Volume two of Black Lagoon, like volume one, sports the following warning label: “Black Lagoon is rated M for Mature and is recommended for mature readers. This volume contains graphic violence, strong language, nudity, adult situations, drinkin’, smokin’, asskickin’, law-breakin’, gun love, running with scissors and just about everything your mother told you not to do.” Well, I’ve read both volumes cover to cover twice, and I am immensely disappointed to report that there is not a single scene of anyone running with scissors. There is, however, everything else on that list, so I can’t exactly cite them for false advertising.
And there’s a bevy of other ingredients in volume two that they probably just couldn’t mention in that tiny little box. Neo-Nazis; Russian contract killers; gun-dealing, bubblegum-chewing nuns; a close-quarters gunfight in a submarine; and a pair of Romanian twin children who deal out sickening mayhem with great, goony smiles on their faces. This is not the manga you give to your mom to get her into the whole Japanese-popular-culture thing. Okay, maybe not my mother, but you get the idea. (I gave her Yotsuba&! and Mushishi. That seems to have done the trick.)
Volume two kicks off several adventures which should all be familiar to those of you who’ve seen the TV series. The first, which takes up almost half of the book’s length, involves the crew of the Lagoon going diving for loot on a lost Nazi submarine. The booty in question is puzzling — a third-rate painting by an obscure “Reich-approved” artist — but, hey, money’s money and they’re no art critics. Then the Lagoon crew discovers they have competition in the form of a band of Fourth Reich nutballs who also happen to be sporting heavy artillery. Two things happen: a) the readers discover firing a gun inside a sunken submarine is generally a bad idea, and b) there’s a lot of tension between Rock and Revy yet to be detonated.
Matter of fact, it’s this tension that gives this story — and most of the rest of the volume — its heft. Rock doesn’t think much of Revy’s infantile gangsta attitude, and Revy’s prepared to write off Rock as a sniveling whiner. This leads to two pivotal scenes, the first being a deeply uncomfortable tete-a-tete in the bowels of the submarine, where Revy all but threatens to kill Rock for badmouthing her. The second is an even blunter showdown in broad daylight, where the two of them finally do come to blows but also manage to build on the grudging respect they’ve both been harboring for each other. Revy’s shown Rock that you can indeed live the way you want, and Rock’s made it clear to his new partner that you can’t solve every problem that comes your way by shooting at it. Not that she doesn’t try, mind you.
The second half of the book deals with two entirely new characters — an androgynous brother-and-sister pair, two of “Ceauşescu’s orphans” who survived the hellish underground they were adopted into by becoming even deadlier than their exploiters. They are now contract assassins, although you have to question the logic (to say nothing of the sanity) of hiring a pair like this when efficiency and discretion are keynotes in your line of business. They’ve been hired to throw a monkey wrench into the workings of “Hotel Moscow” — Balalaika’s operation — and it’s Rock, of all people, who provides everyone with crucial clues as to their identity.
Nobody needs to be told that Black Lagoon is designed to be violent, crass and politically incorrect. That said, this latter segment is a real test of nerve: if there mere idea of something like Gunslinger Girl made you squirm — if, in short, anything involving the exploitation of children makes you uncomfortable — you’re going to be repulsed. It’s not even so much a question of what’s shown, but what’s implied, and the amoral atmosphere of the goings-on that makes this part tough to swallow. It’s more Ichi the Killer than Lethal Weapon (or even Hard-Boiled), but let’s face it — the fact that Revy is on the cover shoving a gun into your snoot should be a strong hint of what you’re in for.
Art: When the animated version of Black Lagoon appeared Stateside, it sported an only slightly modified and cleaned-up version of Hiroe’s art style. It’s masculine and bold, but also full of playful energy and wild, Michael Bay-like POVs — check out the panel where Revy does double-gun duty into adjacent panels.
The art also doesn’t suffer from the cold, over-polished seinen look that you see in something like Ryoichi Ikegami’s work — Hiroe’s having as much fun drawing this as we have reading it. The book’s also loaded with splashy character designs, from Revy’s tribal shoulder tats and Daisy Duke cutoffs to Balalaika’s Soviet-army surplus fashions. Best of all, the book’s in a slightly larger trade paperback size (8 ¼ × 5 ¾) — bigger than the original tankōbon printing, which allows the art to stand out all the more in all its sassy glory.
Translation: Back when Viz first announced Black Lagoon at Comic-Con East, I was one of the lucky few who walked out of that panel with a prize: a copy of the original Japanese-language edition of volume one, to which I’ve now added a copy of volume two purchased with my own cash. Even with my relatively limited command of Japanese (as I put it to the publicity manager, “I know just enough to get into trouble”), I could tell Lagoon would require any translator to make tough decisions about what to keep and in what form. There are many places where Hiroe has the characters speak directly in English right on the page (especially Revy), or intermix English into their Japanese (as Dutch does, probably as a way to depict how he speaks English to Japanese readers!), or speak directly in Russian (Balalaika) or Spanish (Roberta). It’s brutally eclectic.
The good news is that the translator, Dan Kanemitsu, kept all this and more in mind, and created a translation that’s both faithful and accessible in all of its eccentric uses of language. When something was rendered in both another language and in Japanese in the original, here the Japanese has been rendered into English and the original language left intact. To my surprise, many things that I thought were translator’s inventions were in fact originally there in some form. When I came across the sentence “Anyone that thinks those two [assassins] are normal would think Andrew Dice Clay is the f — king messiah!”, I checked the Japanese edition, and sure enough, the Dice Man himself is the one being name-checked.
As with the previous volume, there are a couple of contextual endnotes: one on the black market in Southeast Asia, and another on the Russian Airborne Corps (the unit that gave Balalaika her infamy).
The Bottom Line: The warning label on Black Lagoon goes double for the second volume, and will no doubt apply to the rest in the series as well. If you’re not easily offended and you’re curious about how a manga take on Hong Kong / hardcore Hollywood action cinema would play out, grab this. Just remember that it’s in shinkwrap for a good reason.