The most pleasant surprise of Black Lagoon Vol. 3 is how it isn’t just about the “gun love”, in the words of the “absolutely freakin’ not for children” parental advisory block. There’s the gun-fu, to be sure — along with the gun-jitsu, and the gun-kwan-do — but there’s also a generous dollop of several other different kinds of underworld grit. The crew of the Lagoon put their bread on the table thanks to the New World Disorder: terrorism and smuggling and human trafficking, but also the way those things shape the different characters’ philosophies and outlooks. This is the world that creates badasses, and in volume 3 you learn a little bit more about how and why.
You didn’t have to look very far last time around to get an idea of just how twisted people can get when the underworld is all they know. Viz.: the brother-and-sister team of kinder-assassins, Hansel and Gretel. They’re like something out of a Bobbsey Twins book as written by Hannibal Lecter, and they are creating serious problems for Balalaika and Hotel Moscow. Ditto Chang, the local triad boss; he’s suffered ghastly losses no thanks to these two, and rather reluctantly partners with Balalaika to send these two kids packing into the great day-care center in the sky.
Much of the action in Black Lagoon follows what I call the Law Of Inversely Proportionate Bulletproof Insanity. The crazier you are, the more whacked-out and bonkers your plan, the more likely it is to work — and the less likely you are to actually get hit by an adversary. Hansel and Gretel prove they’re an embodiment of this principle when they simply walk into a Mafia office and single-handedly (or is that dual-handedly?) turn the place, and everyone in it, into a goulash of lead and blown-off body parts. That’s what they do, and they see nothing else for them in their world except murder.
That outlook is just the setup. The real payoff comes in two parts, the first when Balalaika sets a trap for Hansel and uses herself as the bait. It’s a gut-wrencher of a scene, not least of all because it’s the first and last time Hansel will shed a tear … and it’s for himself, and no one else. It’s also one of the few times we see Balalaika’s underlying world-weariness: if this is the cost of survival — let alone “doing business” — in this world, maybe it’s time for something else. Gretel’s comeuppance is similarly unexpected: she ends up in the hold of the Lagoon, with Rock (!) being the one shaking his head and going O tempora, o mores. He ends up shedding a tear for her, even if she finds the whole thing more amusing than actually emotional … and the punchline and coda for the whole episode is as grim as it gets. It’s a downer ending for this plot arc, but a curiously fitting one: as Rock has shown, sometimes you can’t fix everything with a hail of bullets, but simply have to let things take their course.
The next major plot arc features Chang as the Lagoon crew’s newest customer. Chang’s blundered across what looks like a terror itinerary for Hezbollah, and has decided to turn a few fast coins by shopping it around to the highest bidder. His business transaction with the Lagoon people is cut short by an RPG through the window (that’s rocket-propelled grenade, not the thing where you roll dice and beat up orcs), and before you can say “reload”, Revy and Chang are going gun-fu all over their would-be killers. There’s a bit of fun in the way Chang and Revy sarcastically compare notes about their pistol prowess before parting ways; they’re like a couple of sulky ronin sizing up each other’s swordsmanship while fighting off a sudden horde of ninja.
What’s interesting is how we get equal time for the guys on the other side of the rocket launcher: the terrorist cell leader Ibraha, and his comrade Takenaka. That’s right: Takenaka is Japanese — or, rather, someone who “quit being Japanese” (as he puts it) when he turned his back on revolutionary causes and decided that selling his skills as a wreaker of havoc was a better deal. Ibraha is a true believer and Takenaka an opportunist as well as an avowed atheist, but the way they’re compared and contrasted against each other makes it deliberately hard to tell which one is better off. The two of them, especially Takenaka, are that rarity in manga: truly interesting adversaries. (Notice I did not say villains, since in a story like Black Lagoon concepts like villainy and evil are entirely relative.)
These insights get ramped up all the more when Rock ends up being Takenaka’s captive, something where you’d expect an interrogation session with Rock hanging from the rafters while someone shoves bamboo shoots into his tear ducts. In fact, nothing of the kind happens — instead, Rock and Takenaka sit knee-to-knee and have a talk (in Japanese) about their respective origins and fates. Takenaka looks at Rock and sees, of all things, a kindred spirit: someone who chose to distance himself from his homeland because it offered him nothing except conformism, betrayal and lifelong disappointments. Rock isn’t out-and-out swayed by all this talk, but the seed of discontent has definitely been sown.
Lest you think all this soul-searching makes for a boring second half of the book, author and artist Rei Hiroe whips out another time-honored manga tradition: if things slow down, bring in another character. In this case, we get two — a stoner getaway driver, Leigharch, who plunges his face into cocaine and sucks it up like it’s powdered oxygen. (That’s bad enough, but wait ‘till you see what happens when he tries getaway driving while under the influence.) The other one is Shenhua, a cheongsam-clad Chinese mainlander with hilariously stilted diction that might well be her own variety of a running gag at everyone else’s expense. She wields swords and throwing knives with equal aplomb, and surveys all the chaos unfolding around her with the same air of disdain a society lady would use to frown at the wrong size of fork on her plate. She and Revy (who calls her “Chinglish girl”) cordially hate each other’s guts right from the git-go, although as with Revy and Chang they team up quite nicely to dish out destruction when it’s time to bust Rock out of his prison cell.
I am learning that one of the best ways to create manga is not to leave a single volume — except, of course, the last one — without a cliffhanger of some kind. The final pages of volume 3 put Rock in the backseat of a getaway car being piloted (“driven” is not the right word here) by a coked-out Leigharch, with Shenhua on the roof throwing knives at the guys behind them and Revy whooping it up to boot. So, again, don’t let all my talk about philosophy and outlook lead you to think you’re getting short-changed in the butt-kicking division. I suspect that would only happen over Revy’s dead body.
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 tankobon 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 also 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. I don’t have a copy of the untranslated volume 3 to compare with the translated version, but if it’s anything like the work done in the last two volumes (and I have no reason to doubt that it is), it’s superlative work.
As with the previous volume, there are a couple of contextual endnotes re: the Japanese Red Army and the Hong Kong Triads. There’s also another installment of a gag manga (this one’s titled “The Melancholy of Balalaika”) that recasts the whole Lagoon crew as high-school students. Yeeowtch.
The Bottom Line: Fans of Gunsmith Cats and all other manga-fied forms of Hollywood-and-Hong-Kong mayhem, you miss this one at your own peril. Go back and pick up the first two volumes if you haven’t already, and then start a betting pool with your buddies as to whether they’ll actually get around to filming this for real. One can hope, right?