Dir. Sunao Katabuchi
Screenplay: Sunao Katabuchi
Based on the manga by Rei Hiroe
Voice Cast: Daisuke Namikawa (as Rock); Megumi Toyoguchi (as Revy); Hiroaki Hirata (as Benny); Mami Koyama (as Balalaika); Tsutomu Isobe (as Dutch); Jun Karasawa (as Sister Eda)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles
Synopsis: When his company's boat is hijacked by a mercenary group named the Black Lagoon Company, salary man Rokuro Okajima becomes "Rock" when, after being kidnapped by them and having his ties to the company severed by upper management, he decides to join the Black Lagoon in a form of forced upon Stockholm Syndrome, joining leader Dutch, computer expert Benny, and gunwoman/living weapon Revy with nowhere else to go. Living on an island known as Roanapur, where all manner of mercenaries and criminals house themselves, they interact between the Russian mafia outfit Hotel Moscow, psychopaths, triad and yakuza, neo Nazis, and a maid with the combat ability of a Terminator in their various paid jobs.
For the first twelve episodes, what is technically called season one, Black Lagoon takes a successful stab at the American action genre in animated form, reinterpreting its tropes in a way that someone who isn't a fan of the genre like myself can still appreciate. Animation naturally has an advantage in terms of unlimited possibilities in terms of the stories and depending on the budget, their kineticism, alongside this TV series having the time to stretch out characterisation, one of the biggest disadvantages action cinema have. In terms of style, it attempts to have a more grounded realism next to the action fantasies of other anime, absurd to consider when one of the first major action scenes of the entire series is a boat being driven up a sea wreck as a ramp to fire a torpedo at a helicopter, but more prevalent in everything else. There's still the exaggerated characters in design and manner - stoned out getaway drivers, Gothic Lolita female Leatherface - and the visible John Woo influence so blatant there's a Chow Yun-fat figure amongst the cast, but there's more moral greyness and real world politics on display that stands out greatly.
In terms of plot, the first twelve episodes, episodic narratives stretched over two to three actual episodes each, do much to establish the series both as a pulp action show but also in establishing a world full of anti-heroes, Roanapur a place entirely morally grey and off-radar whilst Black Lagoon themselves are willing cooperate with murderers, mafia and corrupt officials on either side of a conflict just for pay. Rock plays the stereotypical innocent outsider whose moral high ground clashes with Revy, the completely opposite whose give-less-of-a-fuck attitude clashes against his immediately, eventually becoming the trope of anime of the more brazen female character jarring against the more quiet or cautious male and building up a relationship as a result. The show manages to go further than even so American action films in touching on grim subject matter (Nazism, child slavery) which allows these moral conflicts to be brought out even while its enjoying its explosions related carnage.
It's for Black Lagoon one of its saving graces in the first half that it openly has a large cast of memorable characters who are outright villains but can be heroes compared to other worse figures than them. The few glimpse of Roanapur as a city let alone an island in the first season particularly gives the show a distinct character, a world with its own rules and various factors at play, from Hotel Moscow to the Triads led by the Chow Yun-fat stand-in, who are on friendly terms with each other, to places like the bar that gets constantly blown up by various events throughout both seasons. It's a rundown hellhole, where Heineken is the beer of choice (though with the letters in the name switched around for copyright reasons) and one has to rely of cars ready for the scrapheap to travel around in. It's an inherently fascinating location for this world to be mostly set, even allowing quiet moments of humour and introspection as a tropical environment before you get to the figures within it who'll change allegiances depending on the money involved.
One of the biggest virtues of the show is that a lot of these figures, and the strongest in most cases, are female. Colourful and exaggerated figures, but many women who are more dangerous and memorable than the male characters. Revy is obvious the poster woman of the series, but there's also Balalaika, leader of Hotel Moscow whose burnt face and body are matched by a back-story of fighting for the ex-Soviet Union in Afghanistan and becoming a ruthless, powerful figure in command of ex-soldiers who follow her devotedly. Other such memorable female characters include Sister Eda the nun, a member of a church on the island who are more for gun smuggling than religion, the aforementioned Roberta, the aforementioned maid with the tenacity of a T-800 who got a narrative for herself in a 2011 spin-off story, and various other distinct female characters who stand out even more than many male characters in the narratives.
Amazingly as well for a show about exhilarating action, it's actually subtle at points just in terms of the dialogue. Whether it's the translation of dialogue to English subtitles or Sunao Katabuchi's screenwriting work on display, for a period until by the end there's a considerable stab at giving characters not only their own idiosyncrasies but also distinctions between different characters they talk to. (I.e. Revy and a minor female character Shenhua, a Taiwanese knife user whose love-hate relationship, trading insults and Revy mocking her ability to speak English, becomes entirely different from how they speak to anyone else). That the series, even if voiced entirely in Japanese for its original language track, makes it clear the characters speak in different languages, and actresses like Megumi Toyoguchi as Revy and Mami Koyama as Balalaika have to speak in English many times in the show, gives Black Lagoon personality in tying these characters to distinct traits. Even the most sadistic figures feature usually have tragic back stories or even real life historical details woven into their origins - the most overtly, stereotypical anime characters, two Romanian twins who dress in period Victorian dress and are bloodthirsty monsters in spite of being children, are for example given origin in the real life anti-abortion policies of ex-Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and the effect of the resulting growth of the birth rate after his overthrow. The dialogue occasionally tries with difficulty to be even philosophical, but the attempts are all admirable.
The series for me however does falter within what was originally Season 2, The Second Barrage. The Second Barrage is only three actual narratives strung over twelve episodes. One involving the Romanian twins, which is good by itself, the second about a female counter fitter whose bounty, due to an ill advised decision by Sister Eda to milk the reward of protecting her, leads to the misfits and lunatics of Roanapur to hunt her down on mass. The problem really comes to head, sabotaging the two seasons, with the final six episodes, an entire narrative set in Japan with Hotel Moscow trying to take over the criminal underground against a yakuza clan. On one hand it's the perfect conclusion as Balalaika is shown to almost be entirely evil with Rock forced into a moral issue, challenged in his complacency, where a young girl Yukio Washimine has to take over her yakuza family's heritage against the military strategy and greater numbers of Hotel Moscow. However, it also means Dutch and Benny are merely cameos, squandering Black Lagoon as a team when the final narrative could've had them all stuck in a dangerous situation, and the character of Yukio and her loyal bodyguard are not interesting figures. The later is worse as the series falls victim of an issue with pulp storytelling where, in narratives where normalcy for main characters always returns by each chapter, the story specific characters who can be effected permanently however need to be as interesting as possible or the entire narrative's worthless.
As a result of the failure of these final episodes, half an entire season, it started to stain and reveal flaws in the previous episodes. For all the virtues, the strong female characters and fun dialogue, there was also repetition and less than inspired moments which are forced into the open due to how much the finale fails, marring the two series. This was especially when I compared it to another series from the same era, Baccano! (2007), another action series influenced by American pop culture that was a period fantasy-action story primarily set in early 1930s America, with strong female and male characters, memorable dialogue, and even more ridiculous action and gore, but also an imaginative puzzle box of a plot structure which jumps back and forth in time, and more lavish style in look and music. Against something like it, what started off perfectly in Black Lagoon didn't succeed further with its original virtues and came a disappointment.