About halfway through volume five of Black Lagoon comes a realization about who and what has been driving this story. We know it’s been about the hapless Japanese ex-salaryman Rock and his newfound life 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 being a criminal, and up until now Rock has bent over backwards to avoid getting his hands too dirty. Given that throughout volume five he’s bracketed on one side by Revy (gun-toting madwoman) and by Balalaika on the other (ex-Russian special forces power broker and death merchant), his odds of keeping either his hands or his nose clean asymptotically approach 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 to get embroiled in a local war between rival yakuza factions and Hotel Moscow. Worse, the war centers around Yukio, the teenage girl who’s the heir to the Washimine gangster family, and who fully intends to take over 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 is taken up with a massive brawl wherein Revy, Yukio’s personal bodyguard Ginji, and Rock all descend on a bowling alley where Yukio’s being held hostage. (Revy’s usual badassery is on display here, but Rock isn’t exactly useless here: to bring down a fleeing bad guy, he soaps up a stretch of floor and wields a bowling pin.)
It’s Yukio who confronts Rock with his inability to truly choose sides. By trying to broker compromises between everyone involved, she accuses, all he’s done is found that many more reasons to stand on the sidelines. He only thinks he’s “involved”. He’s not involved the way Yukio is — and she’s actually rather disgusted by the way Rock has been trying to get her out of this mess. She doesn’t want out. She wants to go all the way back in, even if it means her death. All the more ironic, since Rock ends up thoroughly debasing himself — in his own eyes, in Yukio’s and in Revy’s to boot — in an attempt to win Balalaika’s mercy and allow Yukio to be spared the swath of destruction being unleashed.
Most of Black Lagoon has centered around (aside from 55-gallon drums full of bone-crushing mayhem) the nature of the criminal world. Like in Takashi Miike’s movies, the underworld isn’t so much an alternate lifestyle as it is an antechamber to the Inferno. You go in, you hang out for a while, and then eventually you make a very unpleasant exit. The trick is to see how long you can stall the reaper. Rock’s finally figured out that his strategy doesn’t even delay 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 home again, especially when there’s a chance home as you remembered it never existed in the first place.
A story arc like this would not be
complete without a fitting climax, and we get one. Revy and Ginji have
been itching to face off against each other ever since they fought side
by side (well, let’s face it — Revy has wanted it more than Ginji), and
they proceed to do exactly that in a struggle to determine whether or
not Yukio will have her way. It’s a variation on the old “swordsman
meets gunbunny” trope … except that this time there’s a chance one of
them may not want to win.
There hasn’t been a bad volume of Black Lagoon yet. I credit that to a combination of things: each volume has at least one blow-out action scene, at least one plot entanglement of strangling intensity, and at least one major bit of soul-searching. That you can get all of these things consistently under one roof is a real delight.