I've always loved anime — the cartoons my brother and I watched, they mostly came from Japan. From early episodes of Pokémon to all-time classics like Cowboy Bebop, we dug those animation styles in a major way. But for whatever reason, that enthusiasm never translated completely to manga. We read some manga versions of shows that we already enjoyed (Trigun, Hellsing, etc.) and occasionally some others (Eat Man), but that was it. Even when I became Patron Saint of the Manga section at Waldenbooks, I still read very little of it. These days, the only manga I read (let alone purchase) is the incredible Blade of the Immortal series. And up until a few weeks ago, that was enough for me.
A few weeks ago, however, I planned to visit my brother in Chicago and decided to bring some books along for the plane ride: some short stories, some essays, and this new manga series that caught my eye … The Drops of God. A manga about wine? Interesting, I thought. Very interesting.
By the time I got back from Chicago, I was about a million miles away from “interesting.” I was enthralled, I was lovestruck, I was bowled over like a literary bowling pin.
The Drops of God (illustrated by Shu Okimoto and written by the pseudonymous Tadashi Agi) is the story of Kanzaki Shizuku, son of a famous wine critic and heir to his late father's fortune … if he can identify and describe the the thirteen mysterious wines mentioned in his father's will: twelve wine “apostles” and one legendary wine, the “Drops of God.” Shizuku must compete against the up-and-coming wine critic Tomine Issei (legally adopted by Shizuku's father before his death). For assistance, he teams up with a beautiful sommelier-in-training, his co-workers and various bartenders and oenophiles he befriends along the way.
Like many mangas, The Drops of God teeters on the edge of melodrama with its high stakes and many layered sub-plots. Like the best mangas, however, it draws on the medium of comics to achieve proper balance: its illustrations peppered with lighthearted asides, its hyperbole and vocabulary diluted with reasonable dialogue and honest interjections. As much as the series has a taste for flair and flamboyance, the characters themselves are real people, with depth and smooth development.
The writing is paired with equally great illustration. Objects, furniture and especially food are all displayed with eye-popping realism; characters' faces are expressive to the point of heart-stopping authenticity, reminiscent of iconic shots of the most praiseworthy actors. One of Shu Okimoto's killer moves is her use of full-page or multi-page visualizations of a great wine's taste. The artwork comes to life like a complete hallucination, capable of any metaphorical scene or setting, and it makes full use of the turned page. One flip, and you're both literally and figuratively transported to another place — clever and evocative.
Wine bottles fill the panels, sometimes full-page, in ways that may seem like product placement. Yes, The Drops of God relishes in detail, noting every brand name, region, year and price, but is it mere marketing? Hell no. These are the figures and this is the shop-talk you expect from passionate, knowledgeable professionals — Tadashi Agi does wine the way Ruth Reichl does food the way Tony Reali does sports: namely, as a whole-hearted expert. And the people behind these full-page bottles are magnified by them: Shu Okimoto, with expert spacing and vibrant facial art, captures pure emotion.
In an era of mass-marketed mediocrity, it's stunning to see such effort, grace and care go into a book. And like a good anime show, it ropes you in early and firmly, so you crave the next book as soon as you finish the first. Hell, if I hadn't had the foresight to bring volumes 1-3 on my Chicago trip, I don't know what I'd have done.
The delicious description and sublime narrative flow make the longest-lasting impact. Colorful scenes and sudden discoveries slowly run together, culminating in the best kind of philosophy: unabashed romanticism. The Drops of God conveys to its readers what great wines convey to the characters: a love of nature, a celebration of humanity and an undying reverence of the sublime.
Was my praise a bit much? Well, these comics are like wine — you should try them, and see for yourself.