Lessons on Morality in Storytelling from Perfect Television
REVY: We’re out of water. There’s a vending machine downstairs. Make yourself useful. Hey! Make sure you use bahts. Don’t use nickels, or that piece of shit’ll break down.
ROCK: No nickels, right.
REVY (alone): Damn it. It’s not fair.
ROCK: Where you going? I was just about to bring your water up.
REVY: Praiyachat should be in right about now. (tosses bullet over her shoulder, Rock catches it). We have to get to the ship by sundown. Let’s hurry up and get this over with, Rock.
By the time John Woo looked west, it was 1992, and he had directed a number of classic bullet ballets, including A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard-Boiled. He had the formula down, as the progenitor, by some definitions. Taking cues from Le Samourai, he elevated and abstracted out the art of cinema violence. There’s a dedicated artistry to it, theory. In addition to the logistics of detonating thousands of pyrotechnics, the big hits and emotional pops fire off deployed, not indulged.
For the filmmaker who makes an action movie, there may be another filmmaker who studies the action movie, to approach it with a deliberateness and finesse others spare on dramas.
Rare work is laudable for simply being sometimes. I mean, what have these filmmakers done by day’s end? Woo, To, Evans, Verhoeven, and Woon have aestheticized murder and we’ve stood back to judge, on style and merit. Why should violence be so goddamn sexy?
This may be the third link in the argument chain. First, it’s “mass shootings were inspired by video-games,” and then the slap reaction: “that concern equals moral panic.” Both sides could be a touch too hysterical, whether FOX News or Quentin Tarantino. Obviously one side doesn’t want to believe his work could have a detrimental effect on society. With stakes so high in a debate like this (though Tarantino seems perfectly content defaming himself in other areas), hysteria shouldn’t come as a surprise. The right’s panic over violent movies is no different than rock and roll is the devil. They have no effect on the audience.
“To me, in 20 years’ time it’ll be viewed like these old panic books where people are going against rock ‘n’ roll or comics. You know what I mean.”
But who among artistes can select which parts of their art will have an effect on which audience? That’s the game we all play. In the conflict between intent and interpretation, the creator devises their work based on the intent, and their goal is to anticipate the interpretation, so that the two may be matched as closely as possible. This is, however, virtually impossible, because the audience is an unknowable quantity, no matter how much we learn of them. Works of media mean many things to many people: noise, recreation, revelation, confirmation, validation, inspiration.
If a filmmaker wants to claim that their work has no goddamn negative effect on the viewer, doesn’t that scramble the potential for positive effects? We want our media to mean something, and that can be a double-edged sword.
I know this broader conflict in my heart as a viewer, and more recently, as a player. Halo 4 in the winter of 2012 was an interesting if disquieting experience… before it became a boring one. The question of whether media was bad for me was always an abstract, because hell – I’m normal. But this mass shooting simulation is entertainment with precision. It isn’t just video-games I like, it’s this kind of video-game. It appeals to the side of my brain weaned off Robocop and Terminator 2 as an itty bitty.
These are my tastes, and now, my anxieties. For me, it’s less about sociopath training and more like the end of the affair. As someone of progressive politics, for example, I used to like saying “gay,” and don’t say that anymore. Although my ideological opposites might take the following narrative and call it something vulgar, it was feminism which led me to question media violence, as the sensitive works in video-games, television, and film were often stories without violence. Oh! That’s possible now.
And so, I love Rolling Thunder and I Saw the Devil, but they appeal to a part of me I’d like to excise. In another way, violence comes as a consequence of conflict. Even in high school, we learn that there is no story without conflict. So, in a future utopia, which is egalitarian, what the hell kind of stories will we even have?
Violent media is something that then needs to be wrangled, specifically so that it survives. If there’s a way we can compromise, between the primal states of old which produced those bullet ballets listed earlier, and the more sensitive, humane future barreling towards us at turtle speed, I propose that’s the brass ring we extend for.
The question is if action movies have a future in our increasingly sensitive culture. It isn’t an academic question; it comes up. In the movie theatre, in front of the Xbox: “Should I be enjoying this?” I can’t just swat that question away like I tried to do with the word “gay,” or any other pillar of that utopic tomorrow. So I’m holding out for a hero…
Enter Black Lagoon.
My foremost experience with Black Lagoon is the anime. The series debuted in 2006, based on a manga by Rei Hiroe. Its story follows the Lagoon company, a delivery outfit operating in Southeast Asia, who may sometimes break the law to get the job done. We’re introduced to Revy, master gunslinger, Dutch, level-headed captain, Benny, the resident guy with glasses, and newcomer Rock. Their dramas increasingly unfold in the city at the end of the world, Roanapur.
Through all the blood and mayhem, at the heart of the show is Rock and Revy, who become two points in a central philosophical conversation. One that led me to a question: is this show ultimately nihilistic or idealistic? Despite all the splatter, the series is provocative and oftentimes moving. Indeed, Black Lagoon answers the problem of cinema violence in a new age, and does so by making use of the subject’s very imagery and language.
Television is one medium of storytelling where the medium and the storytelling are at war with one another. Originally, it was a problem of the weekly obligation, where case-of-the-week was invented and then obviated the need, or even ability, to tell an overall story. The show existed in the episode, nothing more. The Internet later provided a new model, where at least one outlet releases every episode at once. The 8-hour movie spurns the moment to moment for careful, delicate construction, like playing Jenga in reverse.
By contrast, Black Lagoon is fully designed. It’s a story with weight, and by optimizing each moment, it effects an epic, even in repose. Where so much television is defined by filler or time-killing, Black Lagoon’s is a kind of storytelling built to last.
Revy and Rock sit down for a beer and yakitori, and share an affected philosophical exchange:
ROCK: Why don’t you just kill yourself? Wouldn’t that be easier?
REVY: (laughs, snorts) Kill myself, huh? I’m sorry, but you’re missing the point, Rock. We already are the walking dead. Don’t you know that? Dutch, Balalaika, Chang, and all the other people we know. Every single one of us who’s running around Roanapur is dead.
This isn’t really how people talk, excepting other anime, of course. As such, the philosophical conversations in Black Lagoon might feel traditionally anime. Mark it up to the incestuous nature of the form, but I wouldn’t in this instance. Black Lagoon lays its influences bare, and they point decidedly away from the source. Its fetish for action films from Hollywood and Hong Kong is obvious, and the fetishism itself may lead some to compare it to the work of Quentin Tarantino. I might agree with that, but only to then point to one of his big influences, and that’s Sergio Leone.
Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West is an oversized film with a surprisingly sparse script. Its characterization is unusual, positing these roving symbols as larger than life, not meant for identifying with by us everyday moviegoers. They exist for a literary purpose, like in an allegory or an epic poem. Film is verisimilitude by nature, immediately casting aspersions on visual effects and animation. True-to-life renderings of human faces by way of celluloid are difficult to make figurative, but Leone and his writers did so in the Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West both. Harmonica is the almost silent embodiment of revenge, whose name and signature point back to the moment he started down that path. Cheyenne is the romantic bandit. Jill is the mother of the new West. Frank is the gunslinger not long for a world where money can stop a bullet.
The dramas that play out between these archetypes have this grandiosity of myth. If there’s a spectrum, we’d say that Once Upon a Time in the West is on that far end, and ‘fare’ designed like fast food sits on the other pole, for example friendly TV sitcoms. Black Lagoon skirts either end, appearing anywhere on the spectrum at any given time. It’s versatile, gracefully moving from Big Important scenes to slice of life in Roanapur, and there’s perfect congruity. It’s a carefully sliding scale of value, or relevance, that never dips into ‘filler.’
There are repeated shots of Dutch that become iconic. He isn’t always framed conventionally, any more than Harmonica conventionally walks into the frame. Every meaningful interaction between characters is given a stage. Revy provides the PG-13 rendition of her childhood on a sunken German submarine. Revy and Rock’s beef comes to a head in the marketplace that’s been emptied out. This is a method of individuating each moment. We can file the scenes as building blocks away in our minds for future reference with greater ease than if the dynamism of the foreground wasn’t matched by its background. Operating on all levels is what separates a great work from a great, epic work. Because there’s almost something contrived or artificial about it. Why wouldn’t conversations just transpire anywhere, and without dreary metaphors? Well, this is storytelling after all, and so it can be more interesting than real life.
For me, the starting point with Black Lagoon is the characters. Like in Once Upon a Time in the West and like in Quentin Tarantino movies, they begin as archetypes, which again, lends the series an air of myth. It also lends the series an air of deconstruction, and the genre it’s deconstructing isn’t the western, but the action movie.
Wish I could say the opposite, but I don’t know Rei Hiroe. I don’t know him personally or professionally, regretfully having only the lightest experience with his manga, and being a fan of a derivative on his most famous work. So it’s easy to speculate about his artistic intentions, as they’ve been channeled through the Black Lagoon anime. This is, I understand, a dangerous game, as we know the Author is Dead. But a question presents itself and makes me laugh:
What if, for whatever reason, a writer decided to construct a thematically dense and intricate infrastructure for the express purpose of topping it with cinematic lard – an action movie with a brain?
Mitigating our play with literary fire then is acknowledgment that genre deconstruction makes for a well-worn tradition, time and again paying out. We see it in Evangelion and the first season of True Detective. In storytelling generally, the creator will make use of shorthand, developing signs and symbols and putting them into play. With Shinji’s psychiatric case study or Marty’s heart of darkness through masculinity, that shorthand was laid out by earlier storytellers.
Hiroe’s cherry-picking of what’s come before is more pronounced, where he goes so far as to render some of his characters based on the likenesses of other characters in a kind of cross-media transplantation: Chang is Chow Yun Fat in John Woo movies, Lotton the Wizard reps for every anime that isn’t Black Lagoon, Chaka is allegedly modeled on Ichi the Killer’s iconic sadist Kakihara. Black Lagoon’s escape from fan fiction is deft: pure moxy.
And so, subgenres are represented by complex characters: ethnic gangster, nuns with guns, creepy children, slasher, samurai (cowboy gets no love). This is something of a contradiction of terms. The superhero tradition lent itself to deconstruction in Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, as did the western with Once Upon a Time in the West and Unforgiven. But action movies? Action movies don’t get any respect because in large part they trade on being diversionary, sitting content and thumb-twiddling next to the TV sitcom, and it’s the rare artist—especially these days—who approaches the genre with some semblance of… consciousness.
Our understanding of genres and subgenres inherently regards generality, honing in on the common elements shared by multiple, otherwise disparate works. This is what excites Shinichiro Watanabe, Quentin Tarantino, Alan Moore, and other remix artists who rightfully see these elements as both canvas and brush. So, when the bullet ballerina reveals a deeply nihilistic philosophy, she matches real world psychology to fictional tradition.
Action movie characters also typically die by the end. Henchmen, villains, sidekicks – unless you’re the hero, your fate is sealed by the genre itself. When you take these kinds of characters and give them voices, you’re playing the audience’s sympathy against that predestined genre trapping: violence. Revy and Eda will tumble into a showdown with Shenhua, and part of it’s exciting, but another part is anxiety. I don’t want any of these people to die.
This isn’t something I’ve ever thought, sitting in the multiplex while it’s the good guy against bad guy. Whether it’s Roberta and the American soldiers or Balalaika and Bando or Revy and Ginji – it’s not every action scene, but these instances allow you to abstract violence out, as the only true bad guy left.
This imbuing archetypes who kill each other with souls is step one in the progressive work that the creators are doing. Surveying Roanapur in montages set to Rock’s commentary, you see all kinds of specifically cartoon people, who will later come to surprise you with their thoughts and feelings. There’s more to people, it seems, than surface values. Whether gunslinger, gangster, maid, or officer drone.
And indeed, we have our little outlier here. Rock doesn’t initially seem to conform to Black Lagoon as deconstructive play of symbols, so where among these action movie standbys does he fit in?
Rock tried to go back home and didn’t have a place in his former life. And by the end of Roberta’s Blood Trail, Revy doesn’t even recognize him, nor does the viewer. Not only does he transform, he finds his place in the city, this land of archetypes.
His, though, you may have to find elsewhere on the shelf at Blockbuster Video. As Dutch and Benny muse, he doesn’t and shouldn’t use a gun. He even turns down Balalaika’s offer of one. Instead, his badassness is very modern. It’s Walter White with the stopwatch as prisoners murder each other, in a window’s reflection of Michael Corleone during the baptism scene. Rock never gets his hands dirty, but he does spill blood.
When I had rewatched Roberta’s Blood Trail for the first time, it was after having seen the conclusion of Breaking Bad, and that connection was drawn instantly in my mind. Walter White is to Heisenberg what Rokuro Okajima is to Rock.
I see a pattern here, and can’t help but wonder if this is a new kind of archetype. Yesterday, he may have been the mad scientist, or at its most extreme the Joker, the guy who knows how to unmake everyone else in the room. The motif with Rock, our cue that he’s ‘manning up,’ is pulling his tie loose. This is a tic almost allmen can relate to, after a long day at the office. In this increasingly sensitive world—anti-gun, anti-sexism—it’s not ours to assert dominance by force, because that’s hardly elegant. Just be your own scary-smart self, and you can watch the world burn. Perhaps I’ll just label this archetype “the darknerd,” and put an end to it right there, because yes indeed, this may not be about guns or demeaning women, but it’s still another shade of evil.
Rock’s hobby isn’t cooking crystal meth as we know. But his repeated failure to save people from the darkness drives him to extreme lengths, and he even comes to manifest a physical opponent out of the city that keeps defeating him, in Mr. Chang. Although starting out as Mark Gor, Chang comes into his own, representing the evils and the lows of the city in Roberta’s Blood Trail.
This might seem like an odd creative turn, given that everybody should and does love Chow Yun Fat. You would assume that if Rei Hiroe created such a character it would be out of homage, and so there would be nothing but respect there, like in the “Goat, Jihad, Rock’ N Roll” arc. Revy and Dutch observe that with Chang, not everyone’s perfect. He’s got style and skills but not a sense of humor, but even that fact is later thrown into question with a revised password and his own derision at another character’s bad sense of humor.
But as Rock and Eda later point out, Chang is just a big fish in a small pond. He’s essentially allowed to have this big operation, but it wouldn’t survive beyond Southeast Asia. All it would take is a military force like America to come in and level everything. In some way, we might see Chang as the natural consequence of John Woo characters, whether the honorable assassin in The Killer or Leung’s undercover cop in Hard-Boiled. Chang was a former cop in Hong Kong, and then turned to the Triads.
In another Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs, this blurring the line between crime and the law has spiritual connotations, having to do with the identity of one’s very soul. Where the figures of heroic bloodshed usually die after 90 minutes, Chang persisted in Black Lagoon’s action movie purgatory. Turning his back on the very idea of allegiance, his identity is long behind him. He’s a hollow soul, one who lives only for money and power. It’s a pretty sharp criticism of the heroic bloodshed genre, which would be rife for deconstruction were it not either so well-respected by one section of cinephiles and so dismissed by another. These movies are all about the righteousness of walking to your mythological end, the redemptive power and beauty of violence. The same characters taken out of context? It would be a different story.
And so, Rock sees corruption and hypocrisy with Chang, and wants to bring him down. That comes as a final reveal, when the hobby of saving people’s lives takes a backseat to this less helpful idealism. He does manage to save Roberta, Garcia, and Major Caxton, but each had their lives risked, and each lost something. Roberta lost several body parts, Garcia lost his innocence, and Major Caxton lost his comrades.
The transformation of Rock is again reflected in the way he’s drawn and lit. So where does this come from? How did Rock emerge as Black Lagoon’s stealth villain? We should trace it back, because, it turns out, he is the key to unlocking the rest of the series.
Like in a lot of action movies about bad people, and John Woo movies in particular, there’s a difference between the street code and traditional morality. People like Mr. Chin are always saying how the Russians have no honor, but that’s always contradicted. They see their deal through with Asahi Industries as described over the phone, they rescue the American soldiers from a sneak attack by Revy and Shenhua, and even the constant betrayals in Japan held true to their original goal. Honor among thieves is the greatest law in Roanapur, where those who hold to a moral code come out on top.
What makes Rock dangerous is that he doesn’t, and his vision of what the city should be clashes with how it is. This is the show positioning Rock as forever against the charming rogues’ gallery, even though he may technically be their allies.
During the “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise” arc, there’s an interplay between Balalaika and Rock. In his quest to save schoolgirl Yukio from the criminal underworld, he implores Balalaika to pack it up and go home, for her victory over the Washimine clan is assured. He wants her to destroy the Kousa clan instead, but Balalaika doesn’t like the idea of calling a massacre ‘justice.’ She’s okay with doing it, but isn’t a fan of hypocrisy. Or blintzes. So it comes out that Rock sees himself as not so different from her, and later makes good on that self-assessment by requesting she instead destroy the Washimine clan so that Yukio is freed from her obligation to them.
This she seems to understand, maybe just on a level of logic, but doesn’t bother to actually do it. The Washimine clan had since gone underground, and were no longer in play. Whether or not this potential baptism scene was too hardcore even for Balalaika I can’t say, but it is pretty telling. Rokuro becomes Rock because this is the world he’s working with, it’s “shit as far as the eye can see.” The only way to save Yukio is with violence, and that truism will have an increasingly destabilizing effect on our good buddy here.
Rock’s first role in the series is as audience proxy. This is something we sense even if we’re not Japanese or a guy, or a salaryman, just because his is the everyman experience in Japan, and that can be a lot more narrowly defined than in other cultures. It’s also just a narrative thing, where we’re taken for this ride along with Rock, going from one world to the other, and meeting up with characters who are a lot more traditionally intriguing, like Revy, who kicks a lot of ass and shows a lot of skin.
Being an outsider coming in is not just for the audience like it might be in a movie like Hellboy, a genre film dealing in heavy exposition. After we’ve been introduced to the world through the eyes of an everyman, we have no further need for that everyman and discard him by the arrival of Hellboy II.
Rock can see things that other people don’t. For example, he’s able to out-swindle the Rip-Off Church by pointing out that drugs are being moved through it, in violation of the agreements with Hotel Moscow and probably the Triads. Who among the God-hating natives of Roanapur would know enough beyond Roanapur to understand that a church would be an asset in smuggling drugs across borders?
This ability doesn’t match well to his outsider morality, or rather it matches too perfectly, and this comes to a head in the series’ thesis moment. The episode “Calm Down, Two Men” is one of my personal favorites, one that puts the relationship between Revy and Rock center-stage in a forceful way. And also introduces Eda.
In the marketplace, Revy is silently steaming after that incident in the church, where her guns were no match for Rock’s cunning. She contends that he doesn’t fit in here, and should go take a walk between islands. Rock politely disagrees before pounding his hands on the table and standing up to her. As promised, Revy draws her gun and shoots him point blank, but he had grabbed the barrel just in time, and suffers a mild grazing along his temple – battle damage. He grabs her by the collar and makes a few loud declarations, that his name is Rock, and she doesn’t know the true Rock, dammit. She throws the little bin of chopsticks to the ground in a teenager show of rage, and tries to punch him – which also fails. After his tirade, Revy puts a hand to her head, and then promises there won’t be any more trouble.
This scene took me a long time to figure out. Years. I was always rocketed out of that analytical space by the sheer emotional power of the scene, and as such retained a number of questions. Why is Revy so powerless here? What is Rock even talking about? What part of it is Revy reacting to at any given moment?
This is Rock becoming a man, and unlike in other anime but certainly like in real life, this isn’t actually something to be celebrated. It does seem like he’s finally standing up for himself and that’s a payoff to what’s come before, which is what made it confusing to me for so long. But fundamental to understanding this scene, and all of Black Lagoon, is that Rock… is dead wrong.
He’s drawn in by Revy: what begins as horror, but stays fascination at her violence. During the first shootout of the series he observes that she’s smiling, and during the Ring-Ding Ship Chase, he wonders about the childhood that would’ve produced such a person. But later he imagines this childhood with a fairy-tale touch, that Revy was always a pirate, and that’s how you become a pirate. Revy explains, however, that it wasn’t like that, and later goes into greater, more disturbing detail. In addition, what so disturbs Rock is the present-day manifestation that increasingly reveals itself. For all her amazing talents, Revy has no grand ambition, and is only really interested in money. Rock is disappointed that Revy doesn’t live up to the image of her in his mind, and that pent up feeling bursts through with his understandable resentment of greedy people.
He becomes a man, and becomes more steadfast in preconceived notions – keeping archetypes, archetypes. Being that Revy is one those, that language: bullet ballet, talking with her fists, has no place in this conversation. You could also say that for her, she momentarily becomes human in this scene and is thus rendered powerless, which offers a glimpse into the strength of her inner self. Either way, it’s one of these figurative moments, and this play with reality is something Tarantino did in his most thematically successful film, Death Proof. Rock is entering her world and seeing things from a new perspective, demythologizing the people around him by force. Revy isn’t an invincible goddess of the battlefield, she’s a truly broken soul who scavenges off the world she’s been given.
In the end, Rock reaffirms the archetype, but does speak to some of the truth behind Revy, which is also why it’s a pretty difficult scene. He is wrong that Revy should become Robin Hood, or that there will ever be a Robin Hood, but it is true that Revy is weak on the inside, whether because she scavenges off the dead or because she has kind of a shattered psyche.
A crucial component to Black Lagoon’s success here and broadly is the integrity of its story construction. It’s adapted from a very specific structure as a manga with individual chapters. But the strength of its continuity means it’s able to bridge the gap between the episodic and the serial. There’s something overall being told and it’s primarily driven by the characters, but because the manga’s focus seemed to be on the episodic, every moment is compelling.
This marketplace scene embodies a lot of this storytelling strength by being a payoff to earlier setups. That’s all television really is, it’s setups and payoffs powered by time, the catharsis of arcs diving into one another, the climactic ends of characters we’ve been following for years.
The setup for “Calm Down, Two Men” isn’t mathematically seeded throughout the prior episodes. It happens in scenes, and so you can separate the moments out from the episodes:
This is what this section of the story might’ve looked like to Rei Hiroe when he was first starting out. He has thematic continuity, but each of these three moments has to also be contextualized in the plot continuity.
#2 here takes place on the downed German sub, which is a fitting location. To get to that point, it’s engineered through plot contrivance, inherently making it not arbitrary. Revy and Rock take their dive because a job comes in (episodic), and while their being paired up is somewhat arbitrary—just because they’re the main characters—it does provide a bit of characterization for Dutch, more explicitly so in the anime. For me, it’s also just personally entertaining to watch Revy berate Rock. Once they’re on the sub, Rock finds that it’s a tomb full of bones and artifacts. The setting is more than even just an impressionistic backdrop: it provides Revy with props. She takes the skull and iron cross to demonstrate her point, in turn providing some iconic imagery. It’s more interesting than how I would’ve done it, where Revy and Rock would just be chatting in a room somewhere. Some sort of… important room.
Each of these moments is embedded in a greater context, meaning that they can perform more than one duty while also not drawing attention to themselves unless when necessary, like in the marketplace (which comes as part of Dutch’s corporate retreat). It’s intelligent storytelling, and why every moment of the show has weight. Like you’ll often hear about things, Black Lagoon isn’t something you could cut a second out of. Especially with this anime version, despite being elongated—it’s a revision of something.
It’s important for any show to be so well-structured, but especially one like Black Lagoon, which is so flashy and so akin to works of media we typically think of as style over substance. There’s a lot of style here, and a lot of action. It’s an action show. But it’s also incredibly philosophical, and the gears working behind the scenes are intricate.
When things fall into place, Rock lands as the character he’s supposed to be. The deliberative story structure facilitates introspection, to the point of depth: exploration of psychology and violence.
And so, if we take this idea that Rock is actually not our Roanapur tour guide to the rest of the series, things click together. Rock wants to save lives, but he doesn’t fundamentally understand those lives.
So when his masculinity implosion is matched to the Vampire twins, the Washimine family, and arguably to Roberta and Garcia, what we’re treated to is tragedy. The first season is a fun ride, and ends with that establishment, but from that point on, Black Lagoon gets dark as hell.
In fact, with a handful of exceptions, like Flowers of Evil, Berserk III, and The End of Evangelion, I’d be hard pressed to name a darker anime, and I did not expect it to be the action romp Black Lagoon. That surprise came as consequence to the balance of tones, where the show makes space for comedy, an often fatally overlooked tool in the dramatist’s toolkit.
Characters like Eda are so valuable as we’re first attracted to her and Shenhua and Lotton the Wizard because they’re hilarious, so they wrench open our emotional vulnerability and can devastate us later on.
To this, I think that Revy and Rock is my favorite relationship between two characters in media. It’s certainly a weird top ten-style metric, but at the very least I can’t think of any others that come close. It’s a microcosm of the show’s range and versatility. Their dynamic is volatile and exciting, dramatic and comedic, and I believe… that it ultimately points toward tragedy.
Revy does like Rock, and there are reasons that individuate him in her mind. He’s similar to Benny as the Lagoon newcomer who doesn’t relate to Revy on the level of guns and mayhem. However, the difference between the two men is that Benny was a criminal from the start, and so he fit right into Roanapur. Because nosy types aren’t too popular, part of fitting is not poking the beehives. Rock didn’t know this, and took a stick to the queen bee.
If nothing else, Rock elicits novel emotions in Revy, and so the hints at romance between them is slightly more than the predestination of the man and woman lead characters. There’s a lot of push and pull, but they’re overall growing closer. This pattern actually spells doom, because just as Rock is unable to see Revy for who she is, Revy can’t detect the true Rock either. In the beginning, we get hints of this unexplored mutual fascination.
In three instances, Revy makes reference to a Hawaiian shirt she bought for Rock – at the epilogue of the first arc, and then twice in the very next episode. As soon as he came aboard, apparently Revy had taken him shopping, and wanted him to dress the part. She’s offended by his white shirt and tie up to and including the arrival of Greenback Jane, and would rather he don something largely associated with mocking tourists (or, what Benny might be wearing). Per the motif, the office dress is his uniform.
His refusal to exchange it begets her anger, where she believes he believes she has bad taste. It’s possible, but what sets Revy off is such a low bar, we might also say that what upset her is the defiance itself. Whether or not it’s the rejection of Revy’s clown image of him, or simply the rejection itself, he’s gaining ground in a contest only she’s aware is taking place. Following this, she closes the pursuant arc by concluding that she can’t work with Rock, that he doesn’t belong.
On a metatextual level, we might also say that Revy’s ennui over Rock (“going Whitman,” as Dutch says) stems from her comfort with being the main character. As the audience, we come to Black Lagoon assuming she will be, because she can sell a DVD. Upon first glance, she’s a typical anime tough chick, less of the Major or Balsa variety and more in the Fujiko Mine lineage, like Faye Valentine or Yoshiaki Kowajiri women – the razor-edged vixen, those who wear little and fire a gun. But Revy proves tougher than them, being reliable, trustworthy, and the specialist pride of her organization. Nobody’s afraid of Fujiko Mine (outside her bone-chilling 2012 anime), but everybody knows to clear a market when Revy cocks the hammer.
Rock, however, exhibits more of those classic elements of the protagonist. He exhibits change, and he more frequently than Revy drives the action. In reality, they’re both equally essential, and so, while this isn’t one of those cases where we drop the cliché that the setting is one of the main characters, in my read of Black Lagoon, more so than either Revy or Rock, it’s their relationship that’s the true protagonist.
This protagonist ambiguity is just a reflection of that outsider moving inward narrative, that no matter what, it causes ripples. That conflict is the heart of the show, and it leads to a breakdown of communication. So, where we begin with Hawaiian shirts, we end with Fabiola not seeing Rock as the man Revy describes.
It’s almost like Revy needs him to be the stiff, the office man. It’s important to her, otherwise she wouldn’t hold onto that perception. And she tries to get rid of him by the time of their trip to Japan, encouraging him to visit his parents. But he just doesn’t want to leave her side.
In fact, Rock and Revy’s personal relationship improves over time. Revy’s gotten really soft on Rock by the episode “Snow White’s Payback.” It’s the usual situation, in the yakitori restaurant, where Rock is challenging Revy about something, in this case a hypothetical duel with Ginji, who can cut bullets in half. Revy initially reacts with hostility, followed by her own version of inquiring what’s wrong, and finally she brushes it off as not a big deal.
So even if they do become more emotionally involved, in all likelihood it will lead to tragedy. It’s hard not to see Revy as Rock’s ultimate project. The next step from the Vampire Twins, Yukio, and Garcia. The “Fujiyama Gangsta Paradise” arc equates Yukio to Revy: Will Rock eventually attempt to save her? And then Roberta’s Blood Trail suggests that Rock isn’t the guy to do such a thing, because his methods are just as bad as everyone else’s in Roanapur.
Revy is damaged and deals with her past by trying to ignore it. Like Spike Spiegel, she’s running away, though her space-gates are the big blue ocean. And like Mr. Spiegel, we know that eventually the past will catch up, and anime fans will reach for the Kleenex. Rock may try to push against this final mythology, and I’m sitting here waiting for that moment. I’m not anywhere else.
Are people ever too far gone, like Benny says about the Vampire twins? When Rock has run out of the hold following an underage flash, he loudly laments the girl’s fate, and Benny joins him to snap him back to Roanapur’s cold reality. In this, Benny’s eyes can’t be seen behind his typically transparent specs. He tells Rock that if she were to be saved, it would’ve happened as preventative work. And yet, the girl’s final moments muddy this theory. Of course, if someone had showed her kindness early in life, she wouldn’t have become such a monster, but Rock shows her that little bit of kindness at the end of her life, and suddenly she doesn’t seem so monstrous. Because that’s unthinkable and she’s impossible to forgive, we’ll never know. Off we are, to the dark and cold world of midnight.
It’s moments like these that make me wonder about Black Lagoon. To round back to an earlier question, is Black Lagoon ultimately nihilistic or idealistic? Because it isn’t as violence-positive, let’s say, as most other things, but the heroes haven’t chalked up a lot of W’s so far.
There’s an episode entitled “The Dark Tower,” in which Revy and the jumbo yojimbo Ginji lead a massacre on Chaka’s street gang, and Rock has a philosophical discussion with Yukio about darkness and twilight. This is the place where Yukio was transformed by violence, just as Revy was in New York. But it’s a bowling alley, which is kind of a silly place for anything to happen, never mind something so horrible.
The fact of the bowling alley bothered me at first; it seems to fly in the face of my preoccupations alluded to before about everything having meaning in an epic story. This is already a challenge for action movies set during contemporary times. That’s why filmmakers like Walter Hill maintain that every movie they make is a western, and is also the idea behind No Country for Old Men, billed sometimes as a “neo-western.” In the mythical Old West, there were stages for violence, but now that romance has been leeched out by its deformed infrastructure. And so in a new world, violence must be brought to the setting, and it then manifests beyond physical terms.
The place where you find your inner demon is created not by the original architects but invaders who carry the darkness with them. It’s like an infection. Roberta tries to keep Garcia from this spreading darkness, Ginji tries to keep Yukio from it, and both fail.
Black Lagoon may be this slowly unfolding tragedy, a story of violent women and men who walk gleefully to their doom (as if on Jacob’s Beach), and the men and women who try to stop them – who, in failure, end up joining them. Action is grand and fun until it isn’t.
This is a story about taking apart archetypes, not necessarily for what we find, but for the sake of that process, which makes for a message with resonance beyond the fictional city of Roanapur. To me, this speaks directly to anti-violence, even if overall, it means Black Lagoon took the long route.
This is an ongoing story, and an ongoing discussion, but no matter the answer in the end, it won’t erase the bodies left along the water’s edge, the blood already spilled to get there.