The Winter 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens
How would you rate episode 1 of
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens ?
What is this?
Ling Xianming is a man with a fondness for crossdressing and a short temper. Saito is a young salaryman from Tokyo moving out to the dangerous new city of Hakata. Reiko, Ivanov, and Munakata are three dedicated employees of Hakata's mayor. All of them are professional hitmen, vying for position in a city where three percent of the total population are hired killers. With the mayor fighting for reelection and the young detective Banba Zenji sniffing around his trail, things are starting to heat up in Hakata, as a wide array of shadowy forces work to claim control of the murderous city. In this city of hitmen, it's kill or be killed. Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is based on a series of light novels and streams on Crunchyroll, Fridays at 11:00 AM EST
How was the first episode?
The opening episode of Hakata Tonkatsu Ramens at least makes it clear what kind of anime this series wants to be. However, despite flipping between dozens of characters and trying to set up multiple concurrent plots and intersecting mysteries, it suffers due to simply not much interesting happening yet. This shouldn't be a death-knell all on its own; Durarara!! made its introductory city tour succeed thanks to the inherent flair of its colorful group of weirdos. But Ramens lacks enough punch and personality to sell Just Another Day in Murdertown as even remotely exciting. Maybe it should have played up that angle instead to sell itself, as a story about professional murder being just as mundane as any other corporate bureaucracy.
The English dub isn't doing it any favors either. The biggest problem is that all the voices simply aren't distinct enough from each other as they need to be in an ensemble piece like this. When characters are talking off-screen or leading into another scene, it's hard to tell which cool and casual-sounding professional hitman we're supposed to be hearing. Some of the Japanese voices had a bit more personality, whereas the English version sounds more monotone in many places. At least Daman Mills as the cross-dressing Hayashi is a standout, bringing an interesting edge to his unique character, though it definitely helps that the character is a bright spot in the story overall. Josh Grelle as the other central character Banba does okay, but he simply doesn't have much range to express in this droll first episode. His voice just ends up running together with a lot of the others. It's possible that as this show's myriad storylines come together and start going somewhere that the cast will get the chance to express themselves more. The translation of the dialogue seems smooth so far, though it's definitely odd hearing profoundly unrealistic things like salaryman assassin offices explained so seriously. The show wants to be grounded and casual, but the absurd premises and content betray that tone. Ultimately, listening to this paradox just creates a feeling of surreal blandness.
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens wears its influences on its sleeve. The overstuffed cast of weirdo killers, the dense plot that details a bunch of disparate storylines to eventually tie together, and even the off-brand jazz soundtrack are all highly reminiscent of the tricks that Baccano! and Durarara!! pulled off successfully. The main issue is that Ramens doesn't manage to accomplish these feats nearly as well, leaving the impression of a rough homage that puts a disproportionate amount of energy into telling a story that just doesn't pop. I'm reminded of Occultic;Nine in that respect, though even that mess managed to be interesting, despite its many narrative and aesthetic failures. More than anything, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is just kind of a bore.
Seriously, you'd think that a show that features a company of hitmen literally named Murder Inc. would be a bit trashier and less serious, but that incongruous name is maybe the silliest thing that happens in this otherwise dour premiere. Even the crossdressing hitman who acts as the closest thing to our central character gets almost nothing to do after his initial kill, besides roam the city streets and engage in banal conversations about various assassination plots. The story is just failing to grab me with its execution.
I also had trouble engaging with the who's-who of hitmen as the episode progressed, which made the structure of bouncing around from scene to scene a lot less fun to follow. While I didn't struggle to follow this episode's plot anywhere near as much as I sometimes did with Baccano! and Durarara!!, even when I get lost in Narita's mad labyrinths, I was never bored because the characters' individual scenes are satisfying in their own right. Following Banba and Xianming's intersecting arcs in this premiere was usually pretty simple, but it never delivered the fun of getting lost in a weird and ambitious story like was hoping.
Therein lies the show's biggest weakness: lack of ambition. This is a decent-looking first episode with a plot that tracks fine despite its large cast, and its take on the John Wick-esque “city filled with hitmen” premise is certainly a cool idea on paper, but at the end of the day it came off as rather lifeless. Hopefully things will pick up as winter moves along, but I can't imagine I'll be motivated to come back to Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens any time soon.
Our third show of the season featuring ramen has very little to do with tasty noodles. Instead the Hakata district of Fukuoka in the alternate-universe Japan is rife with hitmen, informants, hackers, and high-class psychopaths. Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens starts laying its many interwoven threads to set-up a world of double-crossing and of course, murder. I've already prepared a flow chart to keep track of interlocking relationships, so by no means should you expect this to be a simple viewing experience. But whereas other shows were almost incomprehensible out of the gate (cough, Occultic;Nine, cough), Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens didn't leave me scratching my head.
First, I have to forgive the writing at least one point for introducing a corporate hitman enterprise with a name as obvious as “Red Rum.” So far there's no explanation as to whether some kind of law was passed legalizing murder for hire, so I have to assume these assassins are operating as an open secret of sorts. That's kinda silly. The police are investigating these hits, but somehow they haven't looked into the giant skyscraper, with multiple bases throughout the country, that's literally named “Murder.” Okay well, I'm willing to jump through that narrative hoop just this once because glancing through the season's offerings, there isn't much filling the giant mystery hole (phrasing) except maybe Junji Ito "Collection".
Second, there's going to be some mixed feelings about Lin Xianming, the lead hitman who is also a cross-dresser. The character is a different approach to male cross-dressing characters in that he neither fulfills the okama stereotype or the otoko no ko stereotype completely. Lin identifies as a man, openly states that he enjoys cross-dressing, and doesn't change his masculine way of speaking, which is hardly the norm for anime, where cross-dressers are often coded as effeminate gay men. (That isn't to say that Lin isn't gay. The anime's ending sequence includes some imagery that hints at that potential angle between Lin and detective Banba.) However this relationship is handled could sour my goodwill toward the show, but it's way too early to say at this point.
Artistically, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens' character designs and animation are nothing to write home about. It's very middle of the road, being neither apparently bad or worth much notice. It's completely functional and serves the narrative well enough. There's plenty of more gorgeous shows this season, but Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is the only mystery, and I'm willing to stick this one out to see if it can keep its ducks in a row.
In a season with a handful of hacky isekai and sordid tales of underage love, somehow this was the most unpleasant thing I've watched so far. While far from an outright terrible show, I found Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens to be an off-putting experience, from its thoroughly mediocre art design to its stiff animation to an alienating lack of music (save for spikes of equally mediocre jazz) or any dynamic direction. Production-wise, this feels like a show that barely exists at all, and that's before we get to the questionable story choices.
So this series takes place in a city that's 3% hitmen. (Why the other 97% would want to live there is anyone's guess.) This deadly way of life is so dominating that there are giant corporate structures devoted to the enterprise of killing, like Red Rum Inc, colloquially known as MURDER, INC. (Gasp!) Basically, this is the kind of setup that impossible to take seriously, and I would absolutely be jonesing to watch more if it had a degree of levity and nonchalance to match its premise.
Unfortunately, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens' take on a Ryohgo Narita-style seamy city of sin starring a cast of thousands forgot to bring the fun along. I was routinely surprised by how seriously this story was taking itself given its routinely ridiculous trappings. Beyond the weirdly grim tone, while anime/light novels like Baccano! and Durarara!! thrive on the likability and uniqueness of even the most rotten rogues in their gallery, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens seems to star entirely blasé and unlikable characters who snipe at each other and carry out heinous crimes with little fanfare. (Our first villain is introduced having raped and brutally beaten a girl to death, before he pops on a video of his friends attacking a foreigner and contemplates uploading it for hits. It's not that any of this is unrealistic, it's just unpleasant in an unexpectedly generic way.) It would be one thing if I loved-to-hate all these characters, but I just didn't find them interesting at all.
About the nicest thing I can say for Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is that it isn't confusing. Most anime that try to pull off the Narita-style structure, like Occultic;Nine, fall into absolute incomprehensibility right away. Ramens does a good job of arranging his multitudinous subplots in a way that makes it easy to connect the dots between them. But even now, I could tell you a fair amount about at least four or five of the characters from Occultic;Nine. It's hard to imagine remembering anything about these blandly mean-spirited assassins even by next week. Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens isn't a traditionally terrible show, but I don't think its lukewarm stabs at uniqueness made it any less of a slog to get through either.
Despite sounding like it should be the name of a very local baseball team, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is actually about assassins. Whether or not they'll come together as a sort of very local hitman team has yet to be revealed, but there are enough little baseball moments and images to make me think that might turn out to be the case. It also helps that Ling, the cross-dressing killer and character who gets the most airtime, decides that he'd rather protect his target than kill him, setting things up for rival hitman alliances – at least, beyond the already organized groups who function as companies where you can simply hire a hitman. There appear to be two of those: The Avenger, who will kill for revenge, and Red-Rum, the least subtle name for an organization of murderers you can get away with without calling your company “Hey! We Kill People!”
As this all might suggest, this show has an uncomfortably large cast of named characters. If you don't have my particular problem with remembering who's called what, that might not be an issue, but if you're the kind of viewer who needs to keep a list of who you're supposed to remember, get your pencil and paper ready. Luckily everyone is physically distinct, and there's a real effort made to distinguish all of the characters without going into wacky territory – there's no purple hair or person who randomly dresses like they escaped from a Renaissance Faire. Instead, everyone looks like someone you might pass on the street, albeit someone you might glance back at for one reason or another. They're also introduced smoothly and without pausing for a name card, allowing us to make our own suppositions about who's going to be worth keeping up with and why – and who might be next on someone's hit list.
With a jazz-based soundtrack and a casual feeling about it, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens stands to be an interesting puzzle to piece together. It's definitely going to be worth figuring out where it's headed, because there are a few directions it could take as of now. And if it doesn't pan out, at least you know what to call the next sports team you organize.
Well, I can certainly see the style of cool that Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is going for. From its jazzy soundtrack to its broad ensemble cast of hardened killers, from its temporal shuffling to its improbably intersecting narrative, it's clear that Ramens is aiming for the style embodied by shows like Baccano!, which itself owes heavily to directors like Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. Ramens' tale of a city overstuffed with professional killers strikes a familiar tenor, but of course, aping the stylistic flourishes of good and cool things won't necessarily make your own story good and cool. So how does Ramens' actual execution of this familiar template fare?
Well, so-so. The most I can really say for Ramens is that it's a largely competent production, both in terms of its narrative and execution. One of my biggest issues with this episode is that the city of Hakata, where three percent of all citizens are professional hitmen, never feels real throughout this premiere. Choices like naming one of the big hitmen associations “Murder Inc” underline the thinness of Ramens' premise, and more importantly, the art design of the city never evokes anything beyond “generic Japanese metropolitan area.” Shows like Ramens ride heavily on crafting a cool aesthetic, and all of this show's aesthetic qualities are just too mediocre to achieve that. The character designs aren't particularly distinctive, the art design overall lacks any real flair, and only the jazz in the background really implies that things are meant to be proceeding with any sense of style at all. And without either a strong emotional core or a compelling sense of coolness, crime dramas run a serious risk of becoming a busy and emotionally sterile progression of plot events—which is how this episode's back half.
On the positive side, this episode is reasonably graceful in its juggling of its many core characters. The show is very good at creating segues from one subplot to another that naturally illustrate the links between these subplots, building up a variety of controversies around Hakata's extremely shady mayor. We're not given much to hang onto in a character sense, but shows like this aren't necessarily about their characters—they're about unraveling narrative tangles, and Ramens certainly sets up a serious tangle. Ramens lacks the aesthetic flair or strong sense of place to stand out within the genre, but its execution is more middling than actively bad, and it seems reasonably plotted so far. If you're looking for a convoluted crime drama, you could certainly do a lot worse.
This concept has definitely been done before: an environment where almost everyone seems to be either a killer or connected to the business. However, I can't think of another case in anime as direct as Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens, as most anime would have all sorts of crazy superpowered individuals involved. It makes for a refreshing change of pace that contributes greatly to my recommendation for this first episode.
That doesn't mean that there aren't a wide range of hitmen introduced in this episode. The lead guy, Banba, seems more detective than hitman, while the hitman who will apparently going to team up with him is a very convincing cross-dresser when he's not speaking; the blond girl in the series' promotional art is actually a Chinese guy named Xianming, implied to be raising money for something involving his sibling. There's also an ex-hostess, a burly half-Russian, an adult/little girl killer duo, and a fresh-faced newcomer who acts more like a fledgling office worker and doesn't seem suited for this line of work. Villains so far are mainly a dirty mayor and his twisted son, who kidnaps, rapes, and kills women, relying on his father's influence to have his crimes covered up.
What impressed me most was how well the first episode juggled such an expansive cast without short-changing any of them, setting up potentially compelling situations for almost all of them. The fresh-faced guy is about to get mistaken for the hitman duo's target, Banba and Xianming are going to wind up working together, and all of it is at least peripherally related to the mayor and his son. I was also interested by the disgust that the female hitman had for the callous behavior of the mayor's son; was it in response to his treatment of women, how he puts a casual murderer like himself in the same category as a professional like her, or both? Either way, there's a lot of plot going on here, but it's kept remarkably well-organized. Director Kenji Yasuda's previous lead efforts (Macross Delta, Arata The Legend, Shugo Chara!) are nothing like this, which makes it all the more impressive.
Remarkably, most of the episode plays without a soundtrack, but I don't think it needed one. The only complaint I have about this intro is that having 3% of a population be hitmen seems unsustainable as a concept, but otherwise this is one of the season's sharper new entries so far.
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