Reviewby Theron Martin,
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens
Episodes 1-12 streaming
The Hakata ward of Fukoka (the capital city of Fukuoka Prefecture on Kyushu) has become notorious for its vibrant underworld of professional hitmen; some estimates even claim that as much as 3% of the population is involved in assassination. In this world, Zenji Banba runs a detective agency, and his work soon brings him into contact with Lin Xianming, a cross-dressing Chinese knife specialist who was originally hired to kill him. Instead, Lin ends up reluctantly working with Zenji, as they encounter a motley crew of scoundrels ranging from revenge specialists, a pickpocket, a torturer, a hacker, rival hitmen, a ramen stall owner who arranges hits on the side, a masked samurai who kills hitmen, and even a hapless newcomer with a talent for becoming the fall guy. One thing's for sure: Lin's life in Hakata won't be dull.
The title of this light novel adaptation refers to a baseball team that most of the recurring characters play for, but that isn't evident until about a third of the way through the series' 12-episode run. (Baseball also proves to be a recurring theme throughout the series, as all of the episode titles are related to the game.) But far from being a sports anime, this series falls more in line with shows like Baccano! and Black Lagoon, with its penchant for hyperviolence and starring surprisingly likable scoundrels and villains while maintaining a relatively lighthearted tone. The series' greatest appeal lies in how such the contrast between its playful tone and ugly content, but this balance works out most of the time.
The graphic nature of the series should not be underestimated though. Bloody killings, implied torture, and general brutality are all par for the course, though sexually risqué content is much more limited. The way the series handles its graphic elements keeps this content from being as unsettling or visceral as it could have been, which works in the story's favor. Some of the content can still be alarmingly dark for the genre, such as an early plot thread about a politician's son who gets off on beating runaway girls to death as he assaults them. However, other aspects are more successfully played for fun, like a scene where a young girl teaches a professional torturer how to advertise his services on the dark web (on a site suitably named shadyjobs.com). So while the series expects its audience to take its violent content seriously in some moments, the intent is clearly to play up the fun side of its dark elements most of the time.
There's plenty to enjoy in that vein. As with other series of its ilk, much of the charm comes from the cast of characters. Lin is an intriguing choice for a co-protagonist, as a cross-dressing character who is not pigeonholed into a specific sexuality or stereotype; he simply enjoys dressing in women's clothes, but he doesn't want to be seen as a woman and finds the idea uncomfortable in the one instance where it comes up. The constant incongruity of his husky voice matched with his girlish figure is typically met with shock by people when they first meet him, but they quickly accept it with a shrug, which allows for some good comedy. The story's angle seems to be that every hitman has their own peculiar quirk, and cross-dressing just happens to be Lin's. One of the series' major storylines revolves around Lin's gradual journey from being a gruff loner to learning to trust others and find a place to belong, which is ultimately very satisfying.
Lin's foil is Zenji Banba, a detective who's every bit as laid-back as Lin is intense, but he has the skill to go toe-to-toe with Lin in a fight. (I can see these two being shipped together easily, although the series itself doesn't overtly frame their relationship that way.) Other major recurring characters include a gay revenge specialist and his precocious daughter, a muscular torturer who's quite pleasant to hang around with when he's off the clock, an old ramen stand operator who has deep connections to the underworld, an information broker who's not above putting friends in harm's way for the right price, and a young man who basically blunders into the world of hitmen because someone mistook his accidental near-manslaughter as an attempted murder. There's also a talented young assassin who tries to establish his own brand as a ninja hitman to quickly garner a name for himself, even though he sucks at throwing shuriken. All of these characters bounce off each other in endlessly entertaining ways, but it is a shame that only two adult female characters have significant roles. One of them doesn't appear again after the first story arc, while the other only pops up briefly on rare occasions.
The story begins with a four-episode opening arc that establishes the cast and brings the storyline about the mayor's son to its conclusion. The middle third splits into a pair of two-episode arcs, one concerning the young ninja hotshot challenging a storied samurai hitman and the other concerning the information broker engaging in a hacking duel as his past comes to light. In the final third, complications from Lin's past resurface as a bloody turf war arises between major criminal organizations. While action scenes are not the focal point of the series, its occasional forays into spectacle are brief but sharp, with both blade-fighting and gunplay. The tangled plot and brief action scenes are largely just vehicles for characters to interact and develop, but they're entertaining enough to be engaging on their own.
On the technical front, the series creates a distinctive aesthetic without resorting to a garish color scheme to play up its strange premise. Character designs and animation suggest some inspiration from Cowboy Bebop, while the look of the backgrounds and the way lighting recalls Brains Base's work on Baccano! or Durarara!!. Lin is undeniably the stand-out in design, as he makes for a pretty woman even when fighting in his masculine style, but all of the significant cast members have their own visual appeal to some degree. All of this is supported by a musical score rooted in lightly jazzy numbers, though it can transition to heavier orchestration as the tone dictates. Opener “Stray” is an enthusiastic rock piece, while closer “Dirty Bullet” is more instrumentally driven.
If you can handle its graphic content, then Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is a highly entertaining series that may have been overlooked during the Winter 2018 season, but is well worth checking out for fans of its unique sub-genre.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Interesting and likable cast of characters, lots of bloody fun
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