Entry Plug: Black Lagoon Vol. 1 review (VIZ Media)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

For all of my newfound enthusiasm about manga, I'm not much of an anime watcher. It's only within the last few months that I've found a solid hour-long anime block: the excellent adaptation of One Punch Man and what might be the best modern Gundam show, Iron-Blooded Orphans. I'm not opposed to going back and watching anime based on the manga I've reviewed for "Entry Plug," as this week's subject got me very interested in the Black Lagoon anime. I only mention this as a disclaimer -- I can't directly compare the manga to the anime as I haven't watched the latter yet.

That said, from other reviews I've found, the animated Black Lagoon is very faithful to its print progenitor, which is still ongoing today. The stories collected in this first book were adapted into two arcs, episodes #1-3 and episodes #8-10, and looking at the other stories, I can see why they changed the order. If I could compare Black Lagoon to any American comic, it would be Vertigo's incarnation of The Losers. Both feature rogue teams of morally ambiguous soldiers who come to the verge of committing awful deeds before finally doing the right thing. They even have a few analogous characters, with Black Lagoon's mechanic Benny similar to the hacker Jensen.

Several characters make Black Lagoon incredibly unique, starting with Revy Two-Hand, the girl on the manga's cover. Short, hot-tempered gun-slinging girls are common to many manga and anime, but Revy stands apart by being the only warrior in the cast. Her over-the-top personality comes off as somewhat annoying, but she has some interesting quirks, such as blasting Rob Zombie songs into her headphones while engaging in gunfights. (It's the rare case of a character in sequential art actually remembering to wear ear protection while using a gun.) While the leader Dutch towers over Revy, he's dedicated to driving the crew's titular boat, a former American PT boat. There are hints of deeper troubles with all of the characters, but Revy stands out as having something dark within her.

Our point-of-view character is not a member of the crew of the Black Lagoon ... at least, not at first. Rokuro Okajima is a mid-level businessman tasked with transporting a disc from one branch of his company to another. To his surprise, this disc contains information on how his company is about to commit an illegal deal to solve their impending bankruptcy. Because Dutch and company are just simple couriers and "totally not" modern pirates, they're tasked with transporting Rokuro, and of course, everything goes wrong. Okajima's company sacrifices him to save face, and as a result, he takes the new name "Rock," adding his strategic knowledge to his allies.

The second arc explores the depth of the darkness of Rock's new world. Kidnapping, murder, and child slavery are all everyday facts in the lives of Dutch, Revy, and Benny, but Rock ends up bonding with the young cartel heir that they've kidnapped. This brings me to one of the most unique aspects of Black Lagoon: how multi-cultural it is. Members of the cast hail from Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Russia, China, the United States, Venezuela, and Colombia, with the kidnapped boy being Venezuelan and his maid being Colombian. Often "multi-cultural" characters in anime are just half-Japanese, such as Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion, but Black Lagoon has vast cultural diversity.

Even without seeing the anime or merchandise, I could tell that Roberta the gun-wielding maid was a fan-favorite character. Dead-set on recovering her young charge, she is referred to as a Terminator while chasing after the Black Lagoon crew, and at one point she re-enacts the T-1000 using its claws to hang onto a car in Terminator 2. That's not the only Schwarzenegger reference; I have a feeling that "Dutch" might have gotten his name from Arnold's role in Predator. Her character arc intertwines with the horror of Garcia, the boy once under her care, as he discovers that his caretaker used to be a mercenary working for the violent FARC. The interactions with Garcia start to humanize the crew, and I think they moved this story to later in the anime in order to give the characters further bad deeds before they move toward redemption.

One more character stands off to the side but controls all of the action: Balalaika, the mysterious, scarred Russian woman who has ties to what seems like every crime organization in the world. Rarely has a crime lord been such a benevolent figure, but she owes Dutch enough favors that they can call her up for help as a villainous deus ex machina. She's hinted at having done even worse deeds than the Black Lagoon crew, so her use as a helpful supporting character is as close as she comes to redemption at this point.

Critiquing manga art is a skill I'm still trying to figure out. Rei Hiroe definitely has a style of his own, but it's harder for me to define than, say, Akira Toriyama's unique faces and hair or Yoshiki Takaya's organic roundness. One slight downfall of the book is the lettering. Where One Punch Man took great pains to adjust the words and word bubbles to fit the translated language, there are a lot of empty spaces in Black Lagoon. Conversely, the lettering itself is fantastic; the lyrics blaring over Revy's headphones get bigger and crazier as she keeps on shooting.

I was inspired to review Black Lagoon by commenter magmadragon, who pointed out that I should take a look at some less fantastical manga. This was a fun ride, and I look forward to reading and viewing the further adventures of Revy and company. Next week I'll return to Marvel and Al Ewing's recent romp through time and space, and next month, "Entry Plug" takes on a literal giant of anime.
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2 comments:

  1. Glad you enjoyed it :)

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  2. Damn! I can't believe I didn't think of this series, of course it makes sense now.

    ReplyDelete