11 November 2011

Book Review: 神の雫

The Drops of God
Vertical, 2011
(First Japanese edition in 2005)
$14.95, 423 pages
Story by Tadashi Agi (the pen name used by the brother-sister writing team Shin and Yuko Kibayashi)
Art by Shu Okimoto

After becoming popular in Japan, Kami no Shizuku was released in French as Les Gouttes de Dieu, and just recently in English as The Drops of God. Why France first? It's not just the wine connection, but rather that France has a vibrant comics culture that spans all ages and subject matter. Even Barbarella was a popular French comic before it became a trippy vehicle for Jane Fonda.

Japanese comics have exploded in popularity in the past 20 years, moving from an obscure hobby for lonely comic book fans to something consumed by boys and girls of all social strata. There’s action stuff and overcute stuff. Some serious, some goofy. It’s become a challenge for librarians that are excited to have kids reading, but have to learn about a whole new world of literature and keep up with a frequently changing roster of what’s popular or not.

Reading manga can be confusing if you haven’t done it before. You start at the “back” of the book and read starting with the panel in the top right corner, moving left and then down and back to the right side of the page. Even within the panels you have to remember to read the word balloons on the right side before those on the left. Occasionally the art style will shift from dramatic and realistic to tiny cartoonish chibi characters with massive eyes and overemotional expressions. (Frankly I’ve always thought that technique could punch up Mary Worth in the newspaper.)

This series fits into a different niche, more like the graphic novels that have attracted mainstream adult attention and have found homes in films and documentaries. Things like Maus, Ghost World, Road to Perdition, American Splendor, etc. No superheroes or magical powers, just compelling stories that happen to have pictures with the text.

The book opens in a restaurant where a young female sommelier is struggling with a difficult and pompous customer over Romanée-Conti. The 1999 is closed and the customer is angry. In swoops our dashing hero Shizuku who demands a decanter and pours the wine “as fine as a silk thread” from a great height without spilling a drop. The sommelier swoons at his technique as he presents the now aerated wine to the customer who can finally experience the “scent of a hundred flowers combined”.

We learn that Shizuku is the estranged son of a famous wine critic, who forced the young boy to learn everything about wine without ever actually drinking it. Then the father dies—but wait! A week before his death, the old man adopted a younger wine critic, and this critic and Shinzuku must compete to solve the mystery of the twelve heaven-sent wines and the one bottle only known as “Drops of God”. The winner will gain control of a wine collection worth ¥2 billion (US$18 million). And so the saga begins…

When I first heard about the series, it seemed like a silly concept, but apparently it revitalized the wine trade in Japan. The manga uses images of real wines, they talk about real regions and specific vintages. You could really manipulate the market through the writing choices.

I'm not quite through this first volume in the series, but I found myself really enjoying it. They do take a break from the expensive collectibles to occasionally just enjoy everyday wine. There's romance, there's intrigue, and an underground network of mysterious wine experts who assist Shizuku in his quest. There's a poetry in the descriptions that is amplified by full page spreads demonstrating the visual image associated with the nose of that specific wine.

Do I recommend it? I'd suggest picking up the first volume to add to your wine library. It's a curious product: you have to know way more about wine than I do to have direct experience with the high-end Domaines and Châteaux featured. But you also have to interested in reading a 400 page comic book (backwards). I don't know who I would give this as a gift to during Christmas, but I'm probably going to read the rest of the series. Definitely worth checking out if you have a comic book shop near your local wine shop.

P.S. I grabbed most of these images online, and one of them doesn't have the official translations. I would make my own but it would involve cutting the spine off the tight paperback, and I don't want to do that.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

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