story by Tadashi Agi; art by Shu Okimoto
published by Vertical; $14.95 US
I’ve been curious about The Drops of God since hearing that this legendary manga has been affecting prices in the wine market, especially in Asia. It seems that getting a bottle or vintage recommended in this comic can drive real-world international customer interest and thus industry economics. Additionally, I grew to love the Japanese food manga Oishinbo (which also did an alcohol volume), and I was eager to see more in that genre. Yet Drops of God left me with a mixed reaction.
I might have enjoyed Drops of God more if I didn’t recall Oishinbo so well, because there are a number of close similarities. Both have super-talented (due to their father’s training) pouty young men as their heroes. In both, characterization comes a far second to essay-like sections praising particular items of consumption or methods of creation or providing trivia behind the food or drink. Both lead characters are forced into using their tasting skills and food/flavor knowledge in competition with their fathers. The difference between the two is that, in Oishinbo, the father is still alive and actively annoying his son. In Drops of God, the father has recently passed on, leaving a bombshell in his will.
The dad, Yutaka Kanzaki, is a hugely famous wine critic. His son Shizuku hates wine, working instead in sales for a beer company. To inherit the father’s unique wine collection and his other property, Shizuku must identify, based on clues left in the will, 12 great wines and one, “The Drops of God”, that stands above them all. Shizuku will be competing against Issei Tomine, a younger critic (who was also adopted by Yutaka a week before Yutaka’s death, a particularly odd twist that is barely mentioned, let alone explored).
Issei’s presence taunts Shizuku into accepting the challenge instead of leaving his father and wine behind once and for all. This setup allows for other stories to be told within the framework of the bigger contest. For example, in this volume, old lovers come to understand each other’s choices through their wine selections.
While this book has a lot of hooks and a ton of potential, this first volume is disappointing. The art is static and not exceptional. It gets the job done but rarely stands out at any point as particularly skilled. The few impressive pages are when we see a visual symbolizing what a character is tasting, particularly when one wine is compared to a Queen song. The characters are flatly two-dimensional. The writing is perfunctory and the plotting mechanical. Additionally, if you’re not already a wine fan, you will likely find the profuse adjectives used to describe the fermented grape juice over-written and annoying.
The worst part of the book is the lettering, which at times is almost criminally bad. The font resembles Comic Sans, and there are numerous points in the book where the text actually runs into the balloon borders. I know it can’t be easy to translate and re-letter a dialogue-heavy work where the adjective choices are particularly important, especially given how many more letters English needs compared to Japanese characters, but when two connected balloons are so tightly lettered that the sentences or phrases are running into each other, that’s just hard to read. The all-caps narration boxes are particularly ugly.
On the other hand, I do hope we see more of Miyabi, the sommelier in training. Mostly, she narrates to the reader, provides a source of tasting material, worries about losing her job, and models the occasional panty shot. Overall, there’s a nice mix of female characters in this series who do more than just support the male competitors, including the lawyer who manages the contest and a wine-crazy young actress. There’s also a crazy-looking homeless man who turns out to be a genius with near-magical access to just the wine needed and an fannish co-worker obsessed with Italy who looks to provide some entertaining conflict in the next book.
I like wine. I’ve recently been following the recommendations of an excellent local wine shop to explore flavors and determine my personal tastes. But when I buy wine, it’s usually $11-20 a bottle, not the hundreds or thousands of dollars in prices quoted here. (All prices are given in yen, so divide by 100 to get an approximate dollar value.) As someone who wants to learn more about wine, this book is of little help, because I’m not looking for “best in the world” quality or knowledge of labels highly praised by critics. The vintages discussed are mostly classic French and other European, playing to status-seekers and snobs. Often, price plays too big a role for me to be comfortable, emphasizing the commercial aspects of wine instead of its other virtues. I’d be interested in reading a comic like this written instead about U.S. vineyards.
Still, this is only the first volume. I’m trying the second, to see how this series matures, and it is a good value, at under $15 for over 400 pages. The publisher has posted preview pages at their website.