Simple Duets: Black Lagoon

Wow, this series has started to get long, hasn’t it? This is my fiftieth post. Fifty! My last blog lasted three posts before I bored of it. I’ve written over 44,000 words…by the end of this essay it will be “I’ve written over 45,000 words”…and while I’m slowing down a little there’s still a long strange trip ahead.

I think it’s a good time to go back to the anime and theme that started it all, and as I have said before, my blog, my rules. Since I started I’ve been watching all sorts of things. I watched Cowboy Bebop twice and FLCL four times, watched FLCL: Progressive in real time, started on Ancient Magus’ Bride, checked out some things you’ve read about in the interim, and some you haven’t, either because I disliked them and didn’t finish them, or because I had nothing to say about them. It’s been months since the last time I put Black Lagoon back into the DVD player. But I ran it again, and I saw something interesting I hadn’t seen before.

If you’ve seen the show, you can skip this paragraph. Black Lagoon is the story of the Black Lagoon Trading Company, which handles all sorts of shady deliveries operating an old World War II PT boar out of the fictitious Roanapur, Thailand. The Black Lagoon Trading Company consists of Dutch, a Vietnam vet who is the boss, Benny, an American who is their electronic whiz, Revy, the Chinese-American gunslinger woman (Revy is not a gunslinger “girl”!), and Rock, who handles the paperwork. It’s cooler than three icebergs.

In broad terms Black Lagoon is Rock’s story; the meta-plot is his development from Japanese salaryman to hard core gangster (Journey of Discovery). That’s kind of tricky to see, though, because the show keeps shoving Revy into your face. It’s stealth storytelling at its best. Look at Revy. Look at Revy. Look at Revy…but the story is about Rock.

As I am watching it, I see there’s a second layer of stealth in there that’s just as clever. The story is about Rock. The story begs us to look at Revy. But when you consider who drives the plot, it’s neither of them. Dutch is the boss of Black Lagoon, so his decisions make the episodes go where they do. And the Black Lagoon Trading Company is part of the Roanapur community, and the Roanapur community is run by the Russian gangster Sofiya Pavlovna, called Balalaika (sniper rifle), and she drives most of the plot arcs.


From left: Balalaika, Roberta, Revy.

So, Balalaika and Dutch drive the plot. They are the protagonists. Poof. Final. End of story. That’s a whole new level of cute in terms of stealth storytelling. Here. The story’s about Rock. But here. We want you to look at Revy. And while you are looking at Revy and watching Rock, boom, Dutch and Balalaika are doing the dirty work of driving the plot from episode to episode.

Man, that’s wild. More than wild, it’s stealthy.

Of course, since the story is about Rock and to a lesser extent Revy, the plot is just a chance to throw them together and see what pops up. It’s pretty clear pretty quickly that Rock and Revy form a complementary pair of personalities, where the strengths of one compensate for the weaknesses of the other. This is as opposed to a symmetric pair, in which the strengths and weaknesses are similar within the pair, the classic example being Lupin III and Fujiko Mine.

Unlike symmetric pairs, which are really hard to use as a trope, you see complementary pairs all over, because from a narrative viewpoint they are very useful. Think of Doctor Who Eleven and Amy, or Twelve and Clara. Batman and Robin. Mugen and Jin. Spice and Wolf. James West and Artemus Gordon. Tohru and Kobayashi, for Pete’s sake. A couple weeks ago I talked about Elias and Chise. The differences between them create conflict, and in the combination of their various strengths and weaknesses there’s always a way to solve the problem.

So we have Rock. Rock knows his business stuff, has knowledge of business procedures, of negotiation, of recognizing that successful contracts are made between people who understand each other’s needs. In Jungian terms he is a wise hero.

And so we have Revy. Revy never met a problem she couldn’t solve by blowing its brains out (as she nearly does to Rock in episode one). She is loud, profane, impetuous, violent, sexy, a completely physical hero.

Oh, yes, and they are attracted to one another. Season Two ends with Revy refusing to admit she hasn’t had sex with Rock yet. Sexual tension = conflict. Great stuff.

I think it’s really cool the way the writer, Rei Hiroe, has constructed these interrelationships. Rock and Revy form a fundamental complementary pair of characters, and the complementarity makes the series fun to watch from end to end.

But at the same time their pas de deux, sexual and otherwise, disguises the fact that neither of them is in charge here. Cute. Very cute. Very clever.

This starts to fall apart in the later parts of the story. For the record, the anime (and OVA) stay pretty close to the manga, at least through omnibus volume nine of the manga. (Ten is an unfinished story, and eleven is in progress as I write.) But when the story gets into the OVA, Roberta’s Blood Trail, Rock has started to become a dominant character. He starts to supplant Balalaika and Dutch as the brains of the story, and as he does his story gets to be less interesting; he is less changING and more changED. Typically, Hiroe disguises that narrative shift by putting the focus on the psychotic revolutionary/narco-gangster bodyguard/maid Roberta (that long list of adjectives may suggest exactly how screwed up Roberta is psychologically).

This is why I love Black Lagoon. The story is actually kind of simple. What’s fascinating is the way the basic elements of a basic story are disguised by creating characters who demand that we look at them…and as we look at them, we miss who is actually doing the narrative work here.

Dang that’s clever.

And so ends my fiftieth post, talking about stealth storytelling again just as when I started. I think I’ll talk some about animation next time, and start the long journey to one hundred.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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