I can’t honestly say that I have any particular criteria when it comes to deciding what manga to pick up; most of the time it boils down to whether the plot sounds vaguely interesting, if I liked the anime, or if it needs an entry on the site. So when it came to Project X: Cup Noodle my chain of reasoning went as follows: “Hmm it has an odd name and I do like instant ramen. Hang on… a manga about cup noodles?! Eh it’s only one volume and needs a synopsis. Sod it, why not?” Luckily this was one gamble that didn’t prove to be a complete waste of my time.
The plot follows the president of the Nissin Food Company, Momofuki Andou, and his team of researchers as they attempt to introduce Cup Noodles to the world. From designing the containers to attempting to sell such an alien product to the suspicious Japanese public, Cup Noodle gives insight into the world of food production and the trials involved.
It may not sound like an instantly gripping narrative, and it isn’t. Each chapter focuses on an individual aspect of the process, from inception to marketing, and by nature it has an interesting pacing. While some of the earlier instalments plod along at a steady pace as Andou’s various researchers work day after day making sluggish progress to perfect every little aspect of the idea, some of the later stages documenting the mass production and initial sales seem to suddenly speed up. This change in pace nicely reflects the mental state of the workers. Though they initially approach the scheme with trepidation, Andou’s enthusiasm gradually rubs off on the task force and they too begin to share in his excitement for this revolution in the world of instant ramen.
Certainly, Cup Noodle remains the first example of ‘documentary manga’ that I’ve come across, and this one volume tale is surprisingly informative. To learn about the issues involved in creating an entirely new type of food product proves quite interesting. Far from the idea of just shoving some dried noodles in a pot with a couple of peas, egg and flavourings, much more goes into the process than anyone would initially imagine. So many hurdles must be overcome, whether finding the best shaped container and its material, to trying to deep fry the noodles without leaving the middle uncooked, or locating the right type of shrimp that tastes good, freeze-dries well, and retains its glorious colour. By the time you’ve finished the one hundred and ninety one pages of this manga, you’ll know more about the process of making instant ramen than you would imagine.
Another nice little informative touch stems from the real life resources included as extras at the end of the volume. Genuine photographs of the staff right through to the factory in Osaka and the Ginza street promotion help to show how mangaka Tadashi Katoh brought the story of the humble Nissin Cup Noodle to life. With further bonuses such as an interview with head of noodle development, Kunio Matsumoto, and a blow-by-blow account of the noodle manufacturing process, this additional content highlights just how much work and research has gone into the creation of this manga.
Far from overwhelming, Cup Noodle’s artwork gets the job done, but doesn’t push any boundaries or even attempt to particularly impress. Katoh’s character designs have a retro look reminiscent of early nineties seinen works such as Ping Pong Club and remain fairly simplistic with few varying or distinguishing facial features. That being said, the star of the show in terms of visuals is, without a doubt, the cup noodle itself. What the human imagery lacks in specifics, the food makes up for with details such as individual strands of ramen drawn using a variety of stroke thicknesses to show the difference between crispy deep fried noodles and their soggy uncooked counterparts. That alongside the care that goes into the pictures of freeze-dried shrimp of differing quality helps to redeem the manga’s art a little.
The main focus of this manga can only be the title “character”: the Cup Noodle. As a result, the surrounding protagonists are less like personalities in their own right, and more a means to an end. Despite playing a vital role in the creation of the product in question, Nissin’s various factory workers, or even president Andou, don’t feel particularly well fleshed-out. While the reader gains a brief insight into what these people are like – such as showing one of the bowl development team suffering from a bizarre container-related nightmare – most simply fit into the diligent worker category and fade into obscurity. Naturally due to the nature of this plot, it would be foolish to expect to see these guy’s social lives; we want to know about the instant ramen, not those who make it. Still, it would be nice to see a little more of the human side to the story.
By no stretch of the imagination is Cup Noodle a work of outstanding genius. Nor would I immediately advise you to rush out and buy it with your latest pay packet. However, it is worth a read if you have even a passing wondering about how that yummy Cup Noodle came to be, or simply fancy something a bit out of the ordinary.