THAO Retrospective 3: Black Lagoon

This post was originally published to The Heavy Anglo Orthodox on 23 October 2014. Several of my opinions expressed herein have changed considerably since that time; I know my language has improved a bit. I am quite a bit more comfortable now owning my attachment to certain elements in Japanese culture. I also tend to take a bit more forgiving stance on at least some level of pretentiousness and some level of commercialism. Although I fancy that six years or so may have mellowed my own judgementalism a bit, many of the anime here that I said I couldn’t stand I still can’t. But coming to the point: I really should go back and rewatch Black Lagoon (it is certainly worth it), and try to make a bit more sense of its commentary on Russia, particularly with the character of Balalaika; I feel like I would be better able to contextualise it now. Revy still holds massive appeal for me.

I really can’t say I’m as much of a weeaboo as I used to be. Politically I’m not a Japanophile at all. Actually living and working in East Asia – China and Japan – cured me of that. And going to college pretty much turned me off from most Japanese cultural exports. There’s a plasticity and sterility to them which, to tell the truth, kind of rubs me the wrong way. Nowadays I mentally sort Japanese anime and manga into four broad categories:
  • Art. Anime and manga with endearing characteristics that can pass for a soul on something deeper than a cursory inspection. Generally has one creator with a consistent, clear creative vision, who wants to do his own thing regardless of what the market pressures him to do – which in Japanese culture makes him or her essentially a megalomaniac or a crazy outcast bastard. Generally also has a storyline which doesn’t succumb to plot clichés and cardboard-cutout characters. Examples include: Last Exile, Jûni Kokki, Cowboy Bebop, Hakujaden, Samurai Champloo, Haibane Renmei, basically anything with Miyazaki Hayao’s name attached to it (and possibly anything by Studio Ghibli generally).

  • Cheap, hackish commercial schlock. Anime and manga that blatantly and shamelessly ride the crest of some popular trend or obviously try to cash in on something. Usually accompanied by a collector card game or a line of overpriced plastic toys. Generally has a predictable paint-by-numbers plot populated by paint-by-numbers heroes fighting villains-of-the-week. Often accompanied by unrealistic huge piloted robots. Or unrealistic huge piloted robots capable of space travel. Or unrealistic huge piloted robots that can join together to form even more unrealistic, huger piloted robots. Or katanas. Or katanas that can destroy in one swing unrealistic huge piloted robots capable of space travel which can join together to form even more gAAAAHHHHHHggguurrrggggl… you get my drift. Basically heartless, soulless brightly-coloured crap, made as cheap as possible and animated, directed and produced by committee for maximum possible payout. Examples include: One Piece, Naruto, Yû-Gi-Oh!, Digimon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Transformers (the originals and especially the Michael Bay remakes), practically anything with Gundam in the title, practically anything that played on FOX Kids, and so on. Yes, I’m prejudiced. Go cry me a river.

  • Cheap, hackish commercial schlock with a certain sense of comic self-awareness. Plays the irony factor occasionally. Slightly hipsterish in orientation, or at least comical in a certain sense. May have cardboard-cutout characters but at least plays them off each other, breaks the fourth wall for laughs, or undermines them in certain ways which are amusing for the viewer. May or may not have certain mo lei tau tendencies. Usually authored by at least one artist with a sense of humour, though probably also with a profit motive and a massive ego. Examples include: The Slayers (self-aware low-budget D&D-styled schlock par excellence!), Excel Saga (utter mo lei tau brilliance), FLCL, the original Dragon Ball (not any of the sequels), Dr. Slump and Rumic World.

  • Pretentious poseurish bullshit. My very least favourite form of anime and manga – truly the bottom of the barrel. Tries to be deep. Fails miserably. Clearly influenced by the original run of Eva. Too much so. In all the wrong ways. Often to the point where it may include quotes by or allusions to Greek, German, French or Danish philosophers it clearly doesn’t understand (bonus points if it uses the original language in a flowery cursive font; triple points if it has Engrish misspellings; tenfold points if at any point it includes sakura flower petals floating by). Tries to be dark and edgy. Comes off as boring, mopey and emo. Features plots which are needlessly drawn-out, don’t make sense, or both. Features characters which are cardboard-cutouts but which tries its hardest to convince us they aren’t. Probably has an intentionally-misspelled title, a title with capital letters in the wrong place, or over- or misused punctuation marks. Has a single artist or author on medications, who is also possibly a suspect in multiple child molestation cases. Textbook example and my personal nemesis: DeathNote – which holds the distinction of being the only anime ever to make me actively root for the Chinese state censors. Other examples: SaiKano, any of the spinoffs or remakes of Eva (the original is debatable), Witch Hunter Robin, Rurôni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal, Code Geass.
Which leaves me with the question of what to do with Black Lagoon, which I just recently watched. After having watched it, I still can’t decide if what I watched fell into the category of art, pretentious poseurish bullshit, or maybe a new category – self-aware pretentious poseurish bullshit.

What it is is remarkably entertaining and darkly funny. If Quentin Tarantino (complete with his brand of vaguely left-wing politics) directed Pirates of the Caribbean set in modern-day Southeast Asia, with an artistic style that is clearly trying to ape Cowboy Bebop, the result would look very similar to this. And one of the main characters is a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, blue-streaking, dual Beretta-wielding, hotpants-rocking tattooed Chinese-American badass raised on the wrong side of Manhattan. How badass, you say? Put it this way: anytime she opens her mouth or twitches her finger she can roundhouse kick Chuck Norris before shooting him in the damn face.

Citizen of the fucking year.

The series can’t avoid being political, though I’m not decided yet whether it’s a good thing or not. And because of its following the main character Rock, who as a low-ranking young Japanese salaryman is a minnow thrown into the shark pool that is Tortuga the fictional Thai port town Roanapur, its politics come off at first as vaguely quasi-anarchist. He gets kidnapped by pirates and his bosses essentially try to get him killed in order to prevent the pirates from completing their contract, but after he learns of and then foils their plan, disillusioned with the Japanese corporate world he turns pirate himself.

And, not to give away spoilers, but the ranking superpower on the world stage often makes its weight felt in this series. When the main characters aren’t Tarantino-ing neo-Nazis in the style of Inglourious Basterds, that is. Or getting into fights with unstoppable Colombian ex-mercenaries, busting the heads of Philippine Islamists, protecting a one-woman international counterfeiting ring from Cuban-American Mafiosi or abetting the massacre of entire yakuza clans by ex-Soviet gangsters. It’s a real mixed bag that way.

Where it gets into the pretentious bullshit territory, though, is when Rock ends up in a sort of pointless existential crisis on account of a sympathetic Heidegger- and Sartre-quoting villain-of-the-arc. Philosophically it is literate (unlike so many of Eva’s countless imitators) and it makes sense both for him and for the villain, but in terms of the story I’m not entirely sure it tells us anything we didn’t already know about Rock – and it certainly doesn’t resolve anything. (Though maybe that’s the point. Argh.)

I’m not undecided on the quality of this series. It is remarkably well-made. Gratuitous? Gleefully so. But even the gratuitousness has a point to make. And the characters really do grow on you, even the ones who would be the most unlikeable in real life, and that’s all to Rei Hiroe’s credit. The artwork is pretty derivative, but the story is better than decent! I’m giving it my recommendation.


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