Southeast Asians Not Included: Black Lagoon and the invisible civilians

By: Carlo Lopez May 17, 20190 Comments
Chang and Balalika on a dock at sunset

Sayang. It’s a word in Tagalog that expresses light frustration and disappointment at a missed opportunity, a combination of “so close” and “what a shame” in one word. It can be used as part of a sentence, but it’s also got this special ability to be used on its own, adding context and emotion to the sentence before it. For example, you can add a little downer to what sounds like a mostly positive sentence: “Our team of newbie players actually got really close to a podium finish. Sayang.

You could also tack on some extra frustration, saying something like “I was so close to winning that karaoke showdown. Sayang!” Or you could simply color your words with your disappointment, saying something like “Black Lagoon didn’t have any major Southeast Asian characters despite taking place in Southeast Asia. Sayang.”

A landscape shot overlooking a dense, mountainous forest

For the uninitiated, Black Lagoon is a manga series by Rei Hiroe, which was adapted into an anime by Madhouse in 2006. The plot follows the adventures of a smuggling group called the Lagoon Company, comprised of the Japanese salaryman Rock, professional merc Dutch, violent and unstable Revy, and friendly mechanic Benny.

Their base of operations, Roanapur, is a port city in Southeast Asia housing seemingly every single organized crime group in human history, including the Yakuza, the Russian Mob, the Italian Mafia, and even the Colombian Cartel. With such an unsavory clientele and seemingly no real laws in Roanapur whatsoever, the Lagoon Company live a life rife with shootouts, car chases, and more than a fair share of explosions, working for and against one of the most diverse casts I have ever seen in an anime.

Dutch sitting at a chair, feet up and legs crossed, with a phone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other

Seriously, there are more nationalities represented in a season of Black Lagoon than a school UN. Everyone from the Irish to the Lebanese all pop up in this little crime-riddled town, with the major power players being Balalaika of Russian Mob group Hotel Moscow, Chang of the Triad, the CIA-affiliated Ripoff Church, and eventually Rock himself. They’re all fantastic, well-rounded characters, with Balalaika in particular having an “old, weary soldier” vibe that wouldn’t be out of place from the best parts of Metal Gear.

They’re also, unfortunately, not from Southeast Asia.

The less powerful gangs aren’t from the area either, with the Italian mafia, the Colombian Cartel, and even a recurring group of hitmen led by a Taiwanese assassin all making up the rest of the cast. The only actual SEAsian character we get to see in Black Lagoon is Bao, Revy’s friend, whose sole purpose in the story is to have a running gag where the Lagoon Company uses his bar for yet another deadly shootout, thoroughly wrecking it every time.

A woman in glasses and a maid outfit approaching a table of men gambling.

Now, ignoring the weirdness that is Black Lagoon’s Southeast Asia being characterized as a lawless, violent, and unforgiving place (because I’ll admit things can get pretty murder-y in certain places), you might have noticed that the major power players of Roanapur correspond to Russia, China, the United States, and Japan—four countries that aren’t actually part of the region, and yet exert a major influence on it and its politics in real life.

It’s easy to pass this off as Black Lagoon grounding its setting in reality (even with all the gun-fu). After all, China, the U.S., and Russia are superpowers and their influence can be found anywhere in the world. But surely the story arcs taking place in the region would use the local populace, right?

Two figures in trench coats standing on a dock at sunset

No, they don’t. For some reason, all of Black Lagoon’s story arcs involve people from outside the region coming in to disrupt the already unstable everyday life of Roanapur. The arcs revolve around Neo-Nazis, United States Army forces, twin European assassin children, and even an invincible Colombian maid; while the plot often takes the Lagoon Company out of Roanapur and into real-life locations such as Basilan Island or Subic Bay.

There’s never a story arc that involves the locals, and governments only exist as a way to chase the Lagoon Company and keep the cast moving forward. The people of SEA (Southeast Asia) are merely used as part of the setting in Black Lagoon, fillers to populate the stories of these Japanese, American, Chinese, and Russian characters who steer the narrative and make it all about them.

Close-up of Balalaika, a woman with a scar on the left side of her face

It’s almost chilling how closely it parallels the region’s real-world history, such as when the United States responded to the Philippines’ declaration of independence in 1898 with a very poorly hidden declaration of colonization; or the much more recent territorial disputes, where China has claimed certain islands that Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei have already claimed as theirs.

Did you know Japan is still touchy over the idea of acknowledging and apologizing to the comfort women of World War II? The city of Manila got a sternly worded reminder a little over a year ago.

Speaking as a Filipino who doesn’t see themselves in media often, or at all really, the fact that the series ignores these real-world factors sucked. A lot. The Philippines in particular is featured heavily in Black Lagoon: Basilan Island serves as the setting for Roberta’s climactic showdown with the US Army, and Rock first gets kidnapped in Subic Bay. Yet the anime did not feature a single Filipino character. Not even as cannon fodder.

A photo of a schoolgirl with a red X drawn on it

The Philippines was used entirely as a setting; some exotic place for these dangerous badasses to slaughter each other, with not one of its people ever having any say in their home being turned into a killing field. Its people have no control, no agency, no presence in their own home.

While that was obviously not Rei Hiroe’s intention with Black Lagoon, it’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable when it’s reminiscent of how The Philippines is treated in real life (and perhaps the other SEA nations as well, although I cannot speak for them) as just another pawn for the superpowers to play their dangerous games while their citizens use the country as a picturesque vacation spot.

Balalaika surrounded by a group of gangsters, staring down at a seated figure

It’s frustrating to see an anime feature my home so heavily and then proceed to have everyone who lives in it rendered invisible in favor of a whole lot of foreigners, when that’s pretty much how our own government treats us already.

At least something like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure prominently shows the locals of every new setting, even if half the time they’re there to scream and run. The only other anime I can think of that uses the Philippines as a setting is Fate/Zero, which promptly vampire-zombified its one Filipino character and then wiped out the whole town in fifteen minutes. Bleh.

Don’t get me wrong: I adore Black Lagoon. I love the setting of a modern pirate city. I love that the setting is somewhere I recognize, where the names being thrown around are more than just some exotic location. Rock, Revy, Dutch, and Benny also make for one of my favorite groups in any anime. It’s just that the series also feels like a missed opportunity.

A red-haired woman and a tall man in sunglasses pointing guns toward the camera

We could have had some hard-hitting stories about modern imperialism, showing how Chinese or American agents often intervene in the local politics to protect their interests using characters like Eda. We could have had cool shout-outs to the local culture, such as a new enemy wielding Arnis (Escrima) sticks, which wouldn’t be out of place with all the guns, daggers, and katanas. We could have had something, anything, and I would have loved this anime even more than I already do.

It could have been amazing. Sayang.

About the Author : Carlo Lopez

Carlo Lopez is a writer, critic, and a living magnet for terrible gacha luck. They have spent the last few years writing for and about video games for various sites and studios, and they think maybe their revived interest in anime could lead to somewhere new and interesting. You can find him mourning over his FGO account on Twitter @Verycritical.

Read more articles from Carlo Lopez

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