Beyond the warm waters of the West Pacific and past a large statue of Buddha lay a fictional city. Cozy and comfy on the outside, it appears to be a small slice of civilization tucked away from the wild blue waves. Upon entering the harbor, however, one starts to notice a lack of something. The newcomer may not be able to put their finger on it at first until he sees a denizen start trouble at one of the many bars and strip joints scattered throughout the urban sprawl. They will notice that gunfights occur regularly, and that police are nearly non-existent or hyper atrophied. In other words, they will discover a city completely run by private individuals and their organizations. There is no rule of law. There is only the rule of might and money.
This is the backdrop for Black Lagoon. It’s a story of a salaryman from Japan being thrust into a world of chaos, murder, and unrestricted anarchy. For those who have not yet seen this show, I warn you that there are spoilers in this article.
The young man who eventually becomes the protagonist of the story is tasked with carrying a disc holding clandestine company secrets, particularly on how said corporation helped fund a nuclear weapons program for a certain third world country. When the company finds out that the disk has been stolen, they leave their employee, Rock, to die and hire a professional mercenary company to wipe out him and his captors. Rock, having been betrayed by his employers, is forced to ally with the group holding him hostage; a crew of ragtag eccentric pirates and ex-veterans whose only motive is accruing money. Proving himself an essential asset to the team, he helps them outwit and essentially nullify the hit squad sent to kill them, then goes on to prove himself useful as an accountant.
There are many adventures that this group goes on throughout the series, but more interesting is the backdrop and environment in which they navigate. The city they are in is controlled by various power groups, usually under the rule of famous crime organizations. The most powerful is Hotel Moscow, a group of ex-Spetsnaz soldiers who found that their military talents were best used bringing order to a lawless environment for profit. In the following order are the Chinese Triad, the Italian Mafia, and the Colombian Cartel. These four groups constantly vie against and press each other for political and economic superiority over Roanapur City. The only things that these groups respect are power and wealth. Anyone who understands these principles usually survives in the city. Those who don't are eaten alive by it.
Rock initially tries to bring order and sanity to Roanapur City. These attempts become pyrrhic victories at best and detestable failures at worst. Rock becomes disillusioned over time by the lack of humanity he sees in the people of the city and the nihilistic attitude of most of its denizens.
One telling moment is during the acquisition of artifacts from a half-sunken sub outside of the city. During this expedition, Rock confronts one of his teammates, Revy, about her flippant and pragmatic attitude regarding the gravesite. Revy precedes to explain to Rock about how the world works, especially in regards to Roanapur.
Holding up a skull and an Iron Cross from one of the dead submariners, Revy asks Rock to identify what those objects are. He tells her that they are a skull and a medal collectively. Revy's response is that they are just things. Things that are worth a monetary value to somebody else. Rock tries to bring in sentimentality and historical value to the conversation, but Revy laughs it off and even becomes slightly hostile to the conversation. She believes that the only way to understand the world is through exchanges. Rock eventually asks her if money is her god, the only thing that she has any value for. Revy explains that money is not God. "It's power, something a lot more useful than God."
This conversation sets up the theme for the majority of the show. What is humanity? What is morality? What is justice? The show takes a very grim and cynical analysis of what most people believe to be valuable and honorable in a civilized society. It does something even more interesting though. It looks at how civilization is held together not through ideals, but through mutual contracts, understandings, and trade.
Despite all the rowdiness, thievery, and lasciviousness filling the city of Roanapur, major events of carnage and murder are kept to a minimum by self-policing and a high amount of cut ownership. People do not often start fights in town when they know that they can be blown away by at least five other people at any given moment.
The city is populated by junkies, prostitutes, and thieves. Junkies are usually thrown out of town if they become a problem, prostitution is handled via specialized brothels under the control of crime families, and thieves are generally permitted to do as they please until they steal from the wrong person, whereupon they get shot.
The politics of Black Lagoon generally tend to fall somewhere in the realm of anarcho-capitalism and nihilism. Roanapur City is quite literally a free economic zone, where there is no law and no state. Corporations have their goods go through the area because of non-existent taxation and very cheap passage tolls. Smugglers often unload their cargo and spend their coin on the entertainment of the city. Despite the amount of danger and corruption, Roanapur is just as safe as any other city so long as you are willing to defend yourself and play by its very simple social contract.
Black Lagoon is a story of survival, ruthlessness, and the limits of human nature. As an anime, it is filled with historical trivia, pop culture references and hard questions about what really makes civilized society civil. Throughout two seasons and an OVA, the characters, both main and ancillary, grow and change; sometimes not for the better.
This is not a show for those who want happy endings, but objective truth and a riveting story. It is also a testament to self-determination and the will of the individual. For those willing to roll the dice on their own lives, there can be either fortune or peril, and only people of great strength can accept the consequences of their actions in the show.
Black Lagoon is a masterpiece and a must-see for anybody looking to peer into the dark heart of humankind.