What do baseball ramen and hitmen all have in common? Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens was definitely one of the breakout stars of the Winter 2018 anime season. Its non-stop action and expansive cast of colorful characters kept me on the edge of my seat each week. With a style all its own, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens literally swept me off my feet each week.
Based on the ongoing light novel series, written by Chiaki Kisaki and illustrated by Kisara Akino, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens takes place in the crime-riddled streets of Hakata, a place where at least 3% of the population is rumored to be comprised of hitmen. With such a high concentration of dangerous individuals, it’s no wonder the city has such a ‘bad’ reputation, but among the professional killers, detectives, informants, and underground crime syndicates, hides an even bigger threat: the Hitman’s Hitman, the dreaded Niwaka Samurai! Jump head first into Hakata’s underbelly, with an eccentric cast of characters, as the series takes you on one hell of a ride!
Plot & Story
Hakata Tokotsu Ramens starts off simple enough. The Hakata ward of Fukuoka is the mecca of criminal activity where all manor of criminals and cutthroats come to roost. Hitmen, mob bosses, corrupt politicians (you name it, they got it) but among them is a masked vigilante, the Niwaka Samurai, the Hitman’s hitman. Armed with his katana, this assassin for hire kills indiscriminately, taking out hitmen (and women) left right and center. But no one knows the identity of this masked swordsman who lurks the streets of Fukuoka… Enter Zenji Banba, a laid-back detective looking into the goings on of top hitmen organizations in the area. When his path crosses with cross-dressing hitman Lin Xianming, the pair team up to take down the entire organization. The rest of the anime just kind of snowballs from there with many eccentric characters coming out of the woodwork to either join Banba and Lin or take them down.
There’s a lot going on with Winter 2018’s Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens. One minute it’s an action series with loads of gratuitous violence, the next it’s a slice of life story following a day in the life of the characters, and next it’s a sports anime. But its eclectic narrative is just a part of Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens’s charm. Each episode introduces a whole new set of twists and turns, making for a rather fun experience. It kind of put me in the mind of Brains Base’s 2007 anime Baccano. It’s like putting together a puzzle. At first it just looks like a disjointed mess with characters off doing their own thing, seemingly independent from the ‘main plot’, but the more you watch, the more plotlines and characters start to come together.
It’s a wild ride from start to finish, but the thing that ties everything together are the characters. Hakata Tonkatsu Ramens’s main strength is its characters, each one more interesting than the last. The main cast consists not just of Lin and Banba, but of Saitou, a hapless hitman that keeps getting into trouble, of the Avengers/torturers for hire, Jiro and Jose, Enokida, and of the team’s informant/hacker… and don’t even get me started on the ‘bad guys’. The show starts off with the villain being the boss of a big mob organization and over the course of the series the group faces off against minor bad guys that either die or join the team. But around the halfway point, the series starts focusing more on Lin: his past, his plans for the future, etc. and the bad guy changes to reflect that. Rather than some no-name bad guy, the villain in the latter half of the series is someone with direct ties to Lin’s past. The whole thing kind of comes out of left field since prior to this change there wasn’t such a specific focus on any one character (hell, not even Banba gets that kind of attention), which leads me to believe that Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is really Lin’s story.
Art & Music
Satelight really brought their A-game in the background department, because the background work in Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens was absolutely gorgeous! I am a sucker for the little details that make the animation really pop, and the team working on this series went above and beyond the call of duty, especially when it came to lighting. The lighting work was simply divine; it’s one thing to have a scene properly lit, but it’s another thing to manipulate light in a way that makes the scene feel more real, like the use of sun flares and sunspots in scenes lit almost entirely by natural light or the inclusion of street light glare along a speeding car or the reflection of city lights off the water at night. It’s the little things like that, that really make a scene come alive.
The character designs were great too, with some variety in the sizes and shapes of characters. Not everyone was husbando or waifu material, but they’re not supposed to be. I like seeing normal people in my anime, because it just feels more real that way. Not everyone in real life is good looking nor they are all thin. Granted Banba and Lin are fairly attractive by anime standards, but not in a way that would be considered too pretty.
The opening theme for the series is ‘Stray’ performed by Kishida Kyoudan & The Akeboshi Rockets. The guitar heavy rock song fits well with Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens’s high energy vibe, against the animation of the various characters that appear in the series, and the sweeping shots of Hakata.
The ending theme of the series is ‘Dirty Bullet’ performed by jazz band TRI4TH. ‘Dirty Bullet’ is very reminiscent of the jazzy opening theme ‘Tank!’ from Cowboy Bebop, and in a way, Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is a Bebop-like series. With its cast of anti-heroes and genre fluid storytelling style, having an instrumental heavy jazz number for the ending theme is pretty fitting.
Themes & Trivia
Light Novel Series: Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is an adaptation of the light novel of the same name, written by Chiaki Kisaki and illustrated by Kisara Akino. The first volume was published in 2014 and as of this date spans 8 volumes. It won the Grand Prize at the 20th annual Dengeki Novel Awards.
Baseball References: I can’t talk about this series without first acknowledging the baseball references; there are literally too many to ignore. But, rather than pointing out every single one of them (you can read the episode reviews for that), I’ll focus on the most prominent one. All the episode titles are references to baseball in some shape or form, whether it’s the name of a baseball position, a baseball technique, or something baseball/sports adjacent.
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens: The title of the series is a reference to the ramen dish of the same name that originated in Fukuoka. It’s a pork based ramen dish: ‘tonkotsu’ literally means pork bones, and while the ingredients can vary, that is the one standard mainstay.
Niwaka: There are a number of Japanese cultural references in this series, usually pertaining to Hakata or the Fukuoka prefecture. The Hitmen Killing Hitman, the ‘Niwaka Samurai’, is a theater reference. His appearance is reminiscent of the mask and katana used by courtesans when performing niwaka. Niwaka is a form of amateur theater performed by courtesans based on professional kabuki play. These niwaka plays were especially popular in the 18th century in the Yoshiwara red-light district.
Hakata Gion Yamakasa: In Episode 5 of the series, Banba participates in Hakata Gion Yamakasa, a 15-day festival (1-15 July), surrounding the Kushida-jinja, in which men from Hakata carry a massive float called the Kakiyama around the town. The festivities culminate in the Oiyama, a foot race between the seven districts of Hakata (Higashi, Nakasu, Nishi, Chiyo, Ebisu, Doi and Daikoku) to see which one can carry the float through a five kilometer stretch the fastest.
It’s no secret that I loved Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens. It has everything: action and adventure, and even a little ship-tease! Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens reminded me a lot of Baccano early on with its wide range of characters and its various narrative focuses. In the beginning, each episode was constantly jumping back and forth between characters and perspectives giving the series a kind of piecemeal feel, since we never spent more than a few minutes with any one character (Banba and Lin being the only exception) and while some folks will find that kind of storytelling distracting, I kind of liked it because it gave us a chance to experience perspectives we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced with a more linear storytelling style.
Going along with that, the characters themselves are just as dynamic. The last time I watched an anime with such a wide range of characters was Kekkai Sensen. Each character has their own vibe that really makes them stand out from the rest and the writers take the time to flesh them out (some more than others) so they’re more than just that tech guy or the really buff dude. Besides, how often do you get the chance to root for a group of ‘bad guys’? They’re all mercenaries for hire and yet the series humanizes them, gives them personalities and hobbies. They have problems just like the rest of us and part of the humor of the series comes from watching hitmen go on job interviews and handing out custom business cards to people.
I cannot in good conscience write a review about this series without bringing up all the shipping they did with Lin and Banba. I don’t care what you say, the subtext in Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens was unbelievable! There were so many tender moments between Banba and Lin I was a little disappointed that they DON’T get together at the end of the series. I mean come on, the chemistry was there and it’s clear that they care about each other a lot. But, alas, nothing romantic blossoms between them in the series proper… not even after that romantic piggyback ride scene…
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is a Home Run
So the verdict: Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is a lot of fun to watch. Does that mean it’s a perfect anime? No. But, it more than makes up for its shortcomings with its dynamic cast of characters and fast-paced plot. You have fun watching the events unfold because the characters keep the momentum going, whether they’re duking it out in the action scenes or going about their everyday lives they bring the same dynamic energy to the screen. So, yeah, I recommend giving Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens a watch. It’s 12 episodes of excitement that will leave you wanting more.
- Fun, likeable characters with great chemistry and a nice balance between main and side characters
- Interesting premise that for the most part is well executed
- Gorgeous animation especially in the backgrounds and action scenes
- Switch between a more episodic style in the first half of the series to a more Lin-focused narrative
- Some triggering themes that might turn some viewers off to the series (especially the blood and violence)
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens
Winter 2018 | Anime Info | Simulcast