[Review] Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens – Episode 1

What’s it about? Hakata is a city where 3% of the population is made up of hitmen. When a police detective is killed, the mystery of who did it is set in motion, and everyone has a part to play: the corrupt mayor, a newcomer hitman, the detective investigating the case, and the disgruntled assassin who sells out his former boss to protect that detective.

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of transphobia.

Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is a murder mystery with a large cast, and its premiere is keen to introduce you to a lot of major players so that it can spend the rest of its run putting the pieces together. Fortunately, it’s easy to follow—while you may not remember everyone’s names, their designs and major gimmicks will stick in your head, which is really all the show needs at this point.

The downside to that large cast is the possibility that the characters will exist more to be cogs in the mystery than fully fleshed-out individuals. Having one personality trait and a job title is a perfectly functional approach in the premiere, but it’s a problem if that’s still the status quo five episodes in. As long as the main plot sticks to expanding the seven or eight important people we catch a glimpse of here, I’d say it’s in good hands as an ensemble piece.

Lin and detective Banba in a standoff in his darkened, neon-backlit apartment. caption: I thought I'd protect you.

The visuals are pretty standard for an adult crime drama, albeit slightly brighter than normal. It’s in the “looks like normal people if you squint” school of character design (i.e., no enormoboobs and mostly mundane hair colors), and while it has quite a few scenes that take place in the dark, only one or two are murky and verging on tough to make out. Hakata is a city almost as full of neon as it is hitmen, and that offers interesting opportunities to give fight scenes and otherwise boring conversations a hazy, iridescent glow. There’s also some noir influence in the eye-catch that will hopefully show itself more in the show itself.

I can’t say that the series looks like it’ll have a great track record with women. Of the sizable cast introduced here, there’s only one major female character—Reiko, a poisoner whose main job is babysitting the corrupt mayor and cleaning up after her boss’s sociopathic son. Another woman appears in the opening scene only to get stabbed (there’s a lot of blood, by the way), and there’s a bruised and battered corpse courtesy of said sociopathic son. Hopefully Reiko will get a chance to be cool, but there’s definitely a sense that this is the kind of series that wants to earn its hardboiled cred off the backs of a lot of victimized women.

Close-up of Reiko talking on the phone

My other major point of unease was with the double-crossing assassin who makes up the series’ topmost billing—a cis crossdresser by the name of Xiaoming Lin. While it’s clear that Lin is going to be a sympathetic character (he’s one of the leads, and he’s the only one who gets Tragic Backstory Time here), that doesn’t mean that the show’s treatment of him won’t be uncomfortable to watch.

On the one hand, Lin is vocal about being a cis man who enjoys wearing women’s clothing and establishes right away that it doesn’t have anything to do with his work as an assassin—it’s part of who he is, not some deviant trick. On the other hand, the show is pretty clearly deriving some shock value from the juxtaposition of Lin’s extremely female-passing appearance and deep, masculine voice, and it devotes not one but two scenes to people commenting on his appearance. The first time, Lin scoffs at people for calling him a pretty girl on the street, and the second involves a pickpocket calling him a “shemale” (otoko-onna in the original Japanese) after Lin beats him up.

Close up of Lin walking down the street. caption: idiot, I'm a guy.

The second scene is in the same camp of “look how gritty this world is” as the dead women in this premiere, but the former left me its own kind of uncomfortable—Lin might be a cis man, but given all the recent discourse around “traps,” I couldn’t help but feel the scene feeding into the assumption that even passing trans women are “really” men on the inside. Hopefully the series got all its gross out of the way and won’t feel the need to comment on it going forward (Lin seems to wear traditionally female clothing about 90% of the time), but it’s definitely something I’m on the lookout for.

I’m not sure it’s going to be a classic of the genre, but if you’re looking for an adult-oriented mystery this season and don’t mind the gore and  frequent low-key victimization of women that usually entails along with the issues listed above, Hakata is probably worth at least a three-episode test run.

 

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