We don’t often see them, but Japan enjoys many "review manga" - manga that analyses your golf swing, discusses headphones, or studies trains with Fred Dibnah’s excitement. The wine-tasting manga The Drops of God is part of a wide class - but it’s a huge and unmistakable wedge in the range! Its success speaks for itself; published continually since 2004 in Weekly Morning, with a circulation of over 500,000 in Japan alone, it has had real critical and commercial impact, particularly in the burgeoning markets of Korea and China where the manga’s suggestions have physically shaped developing tastes. Since Vertical brought the manga to the English-speaking market, our own wine buffs are quite chuffed with the surge of interest it’s inspired into an arcane craft – Decanter pronounced The Drops of God “the most influential wine publication in the last 20 years”, while Wine & Spirits lionised the mangaka as “superheroes”; they were also nominated in the 2012 Wine Intelligence Business Awards as benefactors of the industry. Heady stuff! But what is it like to actually read?
The scenario of the manga involves a competition between Shizuku Kanzaki, a lowly sales rep for Taiyo Beer, and Issei Tomine, a formidable wine critic whose frown can kill a restaurant stone dead. Despite his minor position Shizuku has a burnished pedigree, for he’s the son of the world-renowned wine critic Yutaka Kanzaki, whose poetic gifts can evoke the flavour of a wine with exaction and clarity and have its taste and delight evanesce from the page’s very ink. Yutaka sought to train his boy’s taste from childhood, but Shizuku could not endure a youth of chewing belts, sniffing pencils and practising pouring until he went cross-eyed and stormed from home. He has been brought back by his father’s death and the question of his inheritance... most importantly, his wine cellar, a collection of premium vintages valued at over $20,000,000! Yutaka’s will stipulates that the two men must participate in a contest. His natural son Shizuku and his official son Issei – adult-adopted by Yutaka for this very purpose – will only inherit his property when one can outdo the other in correctly identifying and describing the flavour of the “Twelve Apostles”; a dozen secret wines which Yutaka considered to express the breadth of his craft, and above them all the one wine which is the purest essence of the fruit of Bacchus, the legendary “Drops of God”.
Shizuku’s new brother is scornful – for good reason. Whilst Issei developed an eminent career studying wine, Shizuku forsook it all after his violent rejection of his father and has not tasted so much as a drop. How can he hope to compete? Shizuku then remembers a business card crumpled in his pocket, and an offer of a drink from Miyabi Shinohara, an apprentice sommeliere, or “wine waitress”. Well, it’s a start...
What follows is a journey into the wonderful world of wine, centred around Miyabi and Shizuku and his colleagues at Taiyo Beer. Although Shizuku knows nothing about wine, he does have a secret weapon – his taste. His father’s relentless training pays dividends: as Shizuku exactly expresses the elements of a flavour, Miyabi uses her specific knowledge to pinpoint what vineyards and vintages such flavours are assigned to. It’s an effective collaboration which ensures that both characters complement their contributions in a real partnership. There is a hint of romance between them, but in a manga that’s here for the long haul it’s definitely slow-burn, like a 2000 Chateau Margaux that must be left to breathe to fully mature. The characters spend more time solving other people’s relationships than advancing their own, although in an effective contrast Issei is the lover of a high-flying female CEO, adding a dash of spice to the bowl.
The Drops of God is structurally conventional. In each plot arc, the characters gather in the Kanzaki mansion to hear a cryptic poem recited from Yutaka’s will-and-testament that describes one of the Apostles. Issei, Shizuku, and their respective friends and allies will retreat to their castles and discuss the poem to decipher clues about the Apostle’s identity. They will then set about acquiring their own shortlist of likely wines, although hitches make some difficult to get hold of, and then work through their collections (giving the reader plenty of opportunity to look at the labels and write down a list!) until there’s only the final bottle that they believe contains the Apostle; they will all return to the mansion to present their picks and taste them for the first time, and see if they’re right after all. The contest is a classic black-and-white division between Issei’s education, comprehensively book-smart but bound between the pages, and Shizuku’s talent, unknowledgeable but with a savant’s intuition.
While some chapters might seem like just talking heads, there is still plenty of activity. Shizuku was a rich kid, aiding exposition as he mentions visiting cathedrals and galleries all over the world first-hand, but it’s also deftly spun into character interactions as others gently rib him about these privileged jaunts. Now though his father’s estate is locked up in trust so he certainly can’t afford Premier Cru on a sales rep’s salary, forcing him to concoct some increasingly outlandish schemes to actually get hold of the wines he needs to test. Issei may initially seem stuck within the rigid lines of his sharply-tailored suit, but he only acquired his book-smarts through exhaustive study in the first place, so he’s willing to learn from Shizuku; conversely, for Shizuku a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing as his slow initiation can lead him down merry paths. This throws up surprises as each party traipses down different paths and meets at different crossings along their journeys.
There is also a larger, intriguing arc as Shizuku gradually works out his relationship with his father. As he explores wine, Yutaka’s instruction of Shizuku in boyhood comes to the fore – not only in the practicality of the preternatural sensitivity of his tongue and nose, but also the philosophy of life, through the beat of the seasons and the diligence of the craft, planted in his youth.
We also learn about wine along with Shizuku, being introduced to the concepts of teroir and cépage and others, the proper appreciation of which is essential to gaining the edge over Issei. This sort of education through narrative is common to seinen manga, for adult readers who like to feel their minds expanding to justify their enjoyment of pretty pictures, and The Drops Of God applies itself diligently. It’s certainly fascinating to see just how technical wine-drinking can be! Inevitably only so much information can be conveyed on a manga page so it isn’t exhaustive about specifics, and if you’re reading solely to learn about wine it can be awkward – I found constantly flitting between speech-bubbles quite distracting and it’s not perhaps the optimal way to absorb sometimes-dense information. Nonetheless, it certainly acquits itself as a capable bluffer’s guide to the principles of oenology that will carry you through dinner parties with appreciative smiles.
Much in The Drops of God does reflect an adult audience. Romance involves wan smiles and gentle gazes between gleaming silver foxes and graceful divorcees whose kids are in college; a restaurateur wistfully hankers for the good ol’ pre-bubble days when he could afford for his establishment to be a private bijou boutique for those 'in the know'; one chapter reminisces about the 1975 Kaguya Hime concert, “Japan’s Woodstock”.
Still, while that may sound crusty, the manga is not dry. A character turns his entire apartment into a giant fridge for wine bottles and sleeps in the closet; another character lives in a cardboard box because he’s spent literally every penny he has on precious vintages; a third travels into the depths of the Turkestani deserts to reveal insight into “the true meaning of thirst”; and the leather-clad biker girl who’s defying her father and is out late every night... is moonlighting as a waitress in a wine bar. These guys are just nuts about grapes.
It’s a soap opera – not a British sewage outlet of misery, I must say, but an American-style enthusiastic vitality – and that cocksure stance is the best one to take, a larger-than-life approach rolling on an adventure. It’s tempting to snicker at melodramatic scenes where a character starts sweating and being visibly intimidated by the mere colour of a wine, or when two competing taste-testers peer at each other with skewering dagger-slit eyes, or even when Shizku’s sense of smell becomes a superpower that pinpoints forest fires, but it sustains the energy of what is ultimately the pretty humdrum matter of taking a sip of a drink. After all, there’s only so much excitement the lay reader can generate for a cliffhanger like “does Chablis really go with oysters? Find out next week!”
Shu Okimoto’s art is well-suited to The Drops of God. The essence of his contribution is pithily expressed in the chapter title pages – most are portraits of the characters dressed in achingly glamorous fashion, chatting in French coffee shops... it’s not a manga, it’s GQ! His characters are drawn realistically with authentic lines and folds of clothing... all the more to fully underline their devastating style. You might see little chibis poking up around the panel-edges for playful asides to the main dialogue from time to time, though, and certain of the more bumbling, comic-relief characters – such as the Italian-obsessed Homna – have some more flexibility in their designs, which helps to inject some vim into the longer dialogues. Even when he’s in a realistic mode, though, the characters still have plenty of personality – Miyabi’s impish glee when a new glass is poured out for her is quite a sight. Okimoto’s backgrounds though are drab and functional – usually simple photoreferenced renderings of streets and offices, where they exist at all – but that’s because he’s conserving his energy for the transformation sequences.
When a wine is tasted in The Drops of God, the flavour evokes an entire scene. Seeking the soul of the wine, that ineffable immaterial thing grasped in the oblique analogies of Yutaka’s initial poem, the room drops away and castles, mountains, flowers and forests bloom up, sweeping out in wide absorbing panoplies into which taster and reader become lost. In addition to Shizuku’s decanting “special move” (which is amusingly finessed into a running gag as his party-piece, as everyone is amazed by the delicate silky thread he pours), these grand visualisations are a key feature and a strong hook for the series, as each dreamscape is realised with engrossing detail. What makes these allusions especially interesting is that they’re not always predictable – you can expect cultured comparisons to famous paintings and sculptures, but when one wine is as brash as “Killer Queen”, there’s a spirit of invention too which keeps it ahead of the curve. The artist does have some skill when he can credibly convey the colour of a wine in an entirely black-and-white manga.
I love the new design that Vertical uses for their editions of The Drops of God, with a clean, smooth, minimal modernist style, evoking the refined high culture to which oenologists aspire... you feel more elegant just by holding it. Each volume is also double-sized at a price only slightly higher than a standard volume, improving value for money. Volume five is also intriguing: the first four volumes cover the First and Second Apostles, but volume five skips over a hundred chapters to the Seventh Apostle – apparently by author request, as a gift to American audiences who can learn about the New World wines of California. It’s odd, but it works well enough – the story is self-contained within the volume and beyond the appearance of a couple of new characters who don’t have significant roles anyway, the reader won’t be left confused by the gap.
Altogether, The Drops of God is a vital manga. It is easily important as one of the mature titles that you can deploy when asked about manga’s literary credentials. More than that, though, it has an exploratory spirit, a sense of variety, and a lack of self-consciousness which doesn’t contaminate the topic with pretentiousness but happily takes it as it finds it. The Drops of God is not just a rummage through a wine textbook but a fascinating adventure uncovering new treasures in surprising places, and showing that even under your feet there is wonder to be found.