This week, we have two shows that (a) are called “Black Something” and (b) fall well outside the norm for anime in terms of setting and protagonists. Anime fans apparently never get tired of high school students saving the world from monsters, or hapless guys with more magical cute girls than they know how to deal with. And while I’m certainly on board with those shows (when they’re good) it’s nice to do something different for a change. So today: Salaryman protagonists!
Black Lagoon starts like this: Okajima Rokuro is a Japanese salaryman, on a routine assignment (he thinks) for his corporation to deliver a disc of secret data somewhere in the South China Sea. Unfortunately, his cargo ship is boarded by pirates in an old torpedo boat, who help themselves to the disc and also to Rokuro himself, in case he’s worth a ransom. Doubly unfortunately, the disc turns out to contain unwholesome weapons research information the company can’t risk getting loose. Instead of paying the ransom, Rokuro’s company puts out a notice of his death, and sends mercenaries to hunt him down. At this point we start getting into spoiler territory, so all I’ll say about where it goes is that Rokuro (nick-named “Rock”) winds up joining the pirate crew, and the rest of the show (two seasons and some OVAs) is about his adventures in the lawless world of black markets and contract killers. It’s a life full of gunplay, complicated criminal dealings, and a heavy dose of black humor.
What really makes the show stand out is the character development. At first, Rock isn’t much use in the pirating business (actually more of a delivery/mercenary/jack-of-all-trades criminals-with-a-boat business) but he gradually discovers uses for some of his salaryman skills, like negotiation, actually being able to do math, and drinking people under the table. As he finds his way through the underworld, he picks up more skills, and becomes a sort of master manipulator/fixer, but you can see the change reflected in his personality. There’s a beautiful moment, later in the show, when he returns to Japan and realizes how much he no longer belongs there.
In a way, though less explicitly than Black Heaven, Black Lagoon is about mid-life crises, and the desire to break out of the dull, corporate life and do something awesome. Accordingly, the life of a modern-day pirate is a little bit glamorized, but not so badly that it seems silly. They live in a city called Roanapura (I think?) which is a pirate haven in an unnamed South Asian country, where the government is thoroughly corrupt and various mafias and foreign intelligence agencies run everything behind the scenes. It’s a bit more glamorous than the coast of Somalia, but still pretty much a dive.
The show’s secondary characters are mostly just as well drawn as Rock, from occasional allies (a delinquent nun/arms dealer, well-spoken but untrustworthy Triad rep) to a variety of weird antagonists. (killer maid, chainsaw murderer) A few stand out as truly excellent. On the main crew, there’s Revi, who serves as the muscle — she’s a foul-mouthed, hard-fighting, hard-drinking, spectacular gunfighter, but like Rock develops in interesting directions as the show goes along. We get a real sense that she’s damaged by the life she lives in some deep ways, which she plasters over with booze and bombast. Then there’s the pirates’ sometime employer, Balalaika, who runs the Russian mob in Roanapura with a fire-scarred face and an iron fist. She’s one of those almost-villains who you can’t help but like, because she’s just so direct and efficient, and she has some of the show’s most awesome moments.
I have a few nitpicks, of course. The animators know their military hardware (I don’t think I’ve ever seen the stuff drawn with such meticulous detail; an RPG round, for example, properly deploys its stabilizer fins in flight) but the action is strictly Hollywood-style, where the main characters win gunfights by the magical power of not getting hit. It gets a little silly at times when two characters with that kind of plot invulnerability can exchange pistol fire for hours without ever landing a shot. Some of the later arcs are extremely convoluted, and it takes some real effort to figure out who is betraying whom through multiple layers of double-crosses.
Overall, though, it’s a great show, and on my list of all-time best anime. It’s got slam-bang action, dark humor, good plotting, and great characters. A definite classic.
Wow, Black Heaven. This is going way back (aired in 1999!) and gives me nostalgia for the days of college anime club, with our badly-translated, multiply-copied VHS tapes and the occasional rare laserdisc… ahem.
Tanaka Oji is a middle-aged salaryman with a dull job, an awful boss, a ho-hum marriage and a bratty kid. One day at work, he’s approached by a beautiful, mysterious woman named Layla, who needs him for a special job. You see, Oji wasn’t always boring; he was once the guitarist and frontman for a legendary rock band called Black Heaven. And Layla is an alien, whose people can only be saved from extermination by a mysterious superweapon that is powered by Oji’s rock and roll.
This is, needless to say, a slightly ridiculous premise, but the show plays it pretty straight. Oji finds himself periodically abducted to the alien fleet, where his performances fight off the increasingly ruthless enemy. He has to deal with how it affects his personal life; at the same time, as the bad guys step up their attacks, he has to get his old band back together to increase the rock power.
It’s rare that what you might call a story’s metaphorical underpinnings are so clear without the story itself being irritatingly obvious; it’s a mark of superior storytelling to create something that works both as allegory and as straightforward story, but Black Heaven manages. We’re watching Oji’s mid-life crisis unfold, essentially — his grappling with the dullness of how his life turned out versus his hard-rock past. The gorgeous alien offering him the chance to be an intergalactic superhero is the shiny promise of reliving his youth. The beauty of the show is how well Oji’s character is drawn, and the way he struggles with what he knows he should do and what he wants to do. It shows us his temptations, but ultimately also the strength of his essential character.
At only thirteen episodes, it’s a short, sweet story, with decent-but-not-spectacular art and some spaceship CG that’s a bit crude by modern standards. A few notes fall flat — there’s these three comic-relief aliens who are more often annoying than funny, though there is one particularly amusing X-Files reference that comes out of nowhere. But Oji’s character, and his relationship with Layla, really makes the show work. It also helps that they have some genuinely good music, which obviously gets a lot of attention.
(Discovery while looking around at Black Heaven stuff on YouTube: DO NOT, under any circumstances, watch the English dub. Yikes.)
Overall, while it doesn’t make my canonical best-of-all-time list like Black Lagoon, it’s a really excellent show. I love it because it gives us an unusual protagonist (for anime) and really examines his problems, albeit in a kind of loopy way. It covers ground that doesn’t see a lot of going over, and does it well. Absolutely worth a look.
(Bonus music video: Black Heaven with Jonathon Coulton’s Code Monkey! Possible spoilers, but only minor.)
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.