by Kenji Sonishi; adapted by Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
published by Tokyopop; $10.99 US
Tokyopop has been pushing this collection of four-panel comic strips, due out June 1, since March. With so many options to sample the comic, including an interactive website, is it possible that potential readers will have already tired of the concept? Not a chance.
First, the idea of a cat that runs a ramen shop is just funny. The 4-koma format (four vertical panels) makes for plenty of goofy gags, and if you don’t like one, just turn the page for more chances to laugh. There are known audiences for cat manga and for food manga, so that makes for lots of potential readers interested in at least part of the concept. And with so small a format, only four panels, a high concept that’s immediately understandable works well.
(With some 4-koma, it can be difficult to grasp the distinctions among the characters or follow development at a short length, or the comedy might not translate. My favorites are those where simply defined but funny characters play variations on their usual activities. Those are easy to pick up and put down while still getting the jokes.)
It’s not until a third of the way through the book that we find out how Taisho the cat came to run a noodle shop, so obviously, it’s not very important. What’s significant is that he does, and he’s very old-fashioned, almost samurai-ish about it, even when he doesn’t know what he’s doing. (Think Seinfeld‘s Soup Nazi for an American point of comparison.) His ambitions are made fun of but still somehow honorable.
Then there are those strips where the humor comes from contrasting a cat’s expectations with ours. Think of what he’d want in a restroom, for example, or the danger of cat hair in your food. The art is sketchy, with no line weight variation, and often dots or lines for eyes, but so long as you can tell what’s going on — and I could — the homemade, unpolished feel suits. It’s as though some of the panels were scribbled on a napkin at the neighborhood ramen bar, kind of a transplanted workplace doodle, or even greeting card art.
Strangely, the other animals in the strip are animals, while Taisho talks and walks on two legs. It took me some time to work out that the oval with stripe and triangles was meant to be a sleeping (normal) cat (with collar and ears). On the other hand, I did quite like the strip where the cat sets off on a food delivery. He heads over the roof, just as a cat would, and the panel looking down on him looking down on the street was a nice bit of staging.
The origin story, telling of the cat’s history, is told in more traditional comic style, breaking out of the strip format. Taisho’s father is a cute cat model, having his picture taken for ads and products. Taisho is expected to have a similar career, but he runs away from his father’s harsh expectations. He tries to apprentice as a sushi chef, but he eats more fish than he prepares. Finally, he is taken in by a street corner ramen cook, who trains him.
Additional interlude comics tell more flashbacks, such as when Taisho competed against a dog ramen stall or how he determined his secret recipe. At larger size and longer length, I found these a bit harder to follow, due to the art, but that’s not the point. Cat owners will recognize a lot of behavior in these comics, and the ones that are uniquely feline are the best reads. As a pleasant detail, the page corners feature a tiny flipbook animation. Unfortunately, they took the place of page numbers, making the table of contents absolutely useless. (The publisher provided a review copy.)