Wading through the pools of anime can be a difficult task to endure. Sure, once in a while you're rewarded with that something special, but most of the time you're trudging ankle-deep through the wet sand of mediocrity, which can of course dishearten even the most devout anime fan. FUNimation may have served us well last year by releasing a good number of the genre's heavy hitters in drool-worthy collections (Tenchi Muyo, Hellsing Ultimate and Dragon Ball Z Kai), but I just wasn't coming across anything that was new to me and actually worth my investment of time and money. My feet had been stuck in that proverbial sand for far too long, so I did the only thing I could to break free without spending a small fortune - I hit the internet and started researching reviews and opinions, hoping I'd be pointed in the right direction. My interest had eventually been piqued by Black Lagoon, as it was consistently referenced in the same breath as Cowboy Bebop, which is up there as one of my favorite anime's of all time. I highly doubted another anime could be as suave, yet simultaneously dark as Cowboy Bebop, but I had seen enough online to know it at least deserved a chance. It was around this time I had discovered that FUNimation was releasing the Black Lagoon - Complete Collection Season 1 and 2 on Blu-ray, and even though I'm not a man who puts any stock in faith or destiny, the timing at play was too coincidental to ignore.
Well, it's no Cowboy Bebop, but Black Lagoon took me by surprise nonetheless. For starters, the plot device that drives the characters and all the insane situations they find themselves in, is piracy. Now, thanks to Disney's ever expansive efforts with Pirates of the Caribbean and Neverland themed adventures, most of us probably think of imagery associated with silly hats, swordplay and ships with sails, but Black Lagoon is a fresh breath of sea air as it decidedly focuses on modern day mercenaries. Three, to be exact - There's Benny, who serves as the Lagoon's tech-savvy wiz, complete with a degree from the University of Central Florida. Dutch is the quiet, but nevertheless deadly captain. His flow in battle, when he actually participates, is so fluid you could almost mistake his cool and calm demeanor for boredom. The one who garners the most attention however, is Revy - Lacking any sense of people skills or tact in general, she's the foul-mouthed muscle who springs into the midst of action with f-bombs slinging and gun barrels screaming. When first introduced, they've 'obtained' a disc of confidential information for a client affiliated with the Russian mafia, but Revy isn't satisfied with the pay so she kidnaps businessman Rokuro Okajima, in hopes they might be able to fatten their take by collecting a hefty ransom on the side. Unfortunately, Rokuro is left high and dry by his corporate masters and is given a choice - Be left to fend for himself in dangerous territory, or join the pirates in their conquest for excitement and money. Rokuro sees no choice but to embrace his new acquaintances, and although he does so with gritted teeth at first, it isn't long before they bond and start calling him 'Rock'. Despite being given such a hardened nickname, Rock isn't the cold-blooded killing type, but his business sense goes a long way in tactical negotiations. Eventually he becomes a valued member of the team as opposed to a helpless tag-along, and proves that brandishing iron and lead isn't the only way to gain a reputation for being dangerous.
On the surface, Black Lagoon can easily be mistaken as a series that prides itself on style over substance. Each and every episode offers non-stop, adrenaline fueled action sequences complete with overpowered weaponry, vehicle chases and bad-ass one-liners. To add to the genre's seemingly cliché action formula, the characters are pegged into 'cool' personality types that are predictable as they are stereotypical. Dutch, the calm and collected mastermind wears sunglasses regardless of the situation, and is so suave you'd probably enjoy listening to him read a phone book. Revy lets her attitude and instincts do all the talking... you know, shoots first and asks questions later. Benny as the resident engineer has a shockingly eccentric personality, because criminal geeks are always witty hipsters, you know?
Yes, the characters seem like your typical cardboard cutout variety bunch, but Rock's inclusion changes everything. All this time, the pirates of the Lagoon Corporation have been enjoying life the only way they knew how, and have long since settled into their routines and unwavering personalities. It's made clear to us that they're very good at what they do, but we also get the sense their ease and recklessness will probably force them into early retirement... six feet underground. After all, they've only had two weapons in their arsenal up to this point - Shoot to kill and blow shit up. When Rokuro comes along however, everything changes. Since his life has been turned upside down and everything he thought he once knew betrayed, he's the toolkit this group has desperately needed for a long time, despite not knowing it. He's skilled as an interpreter and accountant, amongst other things, and this change puts into motion a fairly dramatic tightening of the characters throughout both seasons.
Yep, there's a lot more to Black Lagoon than mind-blowing action and the innocent fan-service of staring at Revy whenever she's on-screen. It actually delves into the characters a lot more than you'd think based on the seemingly unoriginal starting character design, to the point where things go from fun and blast happy, to serious and even somewhat dark halfway through the first season. Continuing my astonishment at just how well the character interaction has been implemented, a semi-romance begins to blossom between Revy and their captive-turned-pirate, 'Rock'. Whereas most anime series seem to crank love from zero-to-obsession in a matter of moments, Black Lagoon actually draws them together in a way that's far more organic. This slowly evolving relationship also allows us to take a much deeper look inside Revy, and why she feels as if she always has to put forth an explosively strong front (both literally and figuratively). There's no question about it, it's the character study that makes this show... outside of the action, that is. As far as the overall plot is concerned, there are a few story arcs that play out between both seasons, so things are never too complicated at Black Lagoon's core. That being said, some of the issues that pop up along the way tackle politically incorrect viewpoints without apologizing for the realistic way they're being portrayed.
I've been fortunate enough with my anime reviews to say this on a couple of occasions, but it bears repeating in regards to Black Lagoon - This series truly has something for everyone. If you want serious issues and compelling characters that you're going to get to know and care about, Black Lagoon has it. If you want heart pounding action to sink your teeth into, and eye candy that's likely to cause your peepers to pop out of your skull on a regular basis, Black Lagoon has that, too. My only complaint about the two included seasons, is that the first season just feels a bit more substantial than the rest, but it's such a minor complaint it hardly seems worth mentioning. Again, I'll repeat that this series is no Cowboy Bebop, but let's be honest - Can anything really come close to the unique style and tone of that anime? All I can say is that I have yet to see it done. Still, Black Lagoon sort of feels like a completely different beast altogether, so the comparisons that many have been making around the web just seems unfair, regardless of if they've been positive or not. This series stands tall on proud on no one's shoulders, and although it may seem like it's trying to skate by on style and mayhem at first, that's just part of the series beautiful design - It aims to take you surprise, and once it does (because it will), it never lets go.
FUNimation releases, regardless of how popular the properties are, have been hit or miss. Much of what they put out on Blu-ray are upconverts, and although there are times where the result is unimpressive as one would expect, there are actually quite a few anime titles in their catalog that end up looking fantastic. Black Lagoon most definitely belongs in the latter category, because aside from having a softer look than I'd expect from a true HD source (some of the minor softness is due to design, some a result of the source and upconversion), the 1080p, AVC encoded transfer (1.78:1) is pretty solid. Lines are solid, contrast is immaculate and sports deep and inky blacks, and constantly on display is impressively lush color saturation. As far as the encode itself is concerned, there's no digital compression artifacts to worry about, nor is there any edge enhancement. The only issue that's really noticeable is banding, and these occurrences are unfortunately scattered throughout most of the series. This is an above average release by FUNi, so newcomers and fans alike should find little to complain about in terms of this video presentation, despite there being room for improvement.
The Black Lagoon Collection comes with a strange assortment of audio encodes - There's an English track presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and as far as the sound design is concerned, it blows the Japanese 2.0 Dolby TrueHD track out of the water (pirate themed puns are fun, sorry). I say these options are strange, because using two different audio codecs is something I'm not used to seeing. The reason why the English track is superior, is its attention to detail in the surround department. Regardless of how the Japanese source was designed, the 5.1 mix offers an enveloping experience and packs a wallop with intense LFE whenever appropriate... which is pretty much all the time. This series is loaded to the gills with action, and the fact that they were able to sell it with this mix is a huge accomplishment. The 2.0 Japanese track is also aggressive for what it is, but if you don't care about the difference between the English and Japanese dialogue, the English 5.1 is the way to go.
That being said, make no mistake about it - There's a huge difference between the English and Japanese dialogue. Just flip on the subtitles and try to read along while listening to the English dub - The English translation has been 'spiced up' to be a bit more shocking and vulgar, which surprised me quite a bit. Usually it's the English dub that attempts to soften the Japanese narrative, not the other way around... yet here we are. I'm normally against such a dramatic change in translation, but the added vulgarity (mostly from Revy) actually helps to match the action-fueled insanity she displays more often than not. So, my personal recommendation this time around is for the English track overall, but Japanese anime purists should take this into consideration before beginning the series.
As typical for FUNimation, the supplements leave a lot to be desired. The only decent extra is a 15 minute 'behind the scenes' featurette, which is mostly just a lengthy montage of interview snippets. Other than that, the rest is mostly filler:
-The Crew Behind the Scenes of English Version Production
-CD Commercial (Japan)
-Promo Video 1
-Promo Video 2
-Second Season Promo Video
-Japanese Opening - Second Barrage
-Textless Closing Song
-Textless Closing Song - Episode 15
-Textless Closing Song - Episode 24
Since everyone on the internet was attempting to 'sell' the series by likening it to Cowboy Bebop, I went into Black Lagoon with heightened skepticism. After the first couple of episodes, I thought this would amount to little more than a great piece of action oriented fan service, but investing a little more time revealed this to be one of the best anime series I've seen in quite some time. The plot isn't afraid to get its hands dirty, and despite the characters starting out as cookie-cutter stereotypes, they were surprisingly layered and it wasn't long before I cared about them a great deal. In short, Black Lagoon clearly offers something for everyone, and the fact that this is one of the better A/V presentations to come from FUNimation in 2012 (despite there being room for improvement) only sweetens the pot. Highly Recommended.