Just when all manga seems to resemble a homogenous mass of robot wars, scantily clad women with impossible proportions and armed, deadly but hopelessly cutesy cuddly animals, along comes something unique. "Neko Ramen" isn't quite what the translated title suggests, "Cat Ramen," as in ramen made from cats, but instead a bizarre sometimes surreal tale about an exceedingly anthropomorphic cat who, through many trials and tribulations, ends up owning his own ramen shop in Japan. Those who haven't eaten real ramen, not the soggy rope-like stuff in the steaming Styrofoam cups, or visited a real Japanese ramen shop, may not quite get everything going on here, which may explain why this series didn't cause a Krakatoa boom sensation in the US.
And of course there's a twist. Taisho, the cat, makes terrible ramen. Execrable. One then wonders why Tanaka-san, an entry level office worker, keeps coming back for more. "It's awful," he moans while eating his first bowl. He returns later to find that the restroom is a litter box in the corner. And it's not exactly clean. "What? What's wrong with it?" Taisho pleads. Most of "Neko Ramen's" humor arises from this absurdist juxtaposition of the human and animal worlds. Taisho, with one paw in the feline realm and another in the human, seems oblivious to when these realms collide like damp napkins shot into concrete. As with his rice ball and gyoza experiments, both of which get served up covered with his fur. Sometimes cat food even ends up floating in the ramen. And why not, Taisho probably likes it.
The obliviousness continues throughout. Taisho hires Shige-chan, who openly steals from him and takes bites out of the food before serving it. His employees, even the humans, accept payment in milk and tuna flakes. But he remains most oblivious to his own catness. He doesn't understand why TV shows want to feature him as an "Amazing Animal" or why people come in because a cat making ramen is cute. He wonders how his ramen shop can achieve individuality. Tanaka-san suggests that he's covered that category adequately.
Even if "Neko Ramen" requires a massive dose of suspension of belief, and a lot of comedy and drama does, it nonetheless remains laugh out loud hilarious from beginning to end. The surreal world created here works beautifully as it dangles on the precipice of reality. Everyone seems to notice but no one seems to care that a cat is walking, talking and making ramen for humans. Humans even train him.
The manga uses a titled four-panel strip format, with the exception of four "Short Comic Specials" of extended stories, such as how Taisho ran away from his father, a cute cat model, and started making ramen, the secret of Neko noodles, and Taisho's lost love, which ends the book on a particularly oblivious and hilarious note between the human and cat worlds. But the best of these stories involves the "Bowl of Friendship." Taisho and a competing ramen bar engage in a cuteness contest that escalates to the ridiculous heights of "Monkey Dog Rabbit Hamster Ramen." The ending is genuinely touching.
Those looking for something entertaining, absurd, tolerably cute and incredibly funny should sit back with all four volumes of "Neko Ramen." But a warning: they are addicting and, though Taisho's ramen is terrible, they will make anyone who has savored a bowl of miso or shoyu ramen rack with hunger. Read with a full stomach.