So Black Lagoon is about this Japanese salaryman who gets kidnapped while on a sea voyage in South-East Asia. The guys who kidnap him do so on a whim, thinking to extract more money apart from their original job – a data disk the guy was carrying.
His company leaves him for dead, and for some reason, instead of having fun with their now-worthless hostage, he joins them instead in some weird Stockholm Syndrome shenanigans because the Black Lagoon company, despite being a group of don’t-care-really individuals (and one hothead), have some silly values of “don’t kill anyone who isn’t exactly bringing them down”.
The central story arc is the salaryman’s descent into villainhood. Mild-mannered Rokeru Okajima turns into Mild-mannered Rock the Negotiator, and then ultimately Rock the Manipulative Mastermind.
Each separate job has Rock questioning his values, because of the nature of the criminal work, the targets of the criminal work, or the situations he gets placed in – all this despite the fact that he’s never needed to act as muscle and personally kill anyone.
Similarly, Rock has a positive effect on his otherwise brutish and brutal companions. They see him as the oft-underestimated heart of the group.
But the world is a vicious place. His morals are frequently at odds with the people he works with and the missions he tries to accomplish.
The strength of the narrative is in its character design and world-building. Each character, even the flat, secondary ones, shines in all their exaggerated glory. Each named individual has some backstory caricature that somehow makes sense in this world. Each arc’s narrative weaves into the grand scheme of Rock’s descent into madness.
The weakness in the story is also what makes the show endearing – despite nearly everyone being portrayed as many-times betrayed and screwed up by the world prior to the events of Black Lagoon, all the characters seem to have some honor-amongst-theives code in play. They never seem to show the same ruthlessness the world showed them, as one would expect from people living in a city that is essentially a Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy.
Faction fights never seems to escalate past the current contract, and hatchets get buried too quickly for my tastes. For example, Black Lagoon never pays the price of being a mercenary with conflicting loyalties to whoever is paying them immediately. They get hired by faction A in one episode, then get hired by opposing faction B later on in opposition to faction A’s interests. Faction A then hires them again in a succeeding episode, and neither Black Lagoon nor the hiring factions ever think to betray their contracts despite the previous episode’s experiences. Heck, some factions even go out of their way to help out Black Lagoon, which strikes me as unusually charitable for cold-blooded killers.
I wish I had higher comments on the gun play and fights, but there’s clearly a Dragonball-esque fight structure going on here. Nobody ever seems to need to reload unless it looks cool. It’s not tactical wits that keeps people safe, it’s plot armor. Guns essentially run on plot-based accuracy. If you’re a mook, it takes great planning and effort to land a shot on a named character. Fodder get gunned down by the score by single characters who walk in the open. Heroic and villainous characters rarely got shot, and when they do get shot, they survive impossible direct hits or wounds that would have been fatal to others.
But the show is violent, and everyone critical to the plot has a healing factor that would make Wolverine blush – provided no limbs get cut off.
All the points above, good and bad, allow the show gets a lot of mileage from its two-bit players who end up as recurring characters in several arcs, both for and against the Black Lagoon company. The mercenary dynamics and general immortality of named characters allow the writers to emphasize and exaggerate memorable character traits, making each persona fun and full of personality. Even villains presented in each story arc, who tend to have a shorter shelf life appear with pizzazz and exit with much fanfare and aplomb.
But ultimately, what keeps you watching the show is Rock’s wavering stance and perspective, especially against the backdrop of nonchalant or cruel allies, most notably the violent muscle of Black Lagoon. Rock might stick out like a sore thumb in the city of Roanapur, but slowly, for better or for worse, he manages to merge his world view with the reality he lives in.