Comics: The Drops of God

The Drops of Godstory by Tadashi Agiart by Shu OkimotoVertical, Inc., 2011The wildly successful manga comic Kami no Shizuku took Japan by storm nearly a decade ago, and is still going strong - unexpected to say the least, since it's a melodramatic saga about fine wine. The issues feature no martial arts, no effervescent young girls in Catholic school uniforms, no monsters, no violence - even the rare depictions of explicitly sexual situations are so tepid they might easily happen in an only slightly more torrid copy of Betty & Veronica. None of the stereotypical props of what could be called the manga genre are here, and yet Kami no Shizuku has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, made national and international news (it's a hit in South Korea and Hong Kong as well, and it's far more widely known in mainland China than the vigilant gendarmerie of the PAP would have you believe), spun off a hit live-action TV series (starring the almost unbelievably androgynous Kazuya Kamenashi), and changed the cultural landscape of an entire region of the world. You'd have to look to the seismic popularity of Betty Crocker in the mid-20th century to find an American culinary phenomenon that rivals the way these books have shaped a country's taste, and the saga has at last been translated and packaged for American audiences in a series of square-bound manga graphic novels from Vertical, Inc. titled The Drops of God.The folks at Vertical blazon the acclaim of the original in no uncertain terms:

Ever wondered why Japanese businesspeople dig into comics without a hint of defensiveness on their commutes? The reasons will be self-evident once you experience The Drops of God, which has enhanced wine consumption in Asia like no other book.

And they're refreshingly straightforward about the number one obstacle preventing your average common-reader in the West from picking up a manga import and enjoying it:

Japanese books, including manga like this one, are meant to be read from right to left. So the front cover is actually the back cover, and vice versa. To read this book, please flip it over and start in the top right-hand corner. Read the panels, and the bubbles in the panels, from right to left, then drop down to the next row and repeat. It may make you dizzy at first, but forcing your brain to do things backwards makes you smarter in the long run. We swear.

Scripted by the writing team that calls itself Tadashi Agi and drawn by the cleverly talented fan favorite Shu Okimoto, The Drops of God tells the story of Shizuku Kanzaki, who works as a beer company sales rep mainly out of a sense of rebellion against his estranged father, legendary wine expert Yutaka Kanzaki. Shizuku's stern father filled the young man's childhood with stultifying endless preparation to follow in the family footsteps and become a wine expert himself - Shizuku was drilled relentlessly in fine gradations of scent and texture and taste, to such an extent that after his break with his father, he never himself touched wine and tried not to think about it. Only his gallantry in saving sweet young apprentice sommelier Miyabi Shinohara from a blunder at her restaurant forces him to reveal not only his wine-decanting skills but also his illustrious parentage.Almost immediately after our young hero exchanges business cards with the awestruck young woman, he learns that his father has died and hurries to the family's gorgeous mansion to talk with the lawyers about the will. Not surprisingly, Yutaka Kanzaki was the owner of a staggeringly valuable wine collection, and in his will he stipulates that it and the house and everything go to Shizuku - on one condition. And as you might expect, the one condition is a doozy: the son must identify and describe "the Twelve Apostles" - twelve exquisite wines from all over the world - and then identify the capper, the thirteenth wine, "the drops of God." And as if that weren't eccentric enough, it turns out Shizuku has competition: haughty, famous young wine critic Issei Tomine is involved. Not only does the old man's will stipulate that Issei compete with Shizuku to identify the Apostles and the Drops of God, but it also reveals to Shizuku that the old man recently adopted Issei Tomine - so this is very much brother-against-brother. If Issei Tomine wins, he gets the house, the wine collection, and - as the issues gently hint - the satisfaction of being Yutaka Kanzaki's true son.The two young men almost come to blows; there's far, far more of a sexual current between the two of them than ever exists between Issei Tomine and any of his one-night stands, or between Shizuku Kanzaki and Miyabi Shinohara - and although the possibilities seem rife (yaoi, the wildly popular manga sub-genre dealing with homoerotic shenanigans, is full of cousins, half-brothers, and adoptive brothers hopping into bed with each other), nothing ever happens, and for good reason: both these young men (Shu Okimoto draws them both as arrestingly beautiful, with Issei Tomine the more slick and dapper - as befits his name - and Shizuku Kanzaki the more boyish and dishevelled) are passionate about wine beyond all else ... almost to the exclusion of all else.In their quests to uncover and describe "The Twelve Apostles," they sample many, many vintages, and Tadashi Agi reveals the extent and precision of wine-research that's such a big element in the phenomenal success of this series. Even casual readers tuning in mostly for the interpersonal drama between the two 'brothers' will come away with a greatly increased familiarity with wine-lore and wine-history, all of it incorporated smoothly into the story (these characters are all genuinely passionate about the subject, even allegedly indifferent Shinzuku, so the exposition never feels forced or tacked on).That story would be untellable without Shu Okimoto's sumptuous visuals. She excels at conveying the quiet dynamics of wine in motion, but her show-pieces revolve not so much around wine as around the fantastic mental landscapes evoked by wine. Miyabi Shinohara imagines herself lost in a sea of fragrant flowers; Shinzuku feels like he's on stage with an American rock band, and poised just behind the veil of touch and taste and scent - the thread running through these volumes, at once elevating them and giving them added poignancy - there's a Proust-like level, a tantalizing series of personal memories that Shizuku has blocked away, memories that fleetingly tease him with every great wine he experiences. Quite apart from its more pedagogical aims, The Drops of God is just what you might expect from a story about fine dining: it's a journey.There are side adventures along the way, of course (at times, Tadashi Agi seems frankly at a loss as to what to do the secondary characters, especially the female characters, who far too often sit at either end of the notorious manga spectrum for their gender, either anime-style simpletons or a Japanese imagining of a steely American business executrix), but the main quest is the grand, enormous fabric holding these issues together. That quest could snare just about anybody - it's a safe prediction that these Vertical trade paperbacks will be almost as popular in America as their counterparts have been in Japan, South Korea, and, naturally, France. And if American businessmen aren't seen reading these things on their work-commute, it won't be because manga is frowned upon in the United States - it'll be because reading is frowned upon in the American business sector. Doubtful there'll ever be a graphic novel about that.