The other week I finally watched Hot Fuzz (yeah, I know, what kept me?), which did the neat trick of making fun of the very thing it was paying homage to. It worked as comedy, it worked as an action film, and it worked as a comedic action movie—you could take your pick of any one of those three and come away happy.
Black Lagoon’s been straddling a similar divide. On one side of the divide is gun-bunny insanity where the cheese is blown off the mountaintops every couple of pages. On the other side is a knotty political-intrigue plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a mid-Eighties Oliver Stone screenplay (e.g., Salvador), where honor-of-a-sort flourishes among thieves and the various Powers That Be are all busy screwing over each other and everyone else in their way.
The sheer amount of plot in this volume makes its roughly 200+ pages feel like 300+. I was going to use the euphemism machine-gun pacing, although that seems a little obvious—and there’s not just machine guns here but most every other kind of weapon that spits bullets. Or shoots fire. Or rends flesh. That includes Shenhua’s Manchu broadswords—yes, “Chinglish Girl” is back to commit more mayhem, this time in loose alliance with Revy & Co. No alliance in this story, short of the allegiances formed onboard the Lagoon itself, should be considered permanent, if only because most of them end with one party getting scragged by the other.
For further proof of that you need only look as far as Chang, the local triad head who’s been weaving in and out of the goings-on since the beginning. His opening phone call to “Sister” Eda (Our Lady Of The Church With All The Freakin’ Guns In It) is nominally about the chaos unfolding in town around Lady Roberta and the rest of the Garcia family—but it isn’t long before Eda twists it into a statement of purpose. She’s CIA, you see; she and her fellow spooks see Chang and his ilk as chump change, and are probably the only people on the face of the earth who can call him a punk and expect to sleep easy that night.
Small wonder Chang turns to Balalaika for succor, since she’s one of the few other people he feels remotely comfortable forming any kind of alliance with at this point. “Trust” is not the word they’re looking for here. It’s more like the punchline of the story about the scorpion and the swan: It’s in our nature. He knows what she is like, and can bank on that—up to a point. Balalaika sees more differences than similarities: she’s an old soldier still looking for a good battle to get killed in, not a “mere” gangster looking for a score. Still, the two of them can agree on a few things—like, say, having a bunch of gun-slinging CIA operatives ripping apart your town looking for some kill-crazy maid is really, really bad for business.
As it turns out, nobody has to work very hard to find Roberta before long. They need only listen for the gunfire and look for the smoke. The aforementioned Company Men, as well as Revy and her compatriots, all converge on her position, shooting everything that moves (or even just stands still). Exciting stuff, sure, but what’s most riveting during this section of the book is a conversation that Rock has while sitting in the car, waiting for his friends to come back alive. Chang is on the other end of the line, and when Rock denounces him for not even having honor of the among-thieves variety, the other man roars with laughter. He should know about being honorless; he’s one of the most fallen of angels—a former cop. He throws that fact on the table as a way of anteing up to Rock, who is now being invited to prove just how much spine he really does have. This is, in a way, what most of Black Lagoon has been about: Rock’s evolution from straight man to mercenary, straddling the divide between both, never quite at home in either world.
The whole question of how much honor you can really afford to have in an amoral world surfaces again in the most fitting of places: the middle of a firefight. At one point Fabiola (and little Garcia) interrogate one of the wounded in the above-mentioned battle to learn where Roberta might be. They promise the man medical attention. He talks. Revy thanks him and shoots him in the face. “Isn’t that how you do it in the barrio?” In her mind, being moral is a convenience of circumstances. She denies getting any pleasure out of being that treacherous, and we are invited to draw our own conclusions about who is right, who is lying, and who is simply acting out of ultimate convenience. It’s rare for an action story to actually talk about the shaky moral and ethical territory it trods through, and not simply use it as another way to get fast thrills.
And then there’s the reunion—what a word—between Roberta and the young master Garcia. It’s another example of the story stacking the deck in the most merciless way possible, and getting away with it. (Stacking the deck is not always a bad thing; it’s how you do it.) The boy simply does not believe Roberta has become unhinged—or, if he does believe it, just how deep and pathological the damage is. It will take a major smashing of his illusions to bring him around, and the last chapter of the book provides exactly that. It also provides a cliffhanger that will have fans screaming in suspense for months to come. Not that they would have it any other way, I’m sure.
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. He was, in fact, consulted by Rei Hiroe for the original Japanese-language edition of the story, and so it seems only natural to have him do the translation. 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 8 to compare with the translated version, but if it’s anything like the work done in the last volumes (and I have no reason to doubt that it is), it’s superlative work. As with the previous volumes, there are a couple of contextual endnotes—the Barrett rifle and “Urban Warfare”.
This is the last volume of Black Lagoon any of us are going to see for a while, no matter which side of the Pacific you’re on. With the release of volume 8, VIZ has reached parity with the original Japanese editions of the series, so the next volume won’t be out until well into 2010 at the earliest. If you were stalling on buying all previous seven volumes because you didn’t want to get into a cycle you couldn’t get out of, you can now most efficiently determine your budget for blowing the $104 + tax you’ll need to get caught up.
If you already got started, feel free to disregard this notice. And if you haven’t gotten started, quit missing out already.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind