We all know that manga, like any other entertainment medium, can cover a vast number of topics. Foodie manga isn’t even all that new or unusual; Food Wars: Shokugeki no Sōma may be the title most people currently know, but the genre is largely thought to have had its start in 1970 with Mikiya Mochizuki‘s Totsugeki Ramen. Manga about drinks is perhaps a little more unusual, but 2004 birthed two of them – Araki Joh and Kenji Nagatomo‘s Bartender and Tadashi Agi and Shu Okamoto’s The Drops of God. Although both ran for a number of years and volumes – Bartender ended in 2011 at twenty-one volumes and The Drops of God‘s original series in 2014 at forty-four volumes – it’s The Drops of God that managed to really cross genre and medium lines to gain international acclaim. Focused exclusively on wine, The Drops of God chronicles the competition between two young men as they strive to complete a challenge issued by the late, great wine critic Yutaka Kanzaki. Both Shizuku Kanzaki and Issei Tomine are related to Yutaka, and both have something to work through as a result of those relationships. The award-winning series (which includes awards from outside Japan’s manga industry, or any comic industry) has received high praise for its approach to wine, oenology, and oenophilia. But like any story worth its salt, it needs more than just a competent grasp of its subject matter. It also needs a compelling story and characters to complete it.
The story opens shortly after the death of Yutaka Kanzaki, an internationally renowned wine critic. Kanzaki was predeceased by his wife, leaving behind an adult son from his marriage, Shizuku. Shizuku spent most of his childhood traveling the world with his father, being trained in the science and appreciation of wine…and as a result, he hates the stuff, feeling like his father loved wine more than Shizuku or his mother. This doesn’t mean that he’s not sad about his father’s passing, but he does feel like wine may have hastened it, since there is a link between heavy alcohol consumption and the pancreatic cancer that ultimately killed Yutaka. When Shizuku is summoned to the reading of his father’s will, however, he discovers that his dad “adopted” a second son, the slightly older Issei Tomine, himself a respected wine critic. Yutaka has decreed that the two brothers must compete to inherit his home(s) and wine collection by solving the riddles that he has left for them: he describes the sensations he felt when drinking the thirteen best wines he had over his lifetime, calling them the Twelve Apostles and The Drops of God. His heirs will be read descriptions of each in turn, and whomever correctly identifies more Apostles will have the chance to try for the final bottle’s identity and thus inherit Yutaka’s wine collections.
Unsurprisingly, Shizuku is at first horrified. Not only does he not care about the wine, he’s also upset that his father adopted another son without telling him and is basically withholding his inheritance based on whether he’s a good enough oenophile. For Shizuku this is initially just another in a series of wine-based face slaps. He does, however, decide to compete at the last minute, driven both by Issei’s apparent snobbery and his own healthy sense of competition. Thus the two young men face off for forty-four volumes, traveling the world and learning about viticulture, oenology, and seeking to discover the thirteen best wines according to Yutaka Kanzaki.
Of course, this is really just the framework. As the descriptions of the various wines go on, it becomes apparent that Yutaka is basing them not only on their value as fine wines, but also on significant moments in his own life. The competition, therefore, is more about letting his sons get to know him in a way that they didn’t as children – Shizuku because he was too young and eventually resentful (Yutaka had him quite late in life) and Issei because he wasn’t raised by or with his father. Yes, the not-really-a-spoiler is that Issei is, in fact, Yutaka’s biological son, born from an affair he had with another wine expert. Although it takes at least thirty volumes for the authors to get around to confirming it, this “secret” is perhaps one of the least subtle plot points in recent manga memory. The more important piece is that Yutaka apparently felt guilty for not revealing his parenthood to his elder son, especially since at one point Issei’s mother attempted to kill him. Yutaka also seems to have felt that he didn’t raise Shizuku quite right, correctly understanding that his oenophilia may not have been the best thing to base his parenting strategies on. Now he’s giving Shizuku the chance to use the skills he taught him, while also offering Issei the possibility of a legitimate inheritance.
Despite the focus on wine, The Drops of God is really at its best when the story is centered on the characters. Although the various wines could be viewed as characters in their own right, they’re fleeting players in the story; it’s Shizuku and Issei who truly drive the narrative. Both men are shaped by their childhood experiences, and each of them lacks a certain something that he must struggle to obtain, even more than he needs to find each fabled bottle of wine. Issei had a childhood largely devoid of security and unconditional love – he knew his mother struggled parenting him and he saw wine as a way that he could attain her approval. Her later marriage to his French stepfather, and the birth of his half-sister Sara, only drove Issei further into the exploration of wine, perhaps because he felt he now had even more competition. He’s constantly searching for family, but just as constantly confuses sex with love, something which is partly to blame for the loss of the one woman he could be said to have had a real relationship with. It may have been his business partner Maki who did the actual driving off of Loulan, but Issei sleeping with them both and essentially trying to have it all made it easier for both Maki and Loulan to act. When we factor in his mother, things get even stickier, because we can see that Issei never really had an example of a healthy relationship – he was raised by a woman who took him to the funeral of her married former lover’s wife to see his half-brother, after all.
Shizuku, on the other hand, was raised by a wealthy, globe-trotting father. He was (and is) completely unaware of his own privilege, instead resenting his dad for the almost exclusive focus on wine and grapes. In fact, every childhood memory of Shizuku’s that we see is centered on wine, especially those after his mother’s death. Although pictures show Shizuku’s father being physically affectionate to a degree, it’s also easy to see how Shizuku felt that came with a price – such as lessons to train his sense of smell, proper decanting technique, and how to remove an old cork from a wine bottle. Shizuku’s life was made to revolve around a beverage he wasn’t even allowed to drink, making him feel like second fiddle to his father’s obsession. For him, following the directives of his father’s will is as much about reworking his relationship with the man as it is about appreciating his life’s work. In short, over the course of the series, Shizuku begins to grow up, while Issei struggles to come to terms with the fact that “maturity” isn’t just being famous and adored by the ladies.
Of the two, it definitely feels like Shizuku makes more progress. Mostly we see both men’s growth (or lack thereof) in their relationships with the women in the story. While Issei sleeps with, or thinks about seducing, all of the women he encounters, Shizuku is utterly oblivious to them as women. Both Miyabi, his constant companion, and Sara plainly like him romantically, but Shizuku either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, instead focusing on figuring out himself and his relationship with his father. Eventually he does start to return Miyabi’s feelings – or at least acts like he’s thinking about it – and he’s aware that Sara could be an issue if Miyabi realizes that he’s been spending time alone with her. On the opposite side, Issei can’t bring himself to tell Maki where to step off, continuing to have sex with her even after he meets – and develops romantic feelings for – Loulan, who is his guide through the Chinese desert. Loulan is objectively perfect for him, but Issei, still working through his abandonment and mommy issues, can’t cut ties with other women. It isn’t clear whether or not Loulan is aware that he’s cheating on her with Maki (or cheating on Maki with her), but what does become apparent is that for Issei, sex is just part of business and he can’t quite divorce himself from that idea. His loss of virginity at fourteen with an aggressive French girl (whom he later terms his first love) may have something to do with it, but it also seems to be part of a life lived by skirting the edge of death. As the apostle battle sends the men to various corners of the earth, Issei repeatedly risks his life, nearly dying on several occasions. He seems to have very little sense of self-worth, leading him to think that courting death in its pursuit means that his life is utterly devoted to wine, not understanding that in only being able to pursue wine by exposing himself to unhealthy practices and choices, he’s actually farther away from Yutaka Kanzaki than ever.
Yutaka himself is also interesting. There is a probable element of him wanting to punish Shizuku for not appreciating him or wine (Yutaka’s identity may be almost inseparable from the drink), but by pitting the brothers against each other, he comes across as someone who feels at least a little betrayed by his progeny. His relationships with his adult friends – Issei’s mother, an eccentric old man named Robert Doi, his lawyer – are much less strained, and we get the impression that perhaps Yutaka simply didn’t know how to relate to children, resulting in unsatisfying relationships. Tellingly, we know very little about his relationship with Shizuku’s mother; we see images of the three of them together, but as far as adult interactions go, Yutaka appears to have had a more cordial relationship with his mistress, which could certainly lead to strained relationships with his children.
Robert Doi is one of the more notable side characters, an eccentric who, despite his vast wealth, chooses to live in a cardboard box (or rather, a house made out of cardboard boxes) on one of his properties. He was clearly the person who was the closest to Yutaka for most of his life, which makes it interesting that Shizuku doesn’t appear to have interacted with him at all prior to the series’ start. Robert is joined by the aforementioned Miyabi, Loulan, and Maki, as well as Shizuku’s coworkers at the wine division of Taiyo Beer, the company he works for. (Shizuku, in an act of rebellion, was previously a beer salesman.) Each of Shizuku’s coworkers brings something different to the table in terms of wine knowledge, with Chosuke, self-nicknamed Chosuke d’Italia for his obsession with Italian wine, being both the most annoying and the most useful. Miyabi spends the most time with Shizuku, both as his closest friend and the first wine-related person he connected with (she’s in training to be a sommelière). She introduces him to a small wine bar, where the owner also becomes part of Shizuku’s inner circle and one of his teachers. Later on in the series we also meet the Watkins père et fils, American wine critics. Chris Watkins, the son, falls head-over-heels for Miyabi while his father ends up being instrumental in Loulan’s transformation from waif to formidable wine critic in her own right.
Despite the fact that the characters are far and away more accessible to the general reading public, it is the wine that has earned The Drops of God its fame. Over the course of the series, no vintages are made up; every wine that is presented on the page is a real one. (Prices, it should be noted, reflect the original publication date, so don’t use this series as a price guide!) Each bottle is described with paragraphs if not pages of purple prose, and this really is the central conceit of the entire series: the idea that wine can be expressed in images and emotions. While at times it sounds like a bad Victorian novel or a J. Peterman catalogue, there is a certain appeal to this, because it really does give us the sense that the characters love nothing and no one as much as they appreciate wine. It also forms the basis for Yutaka’s challenge to his sons: each description of a bottle is a bridge to understanding him and his life, and in essence Issei and Shizuku are competing to understand their father better. (Or, less cynically, they are meant to combine their interpretations of their father to come to a greater closeness and understanding.)
Unfortunately, this really is a double-edged sword. For oenophiles, the idea of describing wine as various scenes historical or fantastical may give an additional legitimacy to their favorite beverage and its culture. But to those who are less enamored of wine, these descriptions can come off as excessive and melodramatic. There is a very real element of niche interest to this part of the series, and while anyone can enjoy learning about something new, this does veer very close to being strictly for wine afficionados in this respect. If we take as an example the various sports titles that have made their way west, we can see that plenty of people with zero interest in real-life volleyball (for example) enjoy Haikyu!! for its tense atmosphere and characters. The Drops of God doesn’t quite get that balance right, getting lost in its elaborate descriptions rather than allowing the facts of viticulture and oenology and the characters to carry the story.
It is, however, still carrying on the noble tradition of what are known in foodie manga and anime as “reactions” or “foodgasms.” The latter descriptor definitely feels more apt, since every single time Issei ingests some wine he sounds like he’s having an orgasm, or at least sex. And really, there isn’t much difference between what happens here and in Food Wars or Yakitate!! Japan; what sets The Drops of God apart is that there are no magical cabbage girls or round-the-world-in-two-minutes sequences. The effort of making the reactions classier is likely what results in some of the more purple and tortured prose, but it’s hard to argue that sticking with the more absurd variations would have been a better plan.
So is it worth reading forty-four volumes of this? If you’re interested in wine, absolutely. The creators’ love of the beverage shines through every page, and the varieties discussed are impressive even if only in the number of them. But if you’re not that into it, or you don’t drink, or if like me you can’t even stand the smell of alcohol, it may not be the series for you, although as I mentioned, interest in the topic isn’t always a requirement for enjoying a series. Mostly it’s those descriptions that bog things down for non-oenophiles, but if you’re allergic to purple prose, that could be an issue as well. The other thing to be aware of is that the series doesn’t end the story – there’s a sequel manga that has not, as of this writing, been licensed for English release, so we don’t actually get past the Twelve Apostles; it ends before finding the thirteenth bottle and most of the character relationships are left unresolved. That’s not a deal-breaker, but it is annoying, if only because we come so close to resolution before things abruptly end. But it’s still an interesting ride and exploration of a subject that’s often damned as pretentious, and a series that falls well outside of the norms for translated manga, both of which make it worth at least giving a chance.