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Review: “Black Lagoon Complete Series Blu-ray” – Anime Painted Black

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Black Lagoon

Black Lagoon Complete Series Blu-ray BoxBlack Lagoon is one of those rare anime series that is more popular on American shores than in its native Japan. Over the years, there have been a lot of debates as to why Black Lagoon is one of the rare shows to join the small pantheon of anime like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun that have succeeded in the United States far more than in its country of origin. The answer becomes clear before you finish the first episode: Black Lagoon is violent, loud, aggressive, and adores its gunplay, and it does all of it with a panache that Quentin Tarantino and Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of . . . and you will love it for it.

Black Lagoon fills a unique niche in anime that is rather common in American cinema and TV: bad people with guns fight worse people with guns. When our main character, Rock, joints up with the Lagoon Company, none of the other characters are particularly heroic sorts, whether psychotic Revy, stern, grim Dutch, or the down-to-earth Bennie. They don’t change into being heroic sorts either; the presence of naive, idealistic Rock doesn’t alter them. Instead, Rock winds up absorbing the bad-vs-worse dynamic that Black Lagoon operates on, and you can’t really blame him for it. After all, it becomes emphatically clear in the first episode that Rock’s corporate overlords sold him out to die, and Rock does the only thing he can stranded in foreign lands and waters: ally with the only people who may not want to turn him into an easy mark.

While the time period is never stated, the level of technology and the ages of certain characters strongly imply Black Lagoon takes place in the mid-90’s. The show is episodic and character driven, based on the fictional Thailand city of Roanapur, with the story arcs rarely involving more than two or three episodes. This approach allows us to learn about about the characters of the Lagoon Company and their associates/acquaintances as we move through the episodes of both seasons of the show. The show is tightly scripted, and concentrates on kinetic, gunplay-filled action, and while it mixes up the encounters and kind of action witnessed, it never deviates from its core purpose. There aren’t much more than one or two “slow” episodes in the whole package.

Black LagoonThat’s not to say it’s some sort of dark, somber production, at least not at first. After the first few episodes, which settle Rock into the Lagoon Company, there are rather over-the-top silly elements, such as the idea of a near-indestructible combat maid (Roberta), or the dumbest bunch of neo-Nazis depicted in media since The Blues Brothers. In The Second Barrage, however, the show gradually descends into darkness, with the past of Russian mafioso Balalaika (who frequently hires the Lagoon Company) coming to light as she takes on a larger presence in the show. Balalaika’s point of view is drenched in cynicism and world-weariness, after being exposed to the Russian meat-grinder in Afghanistan and the crumbling of the Soviet Union. She has loyalty to no one other than to the men under her command, who would follow her to the death. It is this worldview that powers probably the strongest batch of episodes in the whole series, the “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise” arc, where she and the Lagoon Company head to Japan where Rock is acting as translator for negotiations with the yakuza.

However, the real highlight of this box set is the inclusion of the 2011 OVA Roberta’s Blood Trail. It transforms Roberta from being a somewhat goofy villain to the most frightening character in the whole series, as she goes on a horrific rampage of revenge killings over the assassination of her beloved master. Everyone in Roanapur is a potential target of Roberta’s rage, as she strives to find the one responsible for the assassination. Rock finds himself desperately trying to find some way to stop her before she slaughters everyone in the city or, worse, incur the full wrath of the United States government once it becomes clear that her target is an American special forces team stationed in the city. Roberta loses sight of her target and lashes out at everyone and everything, complete deconstructing the steely, yet kind, persona witnessed in the first season of the series. The final battle that ends it all is a tour de force of action, and ends with permanent, horrifying consequences for Roberta, with a final image that will stay with you long after you are done watching it.

Black Lagoon Roberta's Blood Trail - Roberta vs. ShenhuaThe stylized direction, most of the time, is in spite of director Sunao Katabuchi rather than because of him, until the Roberta’s Blood Trail OVA. A lot of the angles, animation choices, and facial expressions merely run the gamut of “okay” without striking anything truly evocative. However, by the time of Roberta’s Blood Trail, Katabuchi clearly had figured out the material enough to impress with the most striking visual work in the series. Katabuchi also handled the series composition and writing personally, a rarity in anime, and he faithfully translates Rei Hiroe’s original manga into animated form, which may be part of the reason why the direction doesn’t seem to take on a lot of personality.

The opening theme for both seasons is “Red Fraction” by MELL, with a remix popping up on Roberta’s Blood Trail. Sung in distorted English that is imperfectly pronounced and written, the industrial-rock sound nevertheless fits the show perfectly and creates a distinct identity instantly (which may go into why it has never been replaced unlike most anime with multiple seasons). The ending song, “Don’t Look Behind” by EDISON, is a somber, strings-laden instrumental piece, and it works particularly well in the final episodes of The Second Barrage, but conversely feels a bit out of place in the episodes with the over-the-top neo-Nazis.

EDISON is also credited with the background music in the series, and it more or less works. It’s a bare score, lacking layers, but it doesn’t really need them. Acoustic guitars, light synth, an ethnic woodwind or two suffice for the slower scenes, with gunfights are punctuated by techno beats and electric guitar snarls. Despite the barren feel, several of the tracks remain stuck in my head to this day, because the core structure behind much of the score is based on hooks rather than on texture. Director Katabuchi also frequently has dramatic confrontations set to silence and natural ambiance, which often has more of an effect than EDISON’s score would have in the same situation. In short, while it won’t win any awards, the score is effective.

Black LagoonBlack Lagoon finds itself in Cowboy Bebop‘s world yet again when it comes to discussion of the English dub, which is superior on all levels to the Japanese version and often considered the magnum opus of Canadian studio Ocean Westwood. While the Canadian origins of the dub pop up occasionally (memorably, Lisa Ann Beley, who voices the American Eda, butchers the name of NFL quarterback Brett Favre), it is superbly directed and performed. Tabitha St. Germain assimilates into Roberta so thoroughly it is impossible to tell she is the voice of Rarity from My Little Pony. Dean Redman embodies Dutch with a strong, deep tenor that reverberates but not to the point of intimidation, Patricia Drake is both terrifying and seductive as Balalaika, and Brad Swaile is . . . Brad Swaile as Rock. The major point of contention will probably be Maryke Hendrikse’s loud, aggressive, raspy tone for Revy, as the Japanese actress, Megumi Toyoguchi, seeks a smoother, more somber approach. While both have their strengths and weaknesses, I find Hendrikse’s tone more appropriate for Revy’s character, as she brings Revy’s anger, bloodlust, and thickly veiled vulnerability to light more effectively than Toyoguchi does.

The only real issue I have with the dub is an issue I have with a lot of Ocean Productions produced in the 2000’s. The character’s voices feel like they went through one too many filters, which flattens the voices and rob them of some of their character. This issue is fixed for Roberta’s Blood Trail, which is great, because Tabitha St. Germain has never sounded richer or more theatrical than while channeling the complete mental breakdown Roberta suffers over the course of the story.

Black LagoonThe dub scripting is largely faithful, other than unloading about five times as many obscenities as the Japanese version, and probably more obscenities in this dub than all of Ocean’s other dubs put together. Nevertheless, it works, even when taken to ridiculous levels.

FUNimation’s Premium Edition release is fittingly stuffed into a cardboard case shaped like an ammo box. Inside are the Blu-ray versions of both seasons and Roberta’s Blood Trail, along with a Zippo cigarette lighter, dog tags, and an artbook with portrayals of various characters. In-depth dub commentaries are present on the discs, as well as the usual array of clean opener/closers and trailers. Overall, this is a substantive, superb package, one of FUNimation’s best efforts in that regard.

If you have a thin tolerance for violence, blood, and gore, this show is not for you, but for anyone who wants a bit of guilty pleasure, and doesn’t mind over-the-top elements like insane killer prepubescent twins, Black Lagoon will be a fun ride no matter which version you watch. Put it on surround sound to get the most of the gun effects, as they are some of the best in anime even to this day, and enjoy.