If asked for a one-word description of Rei Hiroe’s seinen action series, Black Lagoon, my response would be “kick-ass.” I’d quickly follow that up, however, with “and a lot more intelligent than one might assume.”
Black Lagoon is the story of the Lagoon Traders, a group of seafaring couriers based out of the fictional city of Roanapur, Thailand. African-American Dutch, an ex-military man who keeps cool in any situation, is their leader and, as the series begins, his crew consists of a trigger-happy Chinese-American girl named Revy and a Jewish Floridian on the run from the FBI named Benny. (Benny is totally the Wash.) The Lagoon Traders acquire a fourth member, Japanese salaryman Okajima Rokuro (immediately dubbed “Rock” by Dutch) after a job during which they’ve taken him hostage to use as leverage with his employer. When the latter opts to leave him to die, Rock decides to forsake his old life and joins up with his captors.
From there, the crew takes on a variety of jobs. Sometimes they’re the “good guys”—as in volume three, when they’re helping bring documents detailing Hezbollah plans into the hands of the CIA—and sometimes they’re the “bad guys,” like when they’re hired to arrange a getaway for a murderous child assassin. They don’t trouble themselves with value judgments like that, though; to them, business is business. Dutch will take a job if it pays well, even if it puts him into conflict with the powerful Balalaika, leader of a Russian gang known as Hotel Moscow, with whom he has worked closely in the past. “We both have jobs we gotta do. That’s all there is to it,” he tells her at one point. (Yes, “her.” There are tons of badass women in Black Lagoon.)
Aside from the (very violent, very riveting) action spawned by these dangerous jobs—including many gunfights, explosions, and high-speed chases—the story also focuses on Rock’s integration into this seedy world. His origins may be more ordinary than his crewmates’, but he has a backbone and proves useful on a number of occasions. His main source of conflict early on is with the dynamically damaged Revy, and the two have some fascinating conversations. Her early life was extremely bleak (“I stole. I killed. I did all sorts of vile crap. My story ain’t worth shit.”) and she seems to feel that Rock, with his more idealistic outlook on things, is passing judgment on her. He isn’t, at least not in the way she thinks, and when he is able to explain his perspective on things (and is probably the first person in her life to believe in her ability to be a better person) she becomes more accepting of his presence.
There’s something about the label “action” that makes me worry that the art is going to feature incomprehensible panels full of speedlines, so I was happy to discover that Hiroe’s art is actually much cleaner than I’d anticipated. He seems to have a fondness for cross-page panels, which is kind of neat, and varies up scenes of dialogue so that they’re more than just talking heads. Vessels and guns are all extremely detailed, and if Revy does have a predilection for extraordinarily skimpy clothing, she’s so strong and interesting a character that this comes across as entirely her personal choice and not merely an attempt to provide some fanservice.
The very best thing about Black Lagoon, though, is that it really is a mature manga. Many manga receive the “mature” rating because of boobs and violence, but really, maturity is not required to understand and enjoy those things. To fully understand this series, one needs a basic knowledge of geography—the Southeast Asia setting is wonderfully unique—as well as history and current events. There’s an international cast of organized criminals, as well as terrorists and other groups, and having some idea of their ideologies beforehand is essential. I think the story is supposed to be set in the mid-’90s, but was written after 9/11, so when a member of Hezbollah speaks of planned attacks against New York City, it’s pretty chilling.
I’m excited to continue with this series. It’s not for the faint of heart, and sometimes the violence does get a little much for me, but it’s so damned good that I just have to see what happens next.
Black Lagoon is published in English by VIZ. The ninth volume has just been released, which is also the most recent volume available in Japan, where the series is ongoing.