VIOLENCE AS ENTERTAINMENT -
HOW HAKATA TONKOTSU RAMENS GETS IT
This is my fourth analysis piece right now and looking back, it’s interesting to see that out of the three I’ve done, two have been about violence. My piece on Iron-Blooded Orphans was about how to depict violence and the devastating consequences it has on both those wielding it and those affected by it. Meanwhile, in my piece on Inuyashiki I touched how to frame violence in a way that makes it in service to the character development, rather than reveling in the act itself. But one aspect I haven’t touched upon is violence as entertainment. By and large, I am not a fan of having people enjoy the violence displayed on screen. This is partly because I’m a pacifist but also because I’ve never really seen violence as something that’s to be enjoyed. However, I do believe there is a unique quality to violence that makes it suitable for comedic purpose. Its unpredictable nature. It is exactly this aspect that gives anime a real leg up from western media due to the Japanese form of storytelling and the ways it differs from the kind of narrative progression we prefer here in the west. This is what I want to discuss today and as an example, I’m going to use a show that uses violence as entertainment better than almost any anime I’ve seen: the currently airing neo-noir action comedy gem that seemingly nobody is watching: Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens.
There is a scene early on in episode 2 of Hakata Ramens where a guy is tortured to death and it’s really funny. Before you all start thinking I’m a sadist who takes joy in the pain of others, let me very quickly throw in some context here. Hapless wannabe hitman Kazuki Saito accepts a job to murder a guy called Jun Murase. Unfortunately for him, the guy made a lot of enemies so another person hires actual assassins, The Avengers aka the overtly gay Jiro and his nine-year-old niece Misaki, to also kill Jun Murase. Unbeknownst to either though, Murase has already been killed in a car bomb by a third party. So our staunch anti-hero wannabe assassin arrives at an empty apartment where he decides to hide out and kill Murase once he gets home. A little later The Avengers enter and assume Saitoh is Murase and quickly take him captive before knocking him out.
This is where we pick up his story in episode 2. Without any real introduction, the scene starts with a loud scream and we then cut to our unfortunate wannabe hitman, tied up with a BDSM type ballgag in his mouth. The scene is so over the top and out of nowhere that you can’t help but chuckle at the absurdity of it all. The anime then goes one step further and adds some context to this scene but it only makes everything even more absurd. As it turns out a man is being tortured to death in another room, because he killed someone’s cat and the owner of said cat has instructed The Avengers to kill the guy in exactly the same way he killed the cat. Finally, the show really twists the knife on this whole situation by having the torturer mention that due to the guy’s lack of a tail, he had to cut off his penis instead.
This scene on its own really sets the tone for the rest of the show and gives the viewer a clear idea of the kind of show that this is going to be. Not just because the scene, on its own, is so bizarre but also because it’s played entirely straight. There’s no use of chibi art and the music playing over it is this very brooding tune that makes the scene seem very tense. The only thing that makes this scene funny is…well…the scene itself. I feel comedy works best when a show or movie is not calling attention to it. Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is not a series that points at the viewer and goes “hey look at that? Isn’t that funny?”. It assumes the viewer can find the hilarity in the scene or dialogue itself and it absolutely works.
But it’s not just because of the show itself that this works. There is a unique quality to anime and Japanese media in general that makes it very suitable for this kind of entertaining use of violence. In the West, we place a lot of value on build up and tonal consistency. A noir thriller, by and large, will be grim and serious in tone. Moments of intense violence are encapsulated in a larger narrative that feels very tense and somber. We like our mood pieces and there’s a lot to be said for that. The Japanese form of storytelling however, sticks closer to real life. A somber drama can suddenly interject its scenes of heavy emotional turmoil with a two-minute long gag and likewise, a lighthearted comedy can suddenly throw hyperviolence into the mix. This is, understandably, what puts some people off anime but it’s also what makes it work as a medium and why it’s so deft at depicting violence. Much like real life, violence in anime comes out of nowhere, yet it's this unstoppable destructive force that destroys everything in its path. This is what I heavily touched on in my piece on Iron-Blooded Orphans but it’s also what makes the comedic violence in Hakata Ramens work.
That’s of course not to say that violence in western media is always without impact nor that violence in anime is always impactful. Plenty of action anime merely contain the violence to the extent that it makes for a cool looking action scene. The first season of Rage of Bahamut, for instance, really succeeded at creating the kind of large-scale action set pieces we tend to associate with Hollywood blockbusters, while many battle shonens focus more on the minutiae of techniques used rather than the effect of violence on the characters. This is because these shows are build to last and it’s not going to be a very long series if your main characters are all dead, severely injured or heavily traumatised after the first couple of episodes. These shows also tend to not use the specific storytelling flow unique to anime for its depiction of violence. With these kinds of shows, we tend to see several episodes of build-up followed by several episodes of all-out action. This isn’t to say that these shows are doing anything wrong. This formula has been proven to work time and again and it’s made for some of the best action sequences in anime. But it’s not the kind of violence I’m interested in exploring in this piece.
The violence I want to talk about in this piece is the same kind of violence I talked about earlier: something that comes out of nowhere, destroys everything in its path and is over as quickly as it started. Aka: real violence. Real violence isn’t predictable or co-ordinated; it’s chaotic and absurd and that can lead to some incredibly funny scenes. What makes the violence in Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens work is that it isn’t just there for entertainment value and it isn’t impactless. At some point, one character in the show remarks “I doubt any of us will get a happy ending” and by and large she’s right. As absurd as It can be, Hakata Ramens at its core is a show about irredeemable villains living on the verges of society. None of these characters are in any way morally just and none of them will probably get a happy ending. The show tackles heavy subjects such as human trafficking, the sex trade, political corruption and rape and none of it is depicted in a way that makes it unreal. But it is exactly this aspect of realism that sometimes can make a scene intensely funny despite the horrific events depicted on screen.
It can be argued that having your audience laugh at horrific things being done to people is tasteless but I feel in a way it’s much more tasteful than diluting what actual violence is like for comedic effect. Whether we like it or not, violence is a part of human society and I think it’s shows like Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens that offer us a way to cope with that fact.
I’m not going to pretend that Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens offers a deeply thought-provoking exploration of violence. Its primary purpose is to entertain and it certainly does that. But I do know its honest and almost absurdist depiction of violence, to me, felt like a breath of fresh air in an entertainment landscape where violence has all but become this toothless, impactless affair reserved mainly for big budget movie and video game projects. As such it really shames me that so few people are watching the show, So if this piece has in any way peaked your interest please do yourself a favor and go watch Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens. That is…if you’re not to busy with other forms of entertainment…
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens is available for legal streaming on Crunchyroll with a new episode airing every friday.
Special thanks to @Kuze and @Tonto-banchou for editing.
Violence as Entertainment - How Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens Gets It
Kerberos discusses the approach to violence in anime vs to western media by looking at a show airing this season that manages to make it both...
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