Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens 1.1: “Play Ball”

Kenji Yasuda (Director), Shogo Yasukawa (Writer)
Daisuke Ono, Yuki Kaji, Yusuke Kobayashi, Kensho Ono, Daisuke Namikawa, Aoi Yuki, Tomoaki Maeno, Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, Daisuke Hirakawa, Kenji Hamada, Kosei Hirota, Yuichi Nakamura, Masaya Matsukaze (Cast)

Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is an anime that doesn’t believe in easing viewers into its setting and characters. We signed up for this ride when we decided to watch and you’d better understand the series fully expects you to strap in and hang on for dear life.

The approach is a familiar one if you’ve watched a certain type of crime anime. So is the fact that you must accept its preposterous premise. Like Baccano! featured the collision of alchemists and the mafia, and Durarara!! featured Japanese gangs and a dullahan looking for her missing head, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens features a city—the Hakata referred to in the title—where 3% of the population work as assassins. This fact is not a secret; there is a corporation called Red Rum Inc. It makes you wonder why the other 97% would even want to live there. Maybe we’ll find out at some point.

The similarity to Baccano! and Durarara!! extends beyond a flashy premise. Like the other two anime, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is adapted from a light novel series. Like them, it introduces us to a dizzying array of characters—most of whom are indeed assassins. And like them, we catch brief glimpses of these various characters’ lives and hints of an overarching plot that tie the different storylines together.

And make no mistake: there are a lot of storylines. A detective is investigating the city’s potentially corrupt mayor running for reelection. Hired assassins are forced to clean up after the mayor’s trashfire rapist of a son. An assassin ill-suited to the occupation moves to the city and finds himself thrown into the deep end. An amateur assassin takes on jobs in the hopes of eventually reuniting with his sister.

The trick to all this is whether the series ties the plotlines together in a satisfying and interesting way. The first episode certainly sets up something big. We’ll have to wait and see if future episodes fulfill that promise. As it is, it can be a little tough to remember names and everyone’s connections to one another. That’s a major flaw with having a cast of characters who are composed mostly of assassins. In anime series—even ones based on crime drama light novels—viewers are used to characters with unique occupations and skill sets. Instead, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens relies on “quirks” like cross-dressing assassin, sexy secretary assassin, fresh-faced assassin, and little girl accomplice assassin.

Speaking of the cross-dressing assassin, longtime anime viewers are likely familiar with the medium’s less-than-stellar treatment of trans people. Not that the assassin in question, Lin Xianming, shows any indication of being trans; he refers to his cross-dressing as a hobby. Whether this is true or a deflection, we don’t know. He might have adopted the practice as a form of disguise. Perhaps we’ll find out eventually. But knowing anime’s problematic history in this area, don’t expect there not to be transphobic slurs or tactless jokes and comments made at Lin’s expense. That way lies only disappointment.

Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens won’t appeal to everyone. The characters aren’t crafted to induce immediate sympathetic connection. The series expects you to be patient and watch as the storylines intersect to form a bigger picture. But the ending of “Play Ball” provides a hook for unsure viewers to latch onto, in which one character switches allegiance and forms the unlikeliest of partnerships. No doubt there will be other betrayals and double-crosses in the future, but learning how it all happens is part of the fun.