed it and become something different. Lagoon Company mediates who they were with where they are. Rock insists on dressing in a manner that would be appropriate for an active business trip: no jacket, but shirt and tie. Dutch keeps an informal military outfit, and Benny is dressed for minding the server farm.
Roanapur's more outlandish elements are far more colorful and highlight the allure of people washed up on the edge of the world, with an eye to the fictional: Casablanca, rather than a more concrete a refugee haunt. The series builds more than a few legends among the grizzled triggermen who distinguish themselves within the world of Black Lagoon, as well as within the larger scope of action anime. There's the city's Church of Violence, who despite their Catholic vestments, only differ from the region's other rackets in that they tend to stay close to the church itself. Headed by a one eyed Desert Eagle armed mother superior, its most active member is a Eda, a husky voiced curvaceous blonde who serves as a foil for Revy. The city, and by extension the anime, is further livened up by bizarre freelancers, the likes of which includes Sawyer the Cleaner, a petite woman who still looks too adult and world worn for her babydoll goth attire. Due to her stitched together throat she requires a hand held voice box to speak; a problem given that she needs both hands to heft the chainsaw serving as her weapon of choice.
Black Lagoon's startling violence, exoticism and anarchy is reeled in by a system of multi-leveled references that position the anime in the tradition of media that touches on other media. Kill Bill for example. The series grounds itself by actively acknowledging that it is dealing with situations which are far outside the realm of normal experience, but which have probably already been considered in the context of other stories. While the number of references approaches the level employed by parody works, the pointers are integrated into Black Lagoon well enough that they don't bind the series to fandom appeal.
Characters actively work at bridging material that the viewer would know into the anime. Verbal touch points target subjects from Oprah Winfrey to Charles Whitman to William Holden. Presented without an over-conscious glibness, the references arrive in the characters' voice rather than the writers'. Instead of standing out as nods to the viewer, this aspect of the conversation establishes the characters as people who are aware of history and who consume media, which grounds them in a world beyond the scope of the series. The series does allow this to turn insider in its handling of Easter Eggs. References to the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Stephen King's Gunslinger novels are appropriated and encoded in small mentions throughout the series.
When used in action rather than speech, these references become staged as an attraction. Black Lagoon utilizes the language of action movies, and in that manner, it engages in a game of one-up's-manship. In a rare case of the series breaking the fourth wall, the characters outright make this intention explicit in the second episode. As the group is being pursued by a helicopter gunship, Rock complains that their predicament is like something out of a movie. Revy corrects him, insisting that their situation is a lot more exciting than Hollywood.
Part of the added excitement is the opportunity for crossovers. From a bodyguard that barrels down the street like the T1000 to a Triad boss with the looks and moves of Chow Yun Fat in a John Woo film, Black Lagoon fosters the impression that it is fielding teams for an action movie all-star game. Each of the brief arcs employs some new group, from some new location, suggesting some different point of origin and different tradition. Black Lagoon might not have the convincing creativity of Cowboy Bebop, and could not sustain the boasts that Bebop immortalized in its bumper slogans, but Black Lagoon does offer a gleeful pop culture remix.
The attempt to best Hollywood and the reception of the series hinges on the quality of its action. Its excitement is derived from the anticipation of seeing these wild criminals in motion. The satisfaction comes in seeing that the results are consistently executed with snake bite verve. Starting with Revy, the "Two Hand" fighter and covering most of the stunts and attacks that the series attempts, the danger of the risky venture is that the approach will not only sound silly in description but look off-putting. Anime has offered plenty of examples of heroes standing in the middle of the room, plugging what are supposed to be trained killers or rushing straight forward for baffling chases.
Madhouse tackles this obstacle by generating orchestrated chaos. The combatants are only stationary if they are hiding or protected by a physical barrier. As characters react to their environment, yelling, seeking cover or advancing, they trigger the adrenaline rush. Taken outsidr the context, without the dialog or lead in and consequences, the stunts do seem far over the top, but the Michael Bay moments generally echo in retrospect rather than affront sensibility in the heat of the action.
Black Lagoon does not detract from the gravity of the violence by having Rock pick up a gun, let alone learn how to shoot one. Revy and the rest of the cast certainly do get bloodied up, but Black Lagoon's action is subject to what could be called a "hero factor". Characters whose names are known are hard to kill. Unnamed characters are swatted by the boatful. Except, given the nature of the series' conflict, and the rules of Roanapur, early death looks like a foregone conclusion and quick death sounds like a luxury. By that token, the anime ensures that Revy plays the battlefield like a virtuoso. Rather than being showy for the sake of show, her acrobatics happen in the effort to close distances, in which she runs and jumps like an Olympian. Her shooting is similarly animated to suggest an athletic marvel. The zoned out intensity on her face seems almost detached from the twitch of her guns' recoil. Madhouse's ability to transpose their character design through a range of motion shines as the anime captures the preternatural timing of Revy repositioning her body, then singing through trained movements of her arms in which she targets any direction with the reflexes of a boxer working against striking mitts. The action does not rest on all Revy all the time, ensuring that there never a burn out. The momentum of the story is such that there is never a sluggish countdown to when Revy draws, except possibly for the rare cases where there is a real heel of an adversary who badly needs recompense.
Along with the nods to Hollywood anime tropes also receive a thorough, clever work-out in Black Lagoon. In this vein, the series labors to add new force to the too familiar. Recognizing that unconventional killers have become a familiar grind, the anime applies its tone and degree of violence to warrior maids and child assassins in such a way as to kick out the supports. Whether it is conveying fear or disgust, the anime always ensures that it is able to hit nerves rather leaning ideas that have been overexposed beyond the point of outrageousness.
As with calling out Hollywood, Black Lagoon makes a number of mission statements in its second episode. Seeing Revy in action, Rock notes to himself that the violence has awakened his prehistoric blood. He more powerfully caps the sentiment an episode later. Trading hints of their origin stories, Revy speculates on the masochism of putting up with torment in a corporate environment, but soon ends up revealing more than she'd like to about herself, offering that she has always fought and had to live outside morality.
With enemies approaching, Revy reflexively adopts a shark's grin before literally leaping into one of the series' audacious gun fights. It's a battle that requires throttling momentum to be convincing. After Revy more or less single handedly executes a score of men in a high speed boat chase, Rock applauds her work. Under his breath he remarks "I don't know what broke to make her like this, but I must be broken too if I'm standing here praising her destructiveness."
In addition to implicating himself, Rock implicates the viewer. Black Lagoon commits itself to creating the thrill of violence, but also suggests that it is an atavistic thrill. Despite the glamour, the series openly admits that its depicted lifestyle is neither pleasant nor right. The chief fulcrum of Black Lagoon is a direct confrontation with the villainous implications of working within that environment.
For a brash, exciting anime series, Black Lagoon is strangely and compellingly close to the darkness of its subject matter. From the series' outset, it concerns the tension over the value of human life and its commoditization. In addition to more than dipping into the gunslinger/assasin notion of the cost of a human life, Rock is not employed at Lagoon Company long before he hits cargo that is alarmingly human. More to the point, season two opens with the nauseating byproduct of Hostel like imagined Eastern European activities. The series keeps its head above water rather than drowning in pessimism, but it is hyper aware that people like the subjects it works with are not formed by comfortable circumstances.
Inescapable consequences hang over the series. While the series' "Red Faction" opening sequence amps up the chest pounding quick draw action, the closing theme, Edison's "Don't Look Behind", denounces it. It's a splash of cold water to end each episode, with haunting strings accompanying Revy solemnly trudging into the surf, casting of her gear, pistols and boots. As the tide catches these objects, cymbals clash. Revy turns around with shot gun held up and murderous intent plain on her face.
Revy puts a positive spin on this. Suggesting that her wildness is victory over a tragic background. She's just embraced that she could have died and that she could die any day. Yet, the mirror inverse of the ending's shattered resignation is one of the series most haunting moments. Away from Roanapur, she bonds with some bb gun armed suburban boys. After showing off her sharpshooting for her temporary compatriots, she shows them how to play dead. The manner in which she mimics life draining from her muscles and mock sheds her mortal coil spells out the story of a character who is uncomfortably cozy with death.
Roanapur life is a tooth and claw existential where every likelihood is that a career with be capped by a grizzly death. Alternatively, the alienation and accepted personal assaults of what could be thoughts of as the more civilized world is not necessarily a healthier state of being. Nor is the world of schools and offices divorced from the violence caused by proxy. The issue is more complex in that the series is evasive about the exact causes and effects applied to the characters. The anime tradition often treats mystery as a curtain, temporarily obscuring the pivotal event shaping the character. Black Lagoon takes character history revelation from an angle of familiarity, but not intimacy. Akin to what one might know concerning a classmate or co-worker, a general sense of origin and a few essential details are shared, but the real skeletons in the closet and substantial background are kept behind closed doors. While the characters are far from men with no names, they are afforded a degree of privacy. When Revy gives Rock a sketchy account of her background, how she grew up rough in New York city, culminating in a beating at the hands of a police officer, she both leaves out the salacious details and informs Rock that if he betrays her with this information, she'll kill him. Even with minor characters, the anime leaves the space for ambiguity in which, if the viewer chooses, they can ponder the existential paths that created these characters.
Threading the reality of its characters with the bombastic nature of its action, Black Lagoon is unmistakably anime, and unmistakably casting an eye to North America. The boundary that the series pushes is how well it balances the two ambitions. If the future of coproductions is more smartly thrilling action series, anime fans should have something to embrace.