- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
One of the many straight-to-streaming movies to essentially disappear without a trace this fall was the Mary Elizabeth Winstead vehicle Kate. What minimal coverage the film got focused on it as the latest in a line of insufficiently revisionist takes on the calcified genre in which an outsider — usually a white man, so kudos to Kate for expanding gender horizons, at least — arrives in Japan and instigates two hours of bloodshed, among mostly Japanese people, in which their culture and aesthetics are reduced to fetishized background details, usually with a visit to a sushi bar, the appearance of a soulful monk, or an action scene destroying many paper walls or paper doors (but never using the word “shoji”).
It’s a genre that has induced understandable audience fatigue. But what if I told you that I had a story in which an outsider instigates five hours of bloodshed among mostly Japanese people, and in which Japanese culture is barely even fetishized, much less treated with respect or affection, but that at least the outsider is … a monkey? I mean, don’t worry, there’s still a wisecracking white American character to make snarky comments amidst the carnage. Does that feel like sufficient sensitivity to you?
The thing most readers have to understand is that when it comes to monkeys, I’m just about the easiest sell there is, accounting for nearly the entire reason why Hulu’s Marvel’s Hit-Monkey is being reviewed here at all. That also probably explains why I made it through the 10-episode first season, because the first five episodes are marked by unremarkable premise-setting and an approach to Japanese culture limited to one-dimensional characters and a barely considered backdrop. The final five episodes are much better, but it’s still baffling to me that a company with a history of ill-considered, whitewashed exoticism — google “Marvel,” “Akira Yoshida” and “C.B. Cebulski” — would put so little effort into authenticity (putting aside that gun-wielding monkeys aren’t, in and of themselves, wholly authentic).
Entrusting a production with Japanese trappings to the team behind Blades of Glory, the show is adapted by Will Speck and Josh Gordon from a limited-run series of comics by Daniel Way and artist Dalibor Talajić. Hit-Monkey begins with sardonic, desensitized hired killer Bryce (Jason Sudeikis) going to Tokyo to assassinate a progressive candidate for prime minister. He finishes the job, but there’s a double-cross and he ends up wounded in the mountains, being tended to by a pack of macaques. When the bad guys catch up to Bryce, they kill him and decimate the monkeys.
One macaque survives, and is bent on revenge. With Bryce offering spectral guidance, Hit-Monkey (grunts by Fred Tatasciore) dons a suit and sunglasses and, in extremely episodic fashion, begins to kill his way up the yakuza food chain. It’s basically the Chris Claremont and Frank Miller arc of Wolverine that served as the basis for 2013’s The Wolverine, only with a vicious monkey instead of Logan, which is to say not all that different.
As Hit-Monkey’s spree progresses, he catches the attention of honest cops Ito (Nobi Nakanishi) and Haruka (Ally Maki), as well as the deceased politician’s longtime ally Shinji (George Takei) and Shinji’s niece Akiko (Olivia Munn).
We could debate whether “authenticity” is an aspiration that a monkey hitman cartoon should have, and whether the number of white writers and directors shaping various Japanese characters, combined with inconsistent casting and really inconsistent accent work, should be considered problematic verging on offensive. All I’d say is that if you give me interesting characters and give your story a rich sense of place and culture, I won’t necessarily quibble about authorship. But if you have a story in which the Tokyo setting is a visual afterthought and every single Japanese character is thin-to-negligible, it’s fair to feel that there were opportunities missed on the representational and qualitative levels. Contentiousness can cover for a certain amount of boring material, and visual flair or comic spirit can cover for a certain amount of flimsy research, but if you’re going to be dull and fraught with stereotypes, my affection for monkeys only goes so far.
The first five episodes are plagued by Bryce’s stale one-liners — you see, he likes pop culture references, but monkeys don’t go to the movies, so they don’t get pop culture references — and a thoroughly uninspired structure in which each episode finds Bryce and Hit-Monkey killing many people to get to the next yakuza boss on their list. The political stuff is generic “The system is corrupt and only one man can change things,” twaddle and the police side of the story lacks even that much depth.
The end of the sixth episode brings in occasional Daredevil villain Lady Bullseye, and there’s an immediate elevation of quality that comes from introducing an adversary who’s not completely disposable. Lady Bullseye is vicious in a specific way, and her black-and-white costume lends variety to the series’ visual style. She marks a pivot at which Hit-Monkey begins to feel like it has stakes. Sure, the show still feels like it was written by people drawing their inspiration from Quentin Tarantino films that pay homage to yakuza thrillers rather than from the original source material. But the seventh and eighth episodes in particular feature effective action set pieces and give Hit-Monkey and Bryce some decent pathos, if perhaps too late. The last two episodes offer some escalating scale and better moments, but they over-rely on Japanese characters who never exhibit any narrative necessity at all and, other than Takei’s always-welcome gravitas, never find individual voices.
Going back to that inspired-by-the-inspiration-not-the-original problem, the animation by Floyd County shows affection for Japanese crime anime, yet it comes across as interchangeable with the affectionate genre tributes the studio has done for years on Archer. The show isn’t quite a parody, nor is it good enough to stand on its own. Hit-Monkey himself isn’t a bad character, as one-joke characters go, and he grows more expressive as the series goes along. By the end of the finale, I was curious about more of his adventures, but I would recommend either a change in setting or an expansion of the writing staff, beyond people hung up on flaccid quips and caricatures. Monkeys deserve better. The genre deserves smarter.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day