Project X: Cup Noodle
Or, as the indicia reads, Project X – The Challengers – Cup Noodle – The Miracle of 8.2 Billion Served – The Magic Noodle, Nissin Cup Noodle. Which made me think, “Take that, McDonald’s!”
This is one of a series of business manga based on a Japanese documentary series covering “the movers and shakers behind some of Japan’s most phenomenal success stories.” True to the description, the book is tagged as “manga/business” — and I would love to see the bookstore that would stock this in its business book section!
It’s not an inaccurate description, though, because there’s plenty of extra material explaining the project’s history and the key company players. (Although it can be a little over-enthusiastic, with plenty of adjectives like “ground-breaking”, “innovative”, and “desperate zeal”.) The key point to understand is that the revolution described in the book wasn’t instant noodles, but the complete package — putting together the container, the noodles, and the additional ingredients to make an instant, portable meal.
The Nissin Foods company was struggling, and the president directs development of this new product. A small team is driven to make it happen by the need to please the company head, keep their jobs, and get raises. Chapters cover development of key elements, including the container, the flavored noodle, and the toppings.
Now that I know how the resulting product ended up, it can be a little odd reading dialogue like, “An instant ramen in a ready-made container… I just can’t come up with an image of it.” I have to remember that one of the side effects of a great idea is that afterwards, it seems so obvious. I was also surprised by the marketing, which emphasized how trendy and modern the product was; I guess, in 1971, that was true.
I feared that I would have a hard time distinguishing a bunch of company men visually, but I was impressed by how distinct the characters were, especially in terms of expression. The profile pages helped, too, for quick reference. (The only woman in the book is the wife of one of the team members, and her contribution is coming up with small nutritious meals for her husband, who doesn’t want to eat after days of taste-testing noodles.)
The story is cast in a typical manga style, with challenge leading to hard work which results in success, but the approach isn’t over-dramatic. It’s clear that these men feel their work deeply, but there are no ridiculous, out-sized gestures or exclamations. The straightforward style keeps the reader involved, feeling their emotions as they struggle through numerous tests and ultimately solve small but essential problems.
The lesson, expected and common in manga, is supposed to be that with devotion to a team and determination to reach their goal, even a project considered unworkable will succeed. However, lots of attention is paid to how the team can please their boss, with members constantly going to him for feedback and approval. At times, he wanders through test areas to dispense proverbial lessons about finding creativity through trial and error and to keep trying. The way the story is told here, he’s responsible for solving a key problem with his wise words as well as dictating the blend of contents that made the product a success, keeping the team members focused, naming the product, and coming up with the idea in the first place. The “teamwork” message is thus somewhat muted.
Especially for those interested in cultural differences between the US and Japan, this is a great read that’s unusual when compared to the typical translated manga. Chris Sims has included some sample art in his post praising the title.