Monday, December 5, 2011

The Drops of God: Some dudes just don't shake sufficiently

The Drops of God, Volume 1
Written by Tadashi Agi
Art by Shu Okimoto
Published by Vertical

It's pretty impressive how well manga series are able to take seemingly mundane activities and transform them into emotional, revelatory experiences for characters, and not just in an amusingly exaggerated manner either. This sort of thing occurs all across the spectrum of subject matter, from sports to cooking to most any corner of the human experience (and beyond, expanding to include fictional pursuits like monster collecting or rocket skating), prompting scene after scene of one character explaining the intricacies of, say, internal medicine to a novice, who exclaims excitedly about how they never realized how amazing the subject of note could be, but while it might be something of a cliche, it rarely gets old. No, when done well (which is more often than not, at least based on what has managed to cross the Pacific), these scenes manage to believably convey passion, not just from the experienced person who wishes to pass on their knowledge, but also the novice who is beginning to see a whole new world open up before them. There's something about the earnestness on display and the participants' exaggerated reactions (which can vary from a surprised interest to a full-on freakout, depending on the tone of the series) that sucks the reader right in, not only entertaining them with formula-disguising stories, but often also educating them and getting them as interested in the subject as the characters. It's quite the feat, especially considering how often it is replicated.

The subject at hand in this particular series, which has been much discussed over the past few years and is finally seeing an English-language release, is wine, which is exactly the sort of field that features multitudes of arcane knowledge that can seem impenetrable to outsiders and a insular passion among its proponents, as well as an aura of sophistication that creates a barrier for entry to the layman; in short, it's perfect for a series in which a character discovers a new world of experiences to savor. Here, that entry-level individual is Shizuku, the son of a famous wine critic who stands to inherit his father's vast collection of vintages if only he can identify twelve great wines from throughout the world and one that rises above them all, the eponymous "Drops of God". However, while his father knew as much about wine as anyone on Earth, at the beginning of the series, Shizuku has never even tasted the stuff, his father having put him through unconventional training (tasting things like pencils and belts, learning to decant wine perfectly) that gave him superhuman senses of taste and smell but left him with no actual knowledge about wine whatsoever. This leaves him completely unprepared to enter the vast world of wine-drinking, so he teams up with Miyabi, an apprentice sommelier who has just enough knowledge about wine to be amazed at how quickly Shizuku grasps the concepts, and how he can identify and compare vintages with one taste or smell.

That's a pretty good basic foundation for a series, and the creators throw in plenty of other complications to keep things interesting, like a rival for the inheritance who is a talented wine critic in his own right, Shizuku being assigned to the wine division of the beer company he works for, and drama involving various restaurants and wine-sellers that the characters get involved with. But at its basic level, the series is all about the joy of drinking wine, and it manages to convey that incredibly well through scenes in which the tastes provoke visions for Shizuku and others, as if drinking the wine is a trigger for an extrasensory experience:

It's a little goofy, but as a way to demonstrate an enrapturing experience, it's surprisingly effective, especially  because of the interesting pencilled style of the images, a unique look for a mainstream manga like this. It also works as a way to visualize the amazing abilities of Shizuku, who, as a standard manga protagonist, is constantly blowing everyone's mind with his wine-tasting skills. Interestingly, he's not the expected arrogant, hotheaded jerk that so often fills this role, but simply a young man with some father issues who finally finds a door into the world that he grew up just outside of. He starts out hesitantly, but once he takes his first taste of wine, he's hooked, eager to learn more, and the reader gets sucked in alongside him, ready to accompany him on this journey and find out as much as possible about the subject. It's an entertaining series, full of interesting characters and plenty of knowledge (expect to learn more about the grades of French vineyards that you ever thought possible) that is conveyed not dryly, like a textbook, but organically as part of a story. And a fun one at that, with a continuing quest that will take years to finish and a classic manga competition between gifted rivals. There's plenty to enjoy here, and if one follows the advice of the characters and seeks out the wines discussed, there's plenty more to experience outside of the book as well. That's a value-add if there ever was one.

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