A solid comic-book adaptation, relatively respectful of Japanese culture
With the full trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home dropping last week, another adaptation of a Marvel comics property has completely fallen under the radar. In the current media landscape where every Marvel release is big news no matter how obscure the character, this is a bit surprising. But the first few minutes of Hit-Monkey on Hulu completely solves that mystery. Despite being a cartoon, this isn’t a show for kids. A decapitation is the highlight of bloody carnage as the titular Japanese snow monkey murders a cadre of armed guards as well as the man they were protecting.
The mere existence of Hit-Monkey is baffling in a whole lot of ways. For starters, in stark contrast to the typical superhero comics character who were around when our parents were children, Marvel created Hit-Monkey back in 2010. So compared to projects like Big Hero 6 or Shang-Chi, there’s not very much need to whitewash the egregious racism in the worldbuilding of the original comics. Hit-Monkey is more-or-less about as tasteful regarding Japanese culture as a typical story conceived in the modern day.
Which is surprising in its own way, given how Hit-Monkey explicitly deals with stereotypes of Japan being a criminal wasteland in the thrall of corrupt politicians and the yakuza. But Hit-Monkey frames itself as being more about the grimness of modern life in general than being any specific comment on Japan. Much of the first episode is about the human assassin Bryce coming to Japan for a job and attempting to disguise his obvious depression with a sardonic, chipper attitude.
The vocal performance has impressive nuance given how fundamentally absurd the entire premise is. Jason Sudekis, best known for playing our current national icon Ted Lasso, is legitimately excellent in the role. He monologues, he narrates, and is often frankly annoying, but never gratuitous. Bryce’s natural reactions to Hit-Monkey’s inherently dark and comically violent situations are much funnier than the typical Whedonesque Marvel quips we’re used to, and when Bryce attempts quips himself they often fall so flat he turns weirdly apologetic.
A lot of the humor and engagement of Hit-Monkey derives from the fact that the show takes itself entirely seriously, and mostly resists the urge to undermine itself. Two parallel plots unfold to further emphasize this. Nobo Nakinishi voices Ito, the exhausted, jaded cop investigating the carnage adjacent to Hit-Monkey, and we watch the situation from police headquarters transition from dismissive to panicked as the evidence for Hit-Monkey’s existence becomes too overwhelming to ignore. George Takei plays the noble elder politician Shinji Yokohama, who leads an insurgent political campaign against the corruption that Bryce was supposed to have decapitated back in the first episode.
The sheer sincerity of these plot lines greatly enhances the worldbuilding. They also serve to underscore how Hit-Monkey himself is an interloper, a stranger in the strange land of the humans, nearly incapable of clear communication. And again, I must emphasize that this is a human story more than one about Japan. Olivia Munn as Shinjia Yokohama’s niece Haruka may literally be talking about social rot in Japan’s political climate. But in practical terms, she might as well be a member of The Squad railing against the rot of institutionalized power and its threat against democracy in the United States.
In an era where Japan-inspired media either overethnicizes the weirder and more stereotypical Japanese elements like in Ghost in the Shell or just gets rid of them altogether like in The Edge of Tomorrow, it’s notable that the show depictsJapan in such a way that emphasizes parallels to the United States rather than differences. A one-off reference to Kingpin at a tailor shop suggests that even in-continuity, the United States might not be much better off. Ken Kobayashi, the sole credited staff writer, is the obvious person to credit for this depth.
Although I should perhaps not oversell Hit-Monkey too much. At the end of the day this is still a fairly violent adult cartoon that relies fairly heavily on standard assassin hand-wringing for moral conflict. But it’s nonetheless an excellent comic book adaptation, in that the people who made it clearly actually like comic books and all their absurdity. The action is likewise crisp, with excellent character designs, stunning still shots, and great backgrounds. Unlike far too many allegedly adult cartoons these days, the art style is Hit-Monkey is quite distinctive, and takes influence from a large number of sources. All in all, Hit-Monkey is a fairly solid show.