#1 A fish out of water in a world of crime
Rokuro Okajima is a normal guy with a normal job and no noticeable eccentricities. He lives the life any other typical, Japanese office worker, until one day he is sent on a business trip where he winds up kidnapped by a bunch of pirates known as The Lagoon Company. While they are initially after a disk belonging to his boss, they decide to take Rokuro along as a potential hostage. Things go south from there and eventually it’s Rokuro himself who devises a plan to get him, and his kidnappers, out of a bad situation.
Since his company conspired to have him killed to protect their business, Rokuro quits being a salaryman, shortens his name to Rock, and goes to work with The Lagoon Company instead. Turns out his new friends are based in Roanupur, a city so foul and treacherous that describing it as a hellhole would be remarkably generous. The series shows us snippets of Rock’s new life as a career criminal, as he struggles to fit in with the rough crowd of his new business environment, and yet manages to always lend a particular expertise that helps his crew in some way.
Rock is not useful in a fight and is not cut out for some of the merciless decisions that need to be made in his new life, but neither does he feel like a useless tag-along. He is an intelligent guy with a knack for strategy and negotiation, which makes him a believable character that still speaks to the escapist fantasies of bored office workers the world around. Seeing the city take its toll on him as he begins to change over the course of the series is intriguing, with the 5-episode OVA series Black Lagoon: Roberta’s Blood Trail being the highlight of his character arc.
He also has great dialogue with his literal partners-in-crime, but pairing him with the violent, cynical Revy was perhaps the writer’s best decision. They form a nice contrast and their different worldviews generate a lot of interesting conflicts that forces both characters to grow. It’s also fun to see this weird Good Cop, Bad Cop act where the criminals are the stars instead.
#2 A wide assortment of great female characters
Speaking of Revy, at first I wanted to dedicate a section entirely to her as well, until I realized everything I wanted to say exceeds beyond just her character. Black Lagoon has a fantastic cast of protagonists, antagonists, and side-characters, but it’s telling that many of the most memorable ones are all female.
In a city dominated by crime and gang warfare, the women have an edge to them that many other shows lack. The show has agile gunslingers, vicious assassins, psychopaths, there is a lot of diversity here and every female character is bound to stand out in some way. Perhaps my favorite of the bunch, though, is the leader of the Russian faction in Roanupur, the fearsome, ex-military captain Balalaika. Everything I love about the dark setting of this anime is personified in her; she is a ruthless player in this criminal game, a woman who can be fun and lighthearted while you are on her side, yet is willing to go to extreme lengths and eliminate anybody threatening her organization, people, or goals when necessary. Throughout the show we get to see her as both a friend and an enemy of The Lagoon Company and damn do things get tense when she becomes involved.
Black Lagoon isn’t above making its girls look appealing, but that comes second to their inspired character design, cool personalities, and prowess as either a murder-machine or tactician, if not both. While the men get plenty to do as well and are cool in their own right, it’s telling how often men are just cannon-fodder or sit out combat entirely, while the women are out there kicking ass.
#3 The multi-cultural city of Roanapur
A bit of a pet peeve I have with anime is that they are too Japanese. That might sound like madness, so permit me to explain.
So many of the anime we typically watch take place exclusively in Japan and feature characters that are exclusively Japanese. If there are foreigners involved, it’s often as a joke or handled in an awkward, Engrish fashion. Sure, it’s a case of write what you know best and a lot of Hollywood blockbusters will likewise feature American heroes and American stories, but there is so much potential in anime that I’d love to see it venture outside of its borders more often.
Black Lagoon interests me because it does just that and tells a story featuring a diverse cast of characters from all over the globe. With Roanupur being set in Thailand we are already off to a great start, but even within the Lagoon company Rock is Japanese, Revy is Chinese, Dutch is African-American, and Benny is Jewish. From there on out we get to see these characters work with and against Russians, Chinese, Taiwanese, Lebanese, Romanians, the list just keeps going and it’s really cool to see all these nationalities represented in anime, both as protagonists and villains alike.
#4 Mad action scenes
Black Lagoon is one of my favorite anime to show to people who are curious about my hobby, because it’s a stylish-looking and violent action anime not entirely unlike action movies or TV series people are already likely to be familiar with. Much of the action comes from pitched gun-battles, car chases, and the occasional fistfight, all of which use the power of animation to be over-the-top and creative, without ever taking it too far and becoming too much like a cartoon.
It’s exciting! And thanks to those varied characters with interesting personalities I praised earlier, the plot points connecting these action scenes are fun to watch too. Twice now I have run into a situation where I was showing a friend the first two episodes, after which they said they still had time left and wanted to watch a bit more of it. And hey, if they make it past the Return of the Eagle arc, they have already accepted the occasional absurdity of the show and can probably tank everything that comes after just fine.
What really sets it apart from other shows known for their cool-looking action scenes is, again, the variety of flavors Black Lagoon offers. Some scenes are cool and relatively light, as Revy and other characters gun their way through hordes of nameless goons, with slick animation and strong choreography mixing with the killer soundtrack to create a scene that is just relaxing and cathartic to see. Other scenes are more uncomfortable in their violence, with the OVA having quite a few of those, though the Bloodsport Fairytale arc really takes the cake with its torture scenes.
Some of its subject matter may be a bit heavy, but it lends the story some bite and even in its darkest scenes this is still an action-packed show that had me constantly excited for what would happen next.
#5 Arc-based storytelling
The story of Black Lagoon is structured around short arcs, each of which takes maybe 3 or so episodes before moving unto the next. This gives the story a lot of variety, as every few episodes we get a new problem for Lagoon Company to solve that often introduces new cast members. One arc may see them performing a kidnapping that goes south, another deliver a package to a war zone, and yet another will see them protecting a girl every mercenary in town is looking to kill. These jobs take the crew all over the place and pit them against fantastic rivals.
I am a real fan of storytelling like this, because it creates a series that has more frequent pay-offs instead of working towards some big story over the course of twelve or more episodes. You can just watch Black Lagoon for an hour and get a complete story, after which Lagoon Company moves to the next job and you get something else entirely. Now, if you took a liking to a particular side-character only important for one story arc, then this may be a bit of a bother. However, some characters are recurring, such as Balalaika or the Taiwanese assassin Shenhua, so not everything is abandoned once a story is done.
There is also the Roberta’s Blood Trail OVA series, a 5-episode revisit of the fan-favorite Roberta story arc. My personal favorite is Bloodsport Fairytale, but I have enough love for killer maid Roberta that I was excited to get another story about her, which also benefits from improved animation quality.