The Drops of God volume 1

By Tadashi Agi & Shu Okimoto translated by Kate Robinson (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-1-935654-27-8

Every so often a graphic novel jumps the ghetto walls and makes a splash in the wider world and this intriguing manga monolith is the latest: eschewing the usual icebreakers of horror, sci fi or blood-soaked action to target the lofty and insular world of the high-end vintner trade and the obsessive fascination of oenophilia (I’m chucking in a bunch of technical terms all enticingly explained in the book, but you can cheat and use your search engine of choice).

Created by brother and sister thriller-writing team Shin & Yuko Kibayashi (Kindaichi’s Case Files, GetBackers) under their nom de crime Tadashi Agi and sensitively illustrated by Shu Okimoto, Kami no Shizuku debuted in 2004 in Kondansha’s Morning with book compilations beginning a year later.

The siblings are also two of the most influential wine connoisseurs in the world and their expertise and passion shine through every page of this monolithic manga tome which took the wine world by storm and won the Gourmand and Cookbook Award in 2009 – presumably a first for any work of fiction, let alone graphic novel. It was described by Decanter Magazine as “arguably the most influential wine publication in the past 20 years.”

Of course, all I care about is comics, but even on my terms this is a thoroughly entertaining, immaculately realised soap/thriller drama that would make fans of Jackie Collins or Dick Francis rethink their allegiances.

The tale stars follows prodigal son Shizuku Kanzaki; raised from birth to follow his father’s obsession only to rebel and seek his own path until tragedy and circumstance pull him back to his destiny, …

The first eighteen chapters of the delectable saga are contained in this first English translation, beginning with ‘The Scent of a Hundred Flowers’: introducing apprentice Sommelier Miyabi Shinohara who almost shames her wine-bar/restaurant employers in front of a prominent – but boorish – wine snob until a dashing young man saves the day with a bit of daredevil decanting…

It transpires that the lad is a small cog in a vast beer-making concern and has never tasted wine: a shocking admission since Shizuku is the son of global superstar of wine criticism Yutaka Kanzaki

It seems old man Kanzaki had great hopes and aspirations for his son, training the boy from birth in flavours, odour detection and discrimination like a vintner version of Doc Savage, but the boy rebelled and rejected his father’s passion.

The situation changes when Shizuku is informed of his sire’s death and a unique will…

‘A Prayer to the Fruitful Earth’ reveals the elder Kanzaki had a vast and valuable private collection of stellar vintages and has left them, his house and a fortune to his wayward son under a bizarre condition.

The heir must indulge in a duel with dark prince of wine-tasters – and inheritor of Kanzaki’s mantle as greatest critic in Japan – Issei Tomine in a dozen blind tastings of the greatest vintages in the collection – the “Twelve Apostles” – as well as the mysterious thirteenth bottle known only as “the Drops of God”. To the one who most closely agrees with the master’s own description goes everything…

At first Shizuku doesn’t care, but the arrogance of Tomine and a burning desire to understand the father who pushed him to such extraordinary lengths moves the orphan to an alliance with Miss Shinohara. Her crash-course in the history, lore and philosophy of the wine industry and craft in ‘The Profound and Subtle Queen’ as well as his first ever actual taste of the magical elixir precipitates a major transformation in the lad…

For reasons even he doesn’t understand, the neophyte decides to accept the challenge of the Drops of God in ‘Over the Bed Wafts an Aroma of Awakening’. Thus begins his education, inestimably assisted by his incredible sense of smell, expanded palate and physical skills he never even knew he possessed, all courtesy of his early training.

In episodes with such evocative titles as ‘The God of Burgundy’, ‘A Maiden Fleeing through Strawberry Fields’, ‘Tasting in the Park’ and ‘Cradling God’s Blessing in Both Hands’, what follows is a dazzling display of hard fact and the theosophical fervour of the grape-grower’s art, seamlessly blended with a canny melodrama of rivalry, redemption and (perhaps) burgeoning young love as Shizuku discovers the obsessive power of his father’s life.

With surprising intensity the cast expands as the story unfolds: the nigh-mystical nature of wine is seen to mend fences, restore lost lovers and even diagnose illness in ‘Draining the Glass of Reunion’, ‘A Maiden Smiling in the Strawberry Fields’, ‘The Sweet Dessert of Parting’ and ‘The Ones Who Watch Over’.

Even Shizuku’s career alters as he transfers from sales to the Beer company’s small and struggling wine division where he finds that even all he has learned is not enough after falling foul of snobbery and bigotry in ‘At All the Battles’ Start’, ‘A Lovely Cruel Flower’, ‘Tough Love for a Saucy Lolita’, ‘The Mystery Man of the Wine Division’ and ‘Merry-Go-Round’

Meanwhile Tomine has begun to stack the odds in his favour by introducing a seductive secret agent into the lives of Shizuku and Miss Shinohara during ‘A Fantastico Night’, wherein some nasty facts about the true character of the Prince of wine-critics is exposed…

As much religion and philosophy as science and art, the cachet and inherent excitement of the wine trade transfers readily and effectively in this tale to make for a superbly readable tale for older readers.

The Japanese excel at making superb comics which simultaneously entertain and educate (check out economics textbook Japan Inc. by Shotaru Ishinomori to see what I mean) and the powerful, evocative imagery used to capture the sensorial effect of wine on the tongue and myriad fragrances in the nostrils is staggeringly effective – a brilliant use of the disciplines as only comics can muster them.

This is an astoundingly compelling comics-read and might well be the perfect gift for all those people you thought you couldn’t buy a graphic novel for…

This black and white book is printed in the traditional ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format – even if you pick it up as a digital edition.
© 2011 Tadashi Agi/Shu Okimoto. All rights reserved.