Wednesday, March 21

Sink or Swim

Revy and Rock from Black Lagoon.

I finally got to watch Black Lagoon in its entirety over the past couple of days that I've been stuck at home sick. Watching this gritty action anime has ups and downs, one 'up' being that I finally get to write another anime review!

Black Lagoon has so far seen 2 seasons, at 12 episodes each. It's basically about the exploits of the Lagoon Company- a small but exceptional band of delivery experts plying the dangerous mercenary trade in the waters and lands of Southeast Asia. Yep, OUR neck of the woods. While BL is supposedly set centrally in a fictional island within Thailand, places in the Philippines are regularly mentioned, and one episode even happens mostly in the war-torn island of Basilan.

Lagoon consists of Dutch, the big black brother never seen without his shades and fatigues who serves as the group leader and proprietor; computer whiz and Jewish-American Benny provides the occasional tech skill and hacker know-how; super semi-psycho gun-wielding Chinese American hottie Revy is the main muscle. Bringing up the rear is the ultimate fish-out-of-water, former Japanese salaryman Rokuro Oyajima AKA Rock. To make a long story short, Rock was a former hostage of the Lagoon crew, but ends up joining his captors after his former employers labelled him expendable in order to safeguard their unsavoury secrets. From there on, Rock abandons his corporate life of kissing up to higher ups and pen-pushing and casts his lot with the fickle but generally merry Lagoon gang in the sleazy city of Roanapur.
He never really becomes a pirate himself (insisting fervently to keep wearing his short-sleeved white shirt and tie) but works alongside them as an account manager, translator, occasional errand guy and negotiator. In a way, he acts as the human heart and often unwelcome conscience of the mercenary outfit, the only truly sane mind in a place where money, power and the gun hold sway over everyone and everything. For us, the viewers, he is the anchor to reality and morality. His earnest and principled character allows him to slowly change his dubious pals- including the volatile Revy- to the slightly better. It even allows him to gain a bit of a toehold with the more dangerous players in Roanapur, including the leader of the seemingly invincible Russian Mafia- scar-faced superbitch Balalaika.

The anime has a lot of action- pretty much happening when the Lagoon crew go up against rival pirates and gangs. While pretty few in number, the Lagoon gets by thanks mainly to the deadly talents of Revy, who wades into combat with her two Berettas blazing, somewhat resembling Lara Croft with her double-handed, somersaulting, run-and-gunning fighting style. On the other hand, Lara Croft probably doesn't fight with an insane grin and dilated pupils, but what the heck. Revi is literally a one-woman army, and seeing her walk into storms of bullets without a scratch on her flawless skin thankfully never really gets old thanks to the animators taking the effort to make every fight scene new.

One thing that you'll notice early on is that everyone in the series, from the main protagonists to recurring characters to one-time antagonists and cannon fodder- are criminals to some degree, from dubious hoods to truly black-hearted souls that would not be out of place in Goodfellas or The Godfather movies. Sure, the Lagoon crew themselves are sympathetic bastards- Benny really isn't too bad, and Dutch is a nice guy for the most part... but Revy, cute and attractive as she can be, is remorseless, cold and downright scary when she's in her killing moods- at least she seems to mellow out as the series runs. On the other front, while Balalaika and her army of former Soviet troops-turned-gangsters may be allies and sympathetic comrades one moment, they can also be chillingly brutal and bloodthirsty murderers the next. The occasional flashback and revelation may make these bad-asses slightly more human and interesting, but make no mistake- they'll be at your throat in an instant if you get mushy on them.

Blood flows in this series, and a lot of it- though usually it's despicable arseholes who get fragged- from backstabbing pirates to Neo-Nazis to slimy Mafiosi and Cartel soldiers.
The most 'fun' arc in Black Lagoon is definitely the 'Mad Dog Meido' storyline late into Season One, where the Lagoon crew are tasked by the Colombian Cartel to watch over a kidnapped young boy- the only son of a down-on-their-luck noble family in South America. It turns out that the boy's father can only afford one servant- a maid named Roberta who soon is revealed to be a cross between a French maid and The Terminator. When the seemingly unstoppable, glasses-wearing Roberta clashes with Revy... you do the math. In the end though, there's a tearful reunion and pretty much everyone goes home happy- something rare in this gritty series. The anime is careful to keep the action grounded, never really straying too far into frivolity or caricature. Violence is a way of life for these characters, and they thrive in it since they have accepted what they are- killers and soldiers in underworld wars. It's not pretty, but it's fascinating at least.

Pushing the series' color to it's darkest though is the series' most memorable story arc, the Second Season's Hansel and Gretel Arc, where Roanapur is terrorized by a pair of gothic, vampire-like child assassins. A brother and sister team of interchangeable identical twins with indeterminate gender (though for the most part we do consider Hansel male and Gretel female), these two young villains don't just kill, they butcher, and do so with ghastly brutality. Eventually, they meet their own bloody ends with the same level of violence at the hands of Balalaika's Russian mob, and even though they're presented plainly as horrific, irredeemably twisted killing machines, they're still kids- and kids getting shot and slaughtered is never something you enjoy seeing (unless you're a sicko).

In retrospect, while the idea of Goth-Loli munchkins running around slaughtering people may be something only an anime would cook up, the stark truth that child-soldiers is a reality is pointed out in the show, by Balalaika herself to her subordinates as they grimly hunt down the young murderers of their comrades.

Despite the obvious unsavoury aspect of the arc, it's easily one of the best in the series, and ends with a fittingly dramatic finale. I liked the emotion Rock showed when faced with the twisted life view and bleakness of the child-assassin he finds before him, and how he breaks down and hugs the demonic child in a valiant attempt to exorcise her evil away and somehow save her from her self-inflicted doom. There's horror shown here in Black Lagoon, but somehow they manage to inject, through a 'normal', humane character like Rock, a warmth that keeps the series from going totally off the deep end.

Unfortunately, more often than not, characters are set in their ways, unable to alter their path often to their own destruction. As was the case with the Twins, this is also the case with the tragic Yakuza princess Yukio, whom Rock encounters during the final major arc in the Second Season.

All said and done, I would recommend Black Lagoon to fans of serious action-drama with liberal fan service and quite a bit of blood and violence- something like an anime version of Bad Boys, save with no cops and all criminals. It's a very mature title with all greys- interesting characters you'd love to watch and see in action, but wouldn't want anywhere near your home. Not a frivolous title, and while there is humor, it's all grounded and gritty like few other shows. Definitely an action anime that's a cut above the usual, and a rewarding watch.

Like Rock, watching this anime is like a walk on the wildside, but we're glad that while we dabble with the shadows and shades of grey in the bullet-riddled world of Roanapur, we can always pull back and enjoy the sunlight afterwards. Check out Black Lagoon for yourself at your favorite anime dealers in the Metro.

Tuesday, March 20

The New Face of MADness

You may be wondering what was going on for the past day or so, as the blog seemed to have a bit of an identity crisis. Well, it turns out that my old page's layout wasn't compatible with the new Blogger, which basically restricted access to my archives. So, rather than lose classic posts like The Ants in the Scanner and 10 Ways to Creating Your Own Manga, I screamed for help from Webmistress Cyn to get things working properly. Hence, the new look.

Now, looking back at more than five years of entries, I got to thinking of how to get back the old MADness that has in one way or another got kinda watered down. Starting now, I'll be trying my darndnest to get back the old MAD blogging flave. Stay tuned till then. For now though, thanks Cyn! I missed that burning sensation in my eyes when reading my blog. Heh.