Sympathy and Subtlety in Black Lagoon

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In my previous article about the series Black Lagoon I wrote predominantly about its first season and the often repulsive and unsympathetic violence of it. The characters within were alienating – the sympathetic fish-out-of-water protagonist was often more than simply the butt of jokes but actively presented as an impediment to the expected lifestyle of those he was forced upon. What this did was make the group of characters that would usually be presented as relatable and entertaining seem particularly unlikeable not in a comedic fashion but in a way which undermined how entertaining the series ended up being. Many of the conflicts, once the initial introductions were out of the way, were ultimately petty and inconclusive ones with high body counts but no real catharsis in the violence.

It was, thus, an effective undermining of expectations – the series seemed to be a simple action-comedy and so when it proved to be aspiring to a little more (while still providing the kill-count of an action film) the result was compelling if not specifically entertaining. The main character’s idealism – presented as naïve in the responses he got from others yet to an objective viewer often simply the voice of reason (perhaps even the expected response of an ordinary man to meeting cold-blooded killers) – subsided and he was often forced to the background. Much was made of Revy’s almost total lack of empathy and contempt for naivete, while Rock’s initial repulsion at the idea of immersing himself in ultraviolence gave way to a tacit tolerance of it for an easy life. The result was a series where the usual staples of action-films – the wholesale killing of faceless enemies, the abhorrent pantomime villains etcetera was presented without the usual glamour. This is made clearest in the storyline focusing on a Neo-Nazi society and the war the protagonists wage upon them; for all the pompous ceremony of Nazism (initially perhaps redolent of something like Indiana Jones where the ideology is presented as a useful, unequivocally evil force to be fought), the Nazis which Revy fights are outwardly thuggish yet ultimately cowardly racists obsessed with the legacy of the Second World War. Thus the expected conflict between goose-stepping villains and idealistic heroes was nowhere to be found – the result was amoral killers laying into amoral killers of a different allegiance.

This is something of a recurring theme in the first series of Black Lagoon; the conflicts depicted are between awful people and more awful people, not heroes and villains. All that makes those framed as villains deserving of such is often their nationality or ideology – and even when those motivations for villainy are indisputable, as with the Nazis, it is still shown in a way which makes the violence less of a form of catharsis, or heroism against evil, and more just a slightly better-justified reason for Revy to kill a lot of people. The overall tone is therefore one of a very bleak setting; the pretexts for fighting, and the definition of being “good”, has changed such that it takes clearly-defined and indisputable labels of “evil” to create villains worth fighting. When a more comedic (yet no less pointlessly violent) arc begins involving a trained killer disguised as a maid even the jokes (her macho posturing and natural rivalry with Revy as a result) end up being far from easily relatable. The arc ends with Roberta, the assassin, involved in a brawl with Revy to settle who is the stronger – yet the response of the other characters is a kind of resigned boredom, and the humour is drawn from how prolonged and inconclusive this fight is. It is interesting to compare this with the ending of the somewhat different film Porco Rosso, which also has a lengthy and quite inconclusive fist-fight as its conclusion; in both cases the draw is not specifically the fight (which goes on far past the point where a film might usually stop) but how its protracted nature reflects poorly on both combatants. Revy’s fight with Roberta is entered into with Rock and the others expecting an inconclusive, messy brawl – in a series which has continually impressed upon the viewer how Revy is overfond of violence as a response to things in a way which is not the usual knockabout slapstick comedy of such a firebrand archetype. By contrast in Porco Rosso the fight is drawn out and out not to show the propensity for violence or the love of it that its characters have but to mock their unwillingness to back down.

Yet the second season of Black Lagoon is somewhat less subtle and is a significant change in direction tonally. Characters who were previously immensely unlikeable in how their conduct did not have the usual fictional sheen of relatability – notably Revy and Eda (a nun whose church is a cover for illegal dealings) – are toned down into comedic archetypes. The amorality – or perhaps simply rejection of expected morality – is replaced by exaggerated greed and the swearing which in the past was used to depict Revy as alienating and unwilling to communicate becomes instead a kind of catchphrase. Here the appropriate comparison is the shift in tone throughout the Rambo films. The first is quite unlike its successors in that it presents John Rambo as an ex-soldier driven to violence by a world which provokes and betrays him – actually providing a measure of social commentary about the treatment of war veterans in a post-war society. Subsequent films changed this message to a more straightforward patriotic one where the “appropriate” use of an ex-soldier is to return him to fighting and have him seek glory. It is still ultimately presenting the viewpoint that society expects nothing from soldiers except service, but making this a positive thing not a negative one.

Compare this with Black Lagoon‘s transformation of Revy from a quite alien character – defined by her lack of any kind of aspect that Rock (and by extension the viewer) can understand or relate to – to a relatable if thorny action heroine whose aims are to get rich and (reluctantly) save the day. Her character has not specifically changed – she is still coarse, amoral and greedy – yet these are now positively-depicted comedy archetypes. Indeed there is little save bad language and gore separating Revy and Eda from one of the archetypal animé firebrands, Lina Inverse from The Slayers. This is also reflected in the choice of antagonists. The first series of Black Lagoon, as described above, established its enemies as the worst of the worst – the politically and ideologically abhorrent, presented in all their hollow and secretly cowardly baseness. The second series begins with pseudo-vampiric cross-dressing war orphans performing superhuman acts of combat and then moves onto a battle royale between Revy & co and a group of one-note hitmen defined by gimmicks (a soft-spoken psychopath with a flamethrower, a mute with a chainsaw, a modern cowboy etcetera) over an endearingly clumsy forger’s secrets. In many ways this is far more entertaining; the action is more straightforward and full of exploding cars, chase scenes, boat stunts and one-liners. The series is far easier to watch and laugh at the macho posturing of Revy and the nervous naivete of Rock (and subsequently Janet the forger). Yet it is also very much a more straightforward action-comedy, and any of the subtlety that the first series may have had with its generally bleak outlook (where Revy’s amorality was shown as alienating and hard for an outsider to comprehend without seeming patronising, not endearing) is gone.

It is fair to say, I feel, that the second series of Black Lagoon fundamentally provides what the first lacks, yet loses something as a result; it is pacy comedy with high-octane action and memorable scenes, rather than a more subtle kind of black comedy based around how incomprehensible an action-hero might seem to someone meeting them face-to-face. Revy is still the same action-heroine, in fact; what has changed is the depiction of what being one entails.

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2 comments

  1. kadian1365

    I thought the seasons were exactly reversed as you described them; the first season introduced the ironic/comedy quirks and typical action movie scenarios, while the second season was much more serious and introspective about their personal moralities and worldviews. Neo-Nazis were clownish villains compared to the highly disturbing twins arc, especially what it revealed about Balalaika, or the contemplations on honor and leadership of the yakuza arc.

    But I do agree the principal characters were more likable in the second season, though I’m not sure what to attribute that to.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on Roberta’s Blood Trail, which I think serves in many ways as the culmination of many character arcs and thematic topics the series has been building.

    • r042

      That’s an interesting perspective I hadn’t really considered; I can certainly see what you mean.

      What I do feel is the style of the action changes; the fights in the second series feel a lot more showpiece-like and choreographed.

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