Black Lagoon is one of my first and one of my favorite series, and also the subject of the first substantive post for this blog, about Stealth Storytelling. You see, the deal is this: Black Lagoon constantly dangles Rebecca “Revy” Lee in front of you. She’s violent, sexy, profane, and sometimes profound, a whirlwind of manic energy who gives a new meaning to the phrase “In your face.” It’s almost impossible to not watch her.
Plus, in the manga you get to see her spectacular boobies.
But Revy never really develops as a character. Changes, perhaps, but she doesn’t develop. It’s impossible to imagine her doing something else in the future. She’s doomed, baby, and she’ll tell you so in so many words, except for one more that starts with “f.”
The story is about Rock. Rock is the one who changes from salaryman to hoodlum, whose metaplot (Rebirth) underlies the series.
Rock’s story as a character has gone through three acts as of now. We saw Act One in the anime series and volumes 1 through 5 of the manga; Act Two encompasses the OVA series Roberta’s Blood Trail and manga volumes 6 through 9; the most recent arc isn’t available in video but fills manga volumes 10 and 11, and is the story of Feng Yifei, the Red Chinese hacker/intelligence agent. With end of that arc the series is again on hiatus, although a return has been announced.
The focus of Act One was Rock’s dual nature: was he going to be a member of the Roanapur community or was he going to return home to Japan. Would he be hoodlum or salaryman?
Revy frequently pushes him in the latter direction, sometimes violently, sometimes trying to reason with him. (Yeah, Revy using her words to get someone to do something. That’ll end well.) So there’s an inherent tension in him that drives the series: will he stay or will he go?
This is resolved in the Tokyo arc: Balalaika, the ex-Soviet paratrooper who runs the city of Roanapur, has taken on a contract with the yakuza to lead one faction to victory, so she brings Rock over as a translator (and Revy to keep him alive).
This is an important moment in the entire series. It says Balalaika trusts Rock, at least to some degree. Of course, the only people she REALLY trusts are her old comrades from the Afghan campaign, but still, she’s doing business and needs a translator she can rely on, and Rock is elected. This will matter in a minute.
While in Japan Rock meets the unbearably cute schoolgirl Yukio Washimine, who is also heir to the leadership of the Washimine yakuza clan. Oops. So at this point the tension on his dual nature is ratcheted up: 1) he is HOME in Japan; 2) Revy is pushing him, HARD, to go visit his family, and 3) Yukio is a little hottie to whom he is attracted.
At that moment it would be easy for him to stay, just go in the house and say, “Hello, mudda, hello, fatha, look at the pretty girl I’ve met.”
Instead, he chooses to be a hood: he refuses to meet his parents, he puts his life on the line with Balalaika to get her to leave the Washimines alone, he watches Yukio commit suicide. This is the end of the first phase of his development. After that, there’s no going back for him. Transition done. He’s a hoodlum, and will be for life.
For Roberta’s Blood Trail, with the stay/go question resolved, he has to find a new direction, and that new direction is as a Third Force. The Third Force is a person or object who stands between the protagonist and antagonist in an Overcoming the Monster plot, to delay or thwart their ends. This is Rock’s Act Two.
Typical of Black Lagoon it’s hard to say who the protagonist and antagonist of Roberta’s Blood Trail are. The basic conflict is Roberta, the psychotic former guerilla turned maid of the Lovelace narco-gang family versus Caxton, the US CIA agent. Caxton and his men kill the head of the Lovelace family, and Roberta comes over from Venezuela seeking revenge, chewing anti-psychotic drugs like William Shatner chews scenery.
It’s one of those “Who’s the good guy here?” deals, all right. You’re supposed to like Roberta in the same way you’re supposed to like Revy, and her revenge motivation rings true: the late Senor Lovelace rescued her from a lifetime of evil, but at the same time she’s a totally psychotic homicidal maniac. You start out wanting to dislike Caxton, the CIA murderer, but he’s actually a fairly nice, ethical guy, one who makes a habit of rescuing children from bad situations (one of those children is Garcia Lovelace, the heir to the Lovelace family and Roberta’s employer). Caxton kills people because he has to, not because he wants to, and he often regrets it.
Caxton’s CIA guys are hidden in Roanapur, and Roberta tracks them down there. If there’s one thing Roanapur does not need, it’s a psycho Roberta taking on the CIA in the middle of downtown. The collateral damage would be disastrous, and if, god forbid, she should win, the Americans will stick the nozzle in and clean out the city.
So, our stakes:
Garcia Lovelace wants his beloved maid Roberta back, alive
The CIA has a job to do and they can’t do it if they are fighting Roberta
Roberta wants the CIA dead
Roanapur, personified by Balalaika, wants the whole show someplace else
Who can they all trust to solve their problems?
The name is, uh, Rock, baby: Rokuro Okajima
Well, Roberta is psycho and trusts no one, including her own senses. But as to the others, there’s just one guy: Rock.
Balalaika trusts Rock. See above.
Garcia trusts Rock from the first time they met, back in Act One.
Caxton comes to trust Rock.
So Rock is the Third Force, standing between Roberta and Caxton to keep the story from ending prematurely. The Black Lagoon Company moves Caxton and his CIA mercenaries to Vietnam, making Balalaika happy, and there Rock connives with Caxton and Garcia to get Roberta under control.
Boom. Roberta gets her family back, Garcia gets his maid back, Balalaika gets the whole mess out of her hair, and Caxton gets to keep breathing. Win-win-win-win, and a lot of it is Rock’s doing. (Moving the party to Vietnam is not something Rock cooks up himself; Eda lays the idea on him. But he makes it happen.)
In an untrustworthy underworld, being trustworthy is real power. This is where he stands at the end of Roberta’s Blood Trail: In an untrusting world, he’s Mr. Reliable.
Unfortunately for the future of the series, that’s the MOST power Rock can have. Balalaika trusts Rock in part because he’s harmless. If she thinks he’s a threat, he’ll get one through the skull and he’ll never see it coming. If he turns gunman like Revy…well, who needs another Revy when you have the original? What else is he going to do? The best Rock can aspire to is to be the business brains, to be Meyer Lansky to Balalaika’s Lucky Luciano.
At the end of Act Two of his development has gone as far as it can. That leads us to Act Three: irrelevance.
What I found interesting was that the Lagoon crew is largely disengaged from the plot of the third arc, although I don’t know how it ends, since the final volume (in English) drops in January. The center of that story thus far is Feng.
But that can’t be an accident. Rock’s story is done. Rock’s development was basically finished after the Tokyo arc; Roberta’s Blood Trail simply defined a role for him in the Roanapur community he chose it over life in Japan in Act One.
Now, I don’t mean to say the Lagoon gang is completely gone in the Feng arc, but much of it is the same as above: Feng is working for/with the Indian counterfeiter Greenback Jane, and is given over to Rock and the Lagoon team. Why? Because Jane trusts Rock (and is screwing Benny, but that’s probably not relevant). That’s not Rock developing. That’s Rock catalyzing, Rock doing what Rock does in the same way as Revy and Dutch and Benny do what they do.
Black Lagoon was the story of Rock, and that story is done, so far as I can see. But at the same time Black Lagoon was very popular and there was strong pressure on Rei Hiroe to have more.
Well, we got more. Same setting, same characters.
Different story. The New Adventures of Black Lagoon. The settled team doing stuff. Plot changed from Rebirth to Overcoming the Monster of the Week.
That may sound like a downer, but it’s really not. I LIKE BLACK LAGOON. I like Rock and Revy and Dutch and Benny. I like Balalaika and Johnny Chang and Eda the CIA nun and Greenback Jane. I’d love to see their New Adventures.
It’s just not the same story any more.
Not better. Not worse. But different.
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.