So, we’ve covered a lot of things here at Lost to the Aether. As it turns out, I’m a pretty multi-faceted individual. We’ve got the video games going on pretty much all day every day, sure, but we’ve also talked about drawing, writing, visual novels, cake, films, books, my good looks, and pretty much anything else that struck me as being wordworthy on that given day. Sometimes, I feel like doing something new. And right now’s one of those times. Specifically, I’m going to talk about a manga. But not just any manga. Well, to anyone else, it’d be just any manga, but it’s one that actually means something for me. Today, I’m going to be putting my thoughts down about a work that actually has some importance in my life, however much that may be. I want to talk about The Drops of God.
I’ve been saying for a while now that you can find a manga about anything. Just on my shelf, I’ve got manga about running a bakery, a used bookstore, a whole series about American football, maiding, and that’s just the pedestrian ones. The manga audience back in the form’s homeland is large enough that they can support material on pretty much every subject matter, from the most fantastic to the absolutely pedestrian, and you get a lot of good stories that way. So it is with Drops of God; it’s a manga series about an everyday subject you’d think would be really hard to get a good story out of. In this case, it’s all about wine.
I like a lot of things in life. I like video games, as should be obvious to anyone who’s been on this blog before. I like stories. I love my hair. Seriously, I’d marry my hair if the stupid establishment would just let me. And I also enjoy wine. That wasn’t always the case, though. Way back when I was a little cub Aether but still totally of drinking age (obey the law, kids) wine was just another drink to me. Something to get drunk off of, something that may have tasted good, but nothing much more than that. Eventually, because of the efforts of the rest of the family to give me some sort of traits they weren’t completely embarrassed about at parties, I started to appreciate it more. Wine is a really complex drink, and it’s that complexity that’s given rise to whole industries, and after having enough, I started seeing that complexity, and began respecting the depth in wine. I wanted to learn more about it. And there’s where my problems started.
The problem with learning more about wine is that you have to deal with the kind of people who like wine. And a lot of those people are great, don’t get me wrong. But there’s also a lot of people who are so strung up on wine being so super classy or the drink of the gods or treat it as if it’s somehow sacred, and when you’re just trying to get started on it those people can be really overwhelming. The world is full of people who insist that the one true way to enjoy wine is at a party trying to tell as many people as possible about mouthfeel, or closing your nostrils in sequence and smelling it one side at a time, or by loading it up into a syringe and injecting it straight into your eyebrow. Even the people who aren’t infected with all the bull honky that surrounds wine still tend to treat it as if it’s that one hot girl with all the money from high school, unapproachable without the right pedigree. Wine is an excellent drink with a lot to offer and a lot of layers, but man is its world inaccessible to someone trying to make the next step up from layman.
That’s where I was in life when the Drops of God started coming out in America. I was starting to view wine as something more than just a drunkmaker but was having difficulty getting any further than that, and was close to giving up on the drink altogether. Then here comes this silly little manga about this silly little substance. And you know what? It just worked for me. Something that, even though it treats wine as a super-serious matter as so many other people do, is still pretty humble and down-to-earth in it’s approach to the subject? Something that has enough substance to teach a bit about wine, but is actually entertaining? Drops of God was exactly what I needed to get me over the hump I had at the time. I really enjoy wine today, and I don’t think I’d be able to on the level I do if it wasn’t for this manga.
Drops of God is a manga written by a brother-sister team operating under the pen name Tadashi Agi with art by Shu Okimoto. Prior to its English release, the series was running in both its native Japan and in France. It was popular enough that it was able to significantly impact real world wine sales. It had a limited run in english, coming out in five double-sized volumes circa 2011.
Of course, wine can be a pretty unapproachable subject. Sure, those who are interested in it can talk about it for hours on end, but could you imagine telling a story about that? I mean, I can, but I have a pretty dark mind. And trust me, it’s not great. Stories are driven by conflict. Good stories need good conflict. And so it is here. Having a story about characters just peacefully talking about how great wine is all day would be quite dry (Haha! Wine humor), so naturally the author’s have injected a good bit of wine-centered conflict to keep driving the story along. In this case, that largely takes the form of competition and good old human drama.
The overarching plot of Drops of God concerns an inheritance struggle wrapped up in a wine-tasting contest. World-famous wine critic Yutaka Kanzaki has recently passed and left behind his home, wealth, and totally sweet wine collection behind. According to his will, everything goes to the winner of a competition between his sons, the well-pedigreed but totally uninterested in wine Shizuku and the renowned wine critic and playboy Issei Tomine, who Yutaka adopted a week before dying just to rile up his natural kid. The contest? Based only on his metaphorical and narrative descriptions, blindly identify thirteen exceptional wines, refered to as the 12 Apostles and the Drops of God. We primarily follow Shizuku as he rushes to learn as much as he can of the world of wine, seeking to use the tasting skills his dad drilled into him to overcome the much more experienced Tomine.
At least, that’s the high-level plot, that which the whole story fits into over the course of its decade-long run. In the meantime, there’s plenty of smaller contests or personal problems that can only be solved through wine. In fact, it seems like wine is the source of all strife in this odd world, and Shizuku can’t go anywhere without tripping over someone whose myriad mental problems can’t all be traced back to the stuff. But still, that’s how the story goes, it sets the Drops of God challenge as the main, overall drive in the plot, but fills things in between with smaller conflicts, and in doing so, really keeps a lot of variety in the story. It’s also written in such a way that really helps illustrate various concepts in wine. The writers want to explain the broad strokes differences between French and Italian wines? Shizuku just found himself in a taste-testing contest with his Italiawannabe coworker. They want to illustrate the concept of terroir, the impact of where exactly the grapes are grown? Here’s this restaurant owner whose business is about to fail unless he can properly match his wines to his food for the upcoming critic visit. They want to challenge the notion that the expensive, big brand named wines are automatically better than cheaper growths? Time for a blind tasting to help a nouvou riche kid start seeing beyond the labels.
And that’s really the beauty of Drops of God. It’s not nearly the most effective way of getting an education on wine, in fact, what’s been given into English isn’t going to help with much more than the first step into the oenology world. But it wraps up the knowledge it does provide in examples that not only demonstrate the practicality of it, but is actually entertaining to boot. The problem with a lot of stories that aim to teach is that they put the teaching first, and the story second, so they end up with a lot that’s not really worth reading if you’re interested in entertainment value. Drops of God definitely puts its story first, and implements the knowledge it has to transfer so elegantly that they don’t really feel out of place at all.
So, it all seems pretty unfair, right? Putting the guy who’s never tasted so much as a drop of wine against the world-renowned expert? Well, yeah, but Shizuku’s got his own advantages. Turns out there’s a reason Yutaka had to go so far to get Shizuku to finally share his passion. The old man had spent his son’s entire childhood trying to mold him into the perfect wine critic. Even though Shizzy, as I’m sure his friends call him, was too young to actually drink wine, his father regularly had him taste things like leather and flint, drilled him on telling the proper ways to pour wine from its scent, and made sure he experienced a lot of fine are to give him descriptive abilities. Obviously, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid, and he rebelled as soon as he came of age, staying away from wine as much as possible. This ended up giving him a master’s tasting ability, enough that he’s able to hold his own against Issei, with some training, but also making him utterly unfamiliar with wine and justifying the delivery of the explanation that most readers are going to need throughout.
Drops of God has a fundamental problem it shares with with cooking shows, porn, and plenty of other forms of media. Basically, its subject matter is normally experienced through senses that just don’t transfer through its medium. Wine is a drink that, if you imbibe it like all the schools tell you to, engages sight, touch, smell, and taste. Manga only gives feedback through sight. So, when your stories all about this thing that’s based on all the other senses, you’ve got to find some way to transfer all this other information just through sight. Drops of God does it through excellent imagery, both through pictures and through text. When drinking a really good, or plot-important, wine, the characters often have some metaphorical hallucinations, or in Tomine’s case, orgasm a bit and then have hallucinations, seeing visions related to features of the wine. So a wine that’s described as unpretentious ad fun evokes images of a flea market, with the aromas of the wine translating to food within the market, and the smooth quality and mineral taste brings up thoughts of a glass ballerina figurine there. And of course, the text used in describing the wine is just as evocative as the images.
It helps that both the writing and the translating teams were turning in some raise-worthy work here. And that is important. The visuals, aside from when characters are tasting wine, are far from exciting, and it’s almost always up to the dialog to carry the reader’s interest. Moreover, in many places, the story absolutely relies on their ability to describe the sensations in wine. Neither of those are easy factors to handle, and there’s so much that could be going wrong. It is an absolute testament both to Tadashi Agi and to Vertical’s translation team that the dialog is engaging throughout. The dialog is both precise and evocative, the word choice is excellent, and the text is great at carrying ideas. The quality of the words involved go longer towards carrying this work than almost any other factor.
And I have to say, it’s not really a measure of quality, but I really appreciate how unpretentious this work is. When talking about all the various and complicated factors of appreciating wine, when taking wine as seriously as many people, and this series, do, it’s easy to fall in a mode where you just start leaving the average consumer behind. This work, on the other hand, constantly circles around to if it’s good to you, than that’s all that matters. And when you’re trying to break into the world of wine, that’s a great thing to hear.
Perhaps the biggest flaw to Drops of God is something that’s hit a few series I’ve been into, and has put me off the manga industry as a whole at times. Vertical really tried with this series, giving it a premium imprint with larger pages and double-sized volumes, and significantly pushing the series through marketing. Unfortunately, this is still a pretty niche series on at least two fronts, and America has neither the manga market the size of Japan or the wine culture of France as needed to sustain this. As a result, Drops of God ends very prematurely, due to poor sales. Four volumes were released in English, covering the first two apostles in the contest, before the series jumped ahead around a third of the way through the story, where some of the characters visit America and Australia, in a last-ditch effort to increase sales. Alas, it was all for naught, and there’s been no releases or word on its future since then. For the English-speaking world, this story will be forever incomplete.
And perhaps because of that, characterization is a bit weak as well. It’s obvious that this was always planned to be a long-runner, with character development for your leads being doled out very slowly. Issei Tomine in particular seems hurt by this, taking actions that just make no sense early on, like giving Shizuku back the parts of the inheritance he already lost and taking up every handicap Shizuku puts on himself when there was no tactical reason to do so, that were probably going to be expanded on later but just never happened for us.
Still, as short and inconclusive as it was, I still found Drops of God to be a high quality experience, one that helped me out in a way that I was seeking, and one of those rare works of art I can positively say made my life better. Wine is pretty awesome. It’s something I really enjoy. And Drops of God both made that happen and still gives me a good read whenever I pick it up again now.