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Black Lagoon Seasons 1&2 Review – 71/100 – Throwback Thursday

Dating back over 50 years, the legacy of Studio Madhouse is long and storied. From cultural touchstones like Death Note and Tatami Galaxy to old greats like Aim for the Ace and Treasure Island, they’re even responsible for modern epics such as last seasons Frieren. They’ve done a bit of everything, from sports and adventure to sci-fi and murder mysteries. Naturally, that also includes crime dramas, one of which we are here to talk about today. Originally created by Rei Hiroe, directed by Sunao Katabuchi and with music by Takayoshi Watanabe, Black Lagoon originally aired in 2006 where it was overshadowed (At least in my opinion) by a few of Madhouse’s other greats, like Nana and Hellsing Ultimate. One has to wonder, how does this mid-2000’s crime thriller stack up to the modern day? Well wonder no longer, because that’s what I’m here to answer. Now lets dive in!

Be warned, this review contains minor unmarked spoilers for *Black Lagoon Seasons 1&2. It also contains major spoilers in some sections however these will be heavily marked to avoid accidents.


As usual, the best place to begin when talking about a series is its production. Airing in 2006, Black Lagoon was created in the latter-half of an awkward period for the industry, one where it was shifting from Cel animation to Digital. Teams were still learning new software and technology, and while by 2006 they were getting the hang of things, it still lead to some pretty noticeable issues in a lot of series. Hell, the version of Black Lagoon I’m talking about today isn’t even the original, as the series was redone for the DVD release. And while the DVD version is far more detailed, characters look like actual people rather than amorphous blobs and the animation is “good enough” instead of truly terrible like it was before, I still wouldn’t say it’s particularly great. In fact, anything above “Fine” is probably being generous.

The best thing I can say for Black Lagoon’s production is that it knows its limits. Sunao Katabuchi clearly knew what his team was capable of with the resources available to them, avoiding any prolonged or taxing gunfights and one-on-ones in favor of cutaways, wide establishing shots and closeups of the combatants faces. That isn’t say we don’t get some bombastic moments or cool shootouts, a certain maid has a great fight in a tavern near the end of the first season and the climax of the second season has a solid duel as well. But these sorts of action scenes are few and far between, disappointing viewers looking for a more action-packed, visceral experience. Still, smart use of cutaways and wide shots is better than choppy and mediocre action, and between the backgrounds and character designs Black Lagoon doesn’t look half bad when standing still.

I would say that Black Lagoon is at it’s best when it moves out of the city and into the jungles or out onto the ocean. This is where its backgrounds and Katabuchi’s skill as a director shine the most. From wide scenic shots of the ocean, the light reflecting off the waves as their ship cuts through the water, to dense jungles filled with potential danger. While the characters often stick out like a sore thumb, they still set the mood well, contrasting the natural beauty of the world, untarnished by the ugliness of man, with the dirty, decrepit streets of Roanapur, Black Lagoon’s primary setting. This isn’t to say Roanapur looks bad either, it’s just as detailed as the ocean or jungle, and communicates how run-down the city really is. But I wouldn’t call it beautiful in the same way, just… effective.

Overall I would say Black Lagoon’s production is best categorized as “Good enough”. Nothing about it, at least after it was redone for DVD, is so bad as to ruin it. What fights you get range from acceptable to great, the backgrounds and locations are solid, and Katabuchi’s direction is generally rather good in my book. So long as you don’t go into the series looking for a gun-fight filled, balls to the wall, action series where every other episode is a well animated shootout, you should come away happy. Just… Make sure you watch the DVD version? For me? I don’t want you coming back after this review complaining the series looked like this when I made sure to warn you.


What about the story Black Lagoon is trying to tell however? Is that any good? Black Lagoon follows Rokuro Okajima, also known as Rock, as he is caught up in an illegal deal by his superiors, forced to travel with pirates, and eventually written off as dead by his company, all culminating in him rebelling against the his superiors and shacking up with a group of mercenaries as he starts a new life in the city of Roanapur. At its core Black Lagoon can be best described as a heist show, where each arc is a new job that starts simple and inevitably goes horribly wrong, forcing Rock, Revy, Dutch and Benny to adapt if they want to survive and get paid. The individual heists/arcs don’t really impact each other much, rarely calling back to each other and only mattering in how they affect the characters.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that each arc varies wildly in quality from one to the next. Some, like Roberta’s introduction, whom we will talk about later, are great. They nail the action really dive in to who she is as a character. Others, such as the Vampire Children arc, get lost in the blood and violence. They end up feeling unfocused and more like a “Violence for its own sake” thriller than any sort of meaningful exploration of the characters, their criminal lifestyle, and how they got here at all. And make no mistake, the latter is what Black Lagoon wants to be. There is no larger plot outside of the arcs themselves, they all exist to question why someone would choose this terrible life, and they generally use Rock to contrast it since he’s the most “Naive” or “Normal” character in the show.

This is simultaneously where Black Lagoon is at its best and worst. When it hits, when it takes the time to properly establish a conflict or a character, to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, it’s great! There’s a pair of episodes near the end, one titled “Two Father’s Little Soldier Girls”, that are probably the best episodes across the entire series. They do so much for the characters in question, expertly relating the two despite them being on different sides of the conflict, even managing to weave Rock’s own struggle with accepting this new life vs returning to his old, that you can’t help but be enraptured by them. On the flipside though, Black Lagoon has arcs like the Nazi submarine one where it tries to dive into this stuff but gets sidetracked by… well… Literal Nazis. Hard to have a nuanced conversation with them involved, you know?

And that’s sort of Black Lagoon’s biggest problem narratively. It wants to have this discussion about breaking free of the corporate grind, of rediscovering/reinventing who you are, of how you can get sucked deeper and deeper into this life of crime until you lose yourself and become a monster like how Revy or Balalaika see themselves. But when half the arcs or stories devolve into mindless action with ill-fitting monologues on the nature of society and crime itself, you end up with a lot of wasted time that really doesn’t say anything of substance. This in turn makes some of the ending feel lacking in places, as bits of the story meant to flesh the ending out didn’t previously succeed.


These issues carry over to Black Lagoon’s cast as well. The core, primarily consisting of Rock and Revy with perhaps Balalaika thrown in, are solid. Black Lagoon does a good job of communicating who they are, how they feel and why they feel that way in any given arc, even if how they got there or how it was presented left a little to be desired. Rock and Revy’s relationship was especially good, how they change each other, Revy helping Rock survive and gain confidence, Rock giving Revy a taste of that normal life she never really got to have. I’m being vague here on purpose so as to not spoil anything, but suffice to say, they have the best dynamic and are respectively the 2nd and 3rd most fleshed out characters in the whole show. That begs the question though, who’s the first?

Well that’s really easy, it’s Balalaika. She is, without question, the most interesting, most fleshed out, most well written character in Black Lagoon. She admittedly doesn’t do a whole lot in Season 1, mostly acting as this big scary Russian woman in charge of one of the local gangs. But even in that minor role she casts a large shadow, shaping any scene she’s in around her. Whether it be Revy asking a favor while Balalaika surfs through hours of brothel security footage or how she takes control of a deathmatch between Revy and a hardened killer. She’s great! And she only gets better in season 2, due in no small part to the fact that 2 of the 3 arcs adapted revolve around her.

In fact, I would so far as to say Balalaika is part of the reason other characters might come off as lacking. Despite being a supporting character, she often gets just as much, if not more, attention than Rock or Revy. Ostensibly the final arc of Season 2 is meant to be about Rock severing his ties with his old life, committing to being a criminal. But that ends up taking the back seat to Balalaika’s own backstory and circumstances. That isn’t to say he was bad, it’s some of the best content Rock gets. But it still falls short compared to hers. What I’m trying to say is, some viewers might be disappointed in how the leads often end up taking a backseat to supporting characters in many of the arcs, and how by doing this Black Lagoon isn’t able to give them the attention, or conclusion, they deserve.

As for the rest of the cast, they mostly just exist? Neither Dutch nor Benny get an arc to themselves to truly explore who they are or how they got here. Mostly it’s either one liners or one-off scenes hinting at more, promising more, but never really delivering. Benny gets a small moment in a Season 2 arc, and Dutch has a lot of wisdom to impart on Rock, but neither really feel that important. Other, arc specific, side characters like Roberta, Janet or Yukio get more time and attention than they do. Overall, Black Lagoon is the Rock and Revy and Balalaika show, with the occasional arc-specific centerpiece to spice things up. Don’t go into it expecting a merry band of thieves, because two of them really don’t do much. Still, what it does focus on, Black Lagoon does pretty well.

OST/Sound Design

Finally we come to the last real section of this review, the OST and Sound Design. Largely composed by Takayoshi Watanabe, AKA EDISON, with the occasional song done by The Mad Council or Breath Frequency, Black Lagoon’s OST is… fine? It’s mostly basic electronic tracks with a bit of rock and guitar. Most, like “66 Steps” or “Samara Samanda“, are functional and atmospheric. They won’t win any awards, you won’t play them in your car while driving or search them out, but they do their job when used in the show. Infact, there are only two tracks in this OST that I believe rise above that, those being “Tear Drops to Earth“, a somber and resigned piece that supports some of Black Lagoon’s most emotional moments, and “Rock the Carnival“, a rambunctious rock track that you can’t help but let loose too.

Meanwhile on the Sound Design side, I found myself enjoying Black Lagoon a fair bit. The sound of gunshots and splintering wood, the splash of waves against the ship and boots slamming against concrete. It all sounded great. Most of all though, I found myself enjoying the Dubbed Voice Actors. I know, many hate dubs. Yet while the Japanese VAs are great, make no mistake they do a good job, I ended up preferring the English dub. It’s a tad more swear heavy, and comes off more light hearted in many places compared to the Japanese, but I also felt it was more lively and handled the multinational cast a fair bit better. Ultimately this will come down to personal preference, but if you’re open to English dubs, I highly suggest giving Black Lagoon’s a try.

Choose the Life You Lead

With that we come to the personal portion of this review, where I drop any semblance of structure and just ramble about my experience with a show. This was, admittedly, the hardest bit to write. I got stuck on it for 2 weeks before deciding I just needed to get this out there and stop wasting time. So if it’s a tad less personal, a tad less insightful, than some of my previous reviews and dives, I apologize. With that said, this is your warning: Only read this section if you’ve watched the show or don’t care about spoilers, because I’m not going to mark any. In we go!

So… Black Lagoon… I’ve struggled with this portion of the review for a long time. What do I talk about? How can I communicate my issues, what I love and hate, while still making it clear that I ultimately enjoyed my time with the show? Sadly, the best I’ve come up with is to just… Say it plainly. It feels as if Black Lagoon was afraid to take itself seriously. For every scene diving into how a character got here, or questioning and critiquing the systems that push people into this kind of life, we got three silly over the top action scenes. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I enjoy over the top action. But Black Lagoon was never able to give any of these fights a sense of spectacle or character like the John Woo or Wachowskis films it was so obviously inspired by.

This resulted action that rarely lived up to what Black Lagoon promised with the amount of time it spent setting them up. And with large chunks of the show dedicated to big action, fast paced plots and thrilling encounters, the actual characters and narrative ended up neglected. How did Butch get here, or start running this business? What’s his past, how did he come to hold the views he has? What about Benny, who we only know ran afoul of the FBI during his university days? I feel like I know less about two of our leads than I do Roberta, or the twins, one-arc side characters who never come up again. With so little time spent on their day to day lives in Roanapur, on their inter-crew relations, on just them living their lives, it hurt Rock’s decision in the final arc a bit.

Anyways, what I’m saying is that Black Lagoon really wanted to be both and over-the-top action gun-kata series, ala John Woo or John Wick, and also a serious crime drama like Monster, but was unable to reconcile the two and fell short on both. The action rarely got where it wanted, the drama held back by half the cast. There are still good, great even, arcs and characters within the series. Balalaika single handedly carried the 2nd season across the finish line. But it never really comes together into a single cohesive whole for me. I fondly remember Revy blowing up boats, Dutch driving their own into a helicopter, or their conversation in the submarine. But once I’m done writing this review? I’m afraid I’ll probably forget about the Nazis, the vampire children and silly assortment of bounty hunters trying to catch Jane.


And with that we come to the end of this review! Apologies this took so long. I hit some bad writers block there for a bit, and when paired with the start of a new season and my normal graduate school work, it just fell by the wayside. And the worst part? I’m still not terribly happy with how it turned out. I feel like there’s so much more to talk about with this show, but I can’t think of how to do so without either spoiling the entire thing for future readers or making this 10k words long and basically unreadable. So this is the end result. A damn shame. Luckily I see a light at the end of the tunnel so I’m hopeful my next series will be easier.

Speaking of next series, lets talk about what you chose as our next Throwback Thursday show! Animated by Studio Madhouse and directed by a man we’ve seen before on this blog, Morio Asaka, you have chosen the 2006 romance Nana! I’ve been looking forward to this one, I’ve wanted to watch it for a long time. But I’ve also known plenty of you wanted to watch it along with me, so I’ve held off. Suffice to say, this should be a good season. It’s 47 episodes, and for the sake of my own work load we’re only going to do 2 episodes a week, so this is going to take a while. Should be worth it though, I’ve heard a lot of good things. We’ll start it up next week so keep an eye out for it. See you then!

The post Black Lagoon Seasons 1&2 Review – 71/100 – Throwback Thursday appeared first on Star Crossed Anime.

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