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Neko Ramen Taisho
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Only in Japan."
4 stars

In the "Only in Japan" department: We have here a cat who makes ramen, or noodle soup. Taisho, the cat, has been the hero of a manga series and an animated flash series. So of course Minoru Kawasaki, the irrepressible director of "Executive Koala" and "The World Sinks Except Japan," chose to adapt this material as a live-action film. With a plush puppet cat as Taisho.

Neko Ramen Taisho thus becomes a kind of weird meta experience: Taisho and two other cats — his father and a cutie kitty who bats its eyelashes at Taisho — are plush, but other cats in the movie are real, and Taisho interacts with some of them. The humans in the film seem unfazed by talking with plush cats (or eating ramen prepared by plush cats), though the real cats often look askance at Taisho. (One of the real cats is Tama, famous in Japan for being named an honorary stationmaster. Only in Japan.)

Taisho starts out trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, a hugely popular "cat idol" appearing in cat food commercials. But Taisho doesn't have it in him, and he wanders around in despair until a kindly ramen-shop owner takes Taisho under his wing and shows him the art of making noodle soup. We end up with something like a cross between Garfield and Tampopo, with Taisho always slouching around, rarely changing his agitated expression. He befriends a regular customer (J-pop star Kazuki Kato), whose new girlfriend isn't impressed by Taishô's old-school ramen: You see, there's a flashy new ramen joint around the corner...

It all leads to an Iron Chef-style cook-off, televised for a nation of eager viewers (only in Japan), that generates a surprising level of suspense. By this time, we have fully entered into the surreal meta contract, and we are emotionally invested in the outcome of a contest between two obvious plush puppets. Maybe Minoru Kawasaki isn't as crazy as we'd thought. Puppets have an advantage over, say, computer animation: They're built and operated by humans, and they exist in real space. Whether you're watching the Muppets or Meet the Feebles or Neko Ramen Taisho, you end up falling for the trickery, even if it's comically transparent, as it is here. It helps that Taisho has real human actors rooting for him against the arrogant bastard he's competing with.

"Neko Ramen Taisho" is a fun and bubbly 80 minutes, and it makes the predictable but pleasing point that substance trumps style, and what pleases the fickle taste buds may not always sit well in the stomach. Plus, of course, it has a plush puppet cat attempting suicide and trying to make a living as a sushi chef, a cab driver and a surgeon before finding his true calling as a ramen master. Only in Japan.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=19547&reviewer=416
originally posted: 08/10/09 00:44:17
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