by Rebecca Silverman,

Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens


Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens BD/DVD
Hakata isn't your average city, it's a city of hitmen. Lin shows up there one day working to save enough money to one day go home to his family in China, and a strange string of coincidences and cross-purposes brings him into contact with Banba, a private detective with a shady side business and a whole cadre of just-this-side-of-evil contacts. When Lin learns the horrible truth about what happened to his younger sister, his path and Banba's become linked. He may have come to Hakata as a hitman, but motivations can get murky when every other guy on the street may be an assassin too – or the target of one.

The hitman comedy is perhaps not so obscure a genre as you might think, and Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens, based on the light novel series of the same name, has an interesting approach to it. In some ways it could be framed as the assassin equivalent of the saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” – because in the story's world, Hakata is a haven for hired killers, with the highest number of working assassins in Japan. Some of them are sent there by their employers (which includes the tongue-in-cheek Red Rum Inc.), others drift there for their own reasons, and some just happen to be native to the city, but they all have one thing in common: human life can absolutely be bought for a price.

While this does make them as a group sound a bit like the Discworld's Assassins' Guild, the reality is that many times killers hired by different people are after the same targets, leading to a very competitive killing marketplace. This is best seen in the first and last story arcs of the series, which incidentally are also the two strongest (there are four in total), with different hitmen all working at cross-purposes, getting in each other's way and just generally gumming things up for each other. That both of these arcs deal specifically with the character of Lin and his past may have something to do with this – Lin's history is a tortured one marked by several different horrible instances, whereas most of the other characters have been shaped by only one tragic moment, such as Saito's unfortunate pitch or Enokida's relationship with his wealthy father. Lin is also the least trusting of the main characters, which means that part of his development as a character is learning that not everyone is going to hurt and betray him. While the middle two arcs don't do much with this, both the first and last go into quite a bit, with a good parallel being set up between Lin's behavior during both of them as well as between the two men who have been his work partners, Feilang in the past and Banba in the present. While it isn't a perfect mirroring, it certainly does enough to show us how Lin has changed during his time in Hakata and how he has learned to not only want a home, but to feel that he is allowed to have one. If we contrast his prickliness when Banba initially invites him to stay at his apartment with his words to Feilang about how he wants to stay in the first place he's felt he belongs in, we can truly see how much Lin's been able to change over the course of the series.

That is, unfortunately, a development primarily reserved for only that character. While Feilang is easily understood – how he turned out so much more twisted than Lin is another piece of nicely done character development, as is his view of Lin as a near-savior – most of the other characters are allowed to remain quirky guys whose gray morality shades a bit darker. Enokida, the brilliant hacker, comes the closest, but ultimately he was never unhappy with his life and work in Hakata, so understanding where he came from more fills in the background than develops the character, and while Jiro has one particularly fun line in the final arc that says a lot about how much he cares for his adopted daughter (“Hell hath no fury like a strong gay man” in the dub), that's more a confirmation of what we already knew about him anything else. Otherwise everyone remains fairly one-note, from Saito the fall guy for virtually everyone to Sarucchi who is just this side of competent.

None of this detracts from the humor elements of the series, which largely work quite well. The idea of a baseball team made up entirely of hitmen, torturers, and other similar characters is fun in and of itself, and little pieces, like Lin and Enokida's ongoing fight about who's taller or Banba's obsession with his favorite food, work to pull these lighter bits through. While not exclusively comedic – as you would expect in a show about hired killer, it can get very dark – the humor does help balance things out. This is one place where some viewers may prefer the English dub; although both English and Japanese voices are strong, there's something about hearing a few of the lines in your native language that simply works a little better.

Sadly, the show does not make great use of some of its darker elements. One of the largest issues is its treatment of female characters, which falls firmly into the “women in refrigerators” trope – most of the series' women are victims, and many of them are sex workers or human trafficking victims. None of this is handled with any sort of respect, and they're relegated to “poor victim” status and then largely left out of the plot, even when their deaths are the catalyst for what happens. While other pieces of the story aren't well used, this is by far the most glaring issue.

Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is fairly impressive on a few more mundane real-world fronts. Lin, who is arguably the main character, is a cross-dresser, preferring to wear women's clothing. While this is great in terms of representation, what's more important is that the now-pejorative term “transvestite” is only used once by a character who is deliberately trying to insult him. Likewise the fact that there is almost always an on-line component to the crimes committed within the show feels like a good piece of realism, not just in the sense that it gives Enokida a reason to be in the series as a regular character, but also in that it shows the way that social media affects crimes that happen offline.

Although it can feel a bit uneven over the course of its four story arcs, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is a fun show overall. With some nice details in character, language, and world-building, a good sense of humor to balance out the darkness, and a well-done parallel between the two partners Lin has worked with, this is worth giving a chance. The hook may not come until the end of episode two, but once it takes off, this show stays off the ground.

Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+

+ Good use of language, Lin is interestingly developed, balances humor with darkness
Too many tragic dead women, most other characters just one-note

Director: Kenji Yasuda
Series Composition: Shogo Yasukawa
Shinsuke Onishi
Shogo Yasukawa
Music: Kotaro Nakagawa
Original creator: Chiaki Kisaki
Original Character Design: Hako Ichiiro
Character Design: Hidenori Inoue

Full encyclopedia details about
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens (TV)

Release information about
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens - The Complete Series (BD+DVD)

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