Yes, this is awesome
“Neko Ramen” is one of the funniest manga I have ever read. The 4-panel strip comic has just the right combination of Japanese cuteness, surreal situational humor, site gags, and acerbic wit so that it is never too sweet, or too cynical, or too bizarre. I don’t remember the last time a manga had me laughing out loud while reading it!
First appearing in the monthly magazine Comic Blade Masumune in 2006, “Neko Ramen” features a classic straight man/funny man duo with Taisho (which means “boss” in Japanese, and is a traditional nickname for chefs), the owner of a ramen shop who also happens to be a cat, and Koichi Tanaka, his sole hapless customer who keeps returning and encouraging Taisho even though the ramen is terrible. Taisho is a typical ramen chef, quick to snap at customers and more interested in scheming to get customers in rather than improving his fare. Tanaka is a glutton for punishment with a good heart who can’t stand to see Taisho fail, so he keeps going back and encouraging the fuzzy little chef.
Most of the comics are done in 4-panel style, which is more like a newspaper strip than the usual manga. The jokes usually revolve around Taisho’s inability to perceive the difference between himself and other cats or even humans. Taisho is the only talking cat, with other cats being pretty much normal, but Taisho doesn’t notice this. He even keeps a few cats around the shop as “employees” and tries to pay his human employees in milk and cat treats. In one strip, Taisho uses an expensive can of cat food as a topping when a famous food critic comes to visit, and in another he tries to create a milk-and-tuna ramen noodle. Tanaka points out that these are bad ideas, but Taisho remains oblivious.
Of course, other people notice the unusualness of a cat making ramen, and people come to check it out. In one strip, Taisho is excited that a film crew is coming, and he thinks he will appear on a prestigious cooking show, but instead his clip appears on “Those Amazing Animals.” Other shops try to have animal mascots to catch on to the trend, and of course hijinks ensue.
Humor is the most difficult thing to translate, because it depends so much on cultural clues and linguistic turns of phrases, but translator Kristy Harmon has managed to smooth everything out and delivers a seamless reading experience. About the only gag that might go under the radar of average American readers is the appearance of Futa, a Red Panda from the Chiba Zoological Park who was a sensation in Japan in 2005 for his ability to stand on his hind legs like a human for about ten seconds. I was living in Japan during “Futa Frenzy,” so I got a real chuckle out of that scene.
“Neko Ramen” had four volumes published in Japan, with two specials for six books in total. I must confess I like the Japanese covers better, with their dynamic version of the Japanese flag. The comic spawned a short animated series and the awesome 2009 film “Neko Ramen Taisho” directed by Kawasaki Minoru (The Calamari Wrestler) featuring a combination of puppets, real cats and human actors to tell the story. Hopefully this English-language edition of “Neko Ramen” will be a big enough hit that the series and movie will make it to American shores as well.