About halfway through volume five of Black Lagoon comes arealization about who and what has been driving this story. We knowit’s been about the hapless Japanese ex-salaryman Rock and his newfoundlife as a member of the mercenary crew of the Black Lagoon, but how it is about Rock and his new life is also crucial. You can’t live a criminal life without beinga criminal, and up until now Rock has bent over backwards to avoidgetting his hands too dirty. Given that throughout volume five he’sbracketed on one side by Revy (gun-toting madwoman) and by Balalaika onthe other (ex-Russian special forces power broker and death merchant),his odds of keeping either his hands or his nose clean asymptoticallyapproach zero the further you go.
It had to happen at some point. As of the last volume,Rock and Revy had arrived in Japan to take care of business, only toget embroiled in a local war between rival yakuza factions and HotelMoscow. Worse, the war centers around Yukio, the teenage girl who’s theheir to the Washimine gangster family, and who fully intends to takeover the center seat and steer her clan back to something like honor.Her rivals find this laughable, and the first half or so of the book istaken up with a massive brawl wherein Revy, Yukio’s personalbodyguard Ginji, and Rock all descend on a bowling alley where Yukio’sbeing held hostage. (Revy’s usual badassery is on display here, butRock isn’t exactly useless here: to bring down a fleeing bad guy, hesoaps up a stretch of floor and wields a bowling pin.)
It’s Yukio who confronts Rock with his inability to truly choosesides. By trying to broker compromises between everyone involved, sheaccuses, all he’s done is found that many more reasons to stand on thesidelines. He only thinks he’s “involved”. He’s not involvedthe way Yukio is—and she’s actually rather disgusted by the way Rockhas been trying to get her out of this mess. She doesn’t want out. Shewants to go all the way back in, even if it means her death. All themore ironic, since Rock ends up thoroughly debasing himself—in his owneyes, in Yukio’s and in Revy’s to boot—in an attempt to win Balalaika’smercy and allow Yukio to be spared the swath of destruction beingunleashed.
Most of Black Lagoon has centered around(aside from 55-gallon drums full of bone-crushing mayhem) the nature ofthe criminal world. Like in Takashi Miike’s movies, the underworldisn’t so much an alternate lifestyle as it is an antechamber to theInferno. You go in, you hang out for a while, and then eventually youmake a very unpleasant exit. The trick is to see how long you can stallthe reaper. Rock’s finally figured out that his strategy doesn’t evendelay the inevitable so much as it just palms it off onto other people.He’s also finally gotten it through his head that you can’t go homeagain, especially when there’s a chance home as you remembered it neverexisted in the first place.
A story arc like this would not becomplete without a fitting climax, and we get one. Revy and Ginji havebeen itching to face off against each other ever since they fought sideby side (well, let’s face it—Revy has wanted it more than Ginji), andthey proceed to do exactly that in a struggle to determine whether ornot Yukio will have her way. It’s a variation on the old “swordsmanmeets gunbunny” trope … except that this time there’s a chance one ofthem may not want to win.
There hasn’t been a bad volume of Black Lagoon yet. I creditthat to a combination of things: each volume has at least one blow-outaction scene, at least one plot entanglement of strangling intensity,and at least one major bit of soul-searching. That you can get all ofthese things consistently under one roof is a real delight.