Neko Ramen Taisho: Finding Your Own Way

neko ramen taisho flaming eyesMinoru Kawasaki’s Neko Ramen Taisho (2008) is the classic story of a son trying to prove himself to his father and his father’s desire to recreate his son in his own image. Except Taisho, aka William Thomas Jefferson III, is a cat who makes ramen, and his father, William Thomas Jefferson II, is a “cat idol” with seven advertizing contracts who is determined to utterly humiliate and destroy his son. I should say there are spoilers from here on out, but, honestly, I consider them enticements. The film’s name is unforunately translated into English as, “Pussy Soup,” so I’m just going to continue using Neko Ramen Taisho for the rest of this piece.

In the film, Jeff III (Toru Furuya) runs away from home after his father (Seizo Kato) beats him cruelly, saying, “If you’re a real man, you’d become a cat idol like me.” Jeff wanders the rainy streets alone and hungry. Ultimately, he decides he doesn’t want to sell cat food on television, that he can make his own life. He sees an ad for a sushi chef, and is hired to assist in a sushi bar. But Jeff cannot resist eating the sushi and after his third time “snitching food,” he is thrown out of the shop. (But, really, who among us can resist amaebi?) He becomes a surgeon, but terrifies his patients. He is a good taxi driver, until he sees a rat scurrying on the street and crashes his car pursuing it.  Despairing, Jeff III decides to kill himself. Standing on the railing of a bridge prepared to jump , he says, “I won’t fail this time.” He is stopped by a kindly and silent ramen chef (Toshio Kurosawa), who takes Jeff in and makes him a bowl of ramen.

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One montage later, Jeff has learned to make ramen, has taken the title “taisho” (“general”) and has become the boss of his own ramen shop. Taisho has one customer, Tanaka (Kazuki Kato).  Taisho gives Tanaka experimental dishes that he is sure will make his shop a huge success, though not as frequently as he does in the Neko Ramen Taisho manga. And Taisho gives out life advice, telling Tanaka, “You’re too square. Women love men with a slight taint,” before offering his new creation, “Slightly Tainted Ramen.” It’s interesting to see pop singer and heart-throb Kazuki Kato presented as a square, but he does a fine job of being awkward and sweetly loyal to Taisho and blind to the failings of his crush, Mariko (played by fellow pop star Nao Nagasawa). Mariko is, as Taisho says, “insensitive.”

“Is [a ramen-making cat] such a unique thing?” Taisho asks Tanaka about halfway into the film. And it is, until one day, another ramen shop opens around the corner, “Original Neko Ramen Shogun,” unfortunately translated as “Original Pussy Soup Shogun.” Not only does the Shogun outrank Taisho, he’s also a cat. And, as Tanaka notes, “[T]his one is much cooler. He’s a performer.” The Shogun wears sunglasses and an Elvis jumpsuit. And he puts on a show when he makes ramen, with loud music and flashing lights. Worse yet, the Shogun is Jeff’s dad, come to humiliate and destroy him. In a live televised confrontation with Taisho, the Shogun reveals his identity and his plan:

“That’s why I started making ramen. To craft the ultimate ramen, which the likes of you could never make. And you’d be tortured by a sense of failure. I realized my most worthy task would be to make your shop go under…. Listen, son, I shall destroy you in front of the entire nation, to brand you as Japan’s biggest loser. I’ll throw you into despair so deep you’ll never recover.”

Jeff II challenges Jeff III to a ramen battle on live television. Jeff III accepts.

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The film is Kawasaki’s adaptation of Kenji Sonishi’s four-volume manga series (with one spin-off, Monogatari Neko Ramen: Koneko no Thomas). In the manga, this is all conveyed four panels at a time in simple but charming and evocative linework. Over the course of the manga, more of Taisho’s life is revealed, but it’s reminiscent of how more is revealed over the course of Peanuts or Calvin And Hobbes. The world expands as we get glimpses of Taisho’s biography. In his adaptation, Kawasaki takes incidents from the manga and shapes them into a roughly linear narrative arc. For instance, we discover that Taisho’s father is a cat idol well into Neko Ramen Taisho: Vol. 1: Hey! Order Up! (TokyoPop, 2010) while the movie begins with their relationship.

There is an anime adaptation of the books made for Japanese television, and I have, in general, preferred animated comic book adaptations. Mostly, I think it’s a smoother transition from the page to the screen. Everything is equally realistic and equally fantastic. And where three-dimensional digital modeling or cell-animation can make it appear that live action actors and animated elements are on different planes, in an animated adaptation, most of the time, everything is on the same plane.  Kawasaki’s adaptation is neither animated nor conventional live-action. As you probably noticed from the screencaps, Jeff III and Jeff II are performed by plush cat hand-puppets voiced by actors. They are treated as real cats by the other characters, even when, say, famous cat Super Stationmaster Tama appears in the movie. If you haven’t seen a Kawasaki film before, this might be a little surprising, but Kawasaki’s biggest international hit was probably his 2004 film, Calamari Wrestler, in which a wrestler is transformed into a giant squid and continues to pursue his career—and true love. I’ve written a little about it and a few of this other films—Executive Koala (2005); Rug Cop (2006); Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G-8 Summit (2008); and The World Sinks Except Japan (2006).

For a director who makes such absurd and low-budget films, Kawasaki often uses remarkably fine actors. Toshio Kurosawa, who plays Taisho’s mentor, also has had roles in Hideo Gosha’s The Wolves (1971), Lady Snowblood (1973) and Evil of Dracula (1974). Toru Furuya, who voices Taisho, worked on Paprika (2006) and has done a lot of work as Yamcha in Dragon Ball Z. Seizo Kato voiced Mother in Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers (2003) and has worked in a helluva lot of tv series. The success of Kawasaki’s movies depends so much not only on their imagination and inventiveness, both in content and production, but in the seriousness with which the actors take their interactions with a cat hand-puppet, a guy in a suit and giant koala head or a human-sized squid who’s going to reclaim his title. His films are at their least successful when he works with weaker actors or non-actors. And so, while I love the fun and quite lovely kaiju segments of Monster X Strikes Back: Attack The G-8 Summit (2008) and the dark satire of The World Sinks Except Japan, especially the musical number where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sings about how great Japan is (and spends much of his time humiliating the Chinese Premier and the South Korean President), they are his weakest films. In part because there are a plethora of weaker actors or non-actors hired for their resemblance to world leaders, including an actor appearing in both who sorta resembles Bill Clinton but has a tremendous Canadian Ottawa Valley accent. The weakest part of Neko Ramen Taisho is the judging of the ramen battle in which three Japanese celebrities play themselves. Strangely enough, Kawasaki’s films are at the strongest, so far, when they are about animals with jobs and human problems.

Kawasaki specializes in the absurd, in both form and content, using hand-puppets, rubber squid suits, plush koala suits, live animals and live human actors to tell stories of finding your own way (as a former cat idol); overcoming defeat (and being turned into a giant squid); amnesia and loss (in the life of a koala salaryman); and a cop who must defuse a nuclear bomb and whose toupée appears sentient. There is just something so charming and enjoyable about seeing a hand-puppet—or a guy in a rubber squid suit or a guy in a suit with an enormous plush koala head—enact and deconstruct the conventions of genre film. The sad protagonist walking in the rain. The junior chasing after him shouting, “Taisho!” The battle between rivals. The underdog making good. The gruff older man who takes a younger man under his wing. The protagonist who, in his self-loathing, wounds his love interest and drives her away. The moving song, in this case sung by the ramen chef who never speaks otherwise, asserting that sometimes simple is best.  Sure, there are moments when we’re all in on the joke of a stuffed animal being walked down the street or sitting on a swing-set, but they don’t throw me out of the film. They’re just charming. And so while Neko Ramen Taisho certainly  isn’t for everyone, I am a sucker for the special weird spark and crazed genius of Minoru Kawasaki.

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Carol Borden will save her thoughts on Neko Ramen Taisho and Juzo Itami’s “Ramen Western” Tampopo (1985) for another time.

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