I’m a social drinker and generally see alcohol as more of a “social lubricant” than something that’s meant to be savored or enjoyed. My poison of choice is usually Malibu Pineapple Rum, with their Mango variety coming in second. The Banana variety is also good, though they don’t put it in the oversize bottles like they do with the latter two. This being said, I’ve never been much of a wine drinker because it tends to fail me on counts of taste and inebriation. That didn’t stop me from picking up this first volume about that subject as it’s a new release from Vertical and -- “Velveteen & Mandala” excepted -- they’ve generally been really good with picking out unusual and interesting series to release outside of their dedication to getting the entire Osamu Tezuka library in print. What I got here wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but I’m willing to stick around for another volume at least to see how it develops.
Shizuku Kanzaki is a man who has lived a life steeped in the lore of wine. From an early age, his father Yutaka had him do things like drink different varieties of grape juice, sniff leather belts, read poems, look at art, listen to music and decant the wine he drank. After an upbringing steeped in such seemingly pointless tasks, Shizuku has never bothered with drinking wine himself and is currently working as a low-level employee at a beer company. He and his dad haven’t spoken for a while, so it comes as a shock to him when he finds out that Yutaka has suddenly passed away. What’s more, in order for him to secure his inheritance Shizuku must compete with wine critic Issei Tomine to identify twelve legendary wines from his father’s will along with the “Drops of God” that is supposed to tower over them all. Not willing to back down without a fight, Shizuku teams up with apprentice sommelier Miyabi Shinohara to learn more about the world of his father that he never knew.
Wine tasting isn’t a subject that leaps to mind as something you’d want to build a series around, but if reading manga has taught me anything, it’s that there’s really no subject that the Japanese can’t build a series around. Still, I was expecting more originality in the storytelling than what we’re presented with here. Jason Thompson was spot-on when he compared how Shizuku acquired his skills at wine tasting to “Oishinbo’s” Shiro Yamaoka. The resemblance goes deeper as these characters also have antagonistic relationships with their fathers, and team up with a plucky girl that has enough specialized knowledge to complement the protagonist. So while the premise may be unique, the story itself is fashioned out of some very familiar elements. This is especially true once you get down to the stories being told in this volume, which wheel out a seemingly unending amount of tropes in their telling.
Still, it’s the subject matter that sets this series apart and even allows for a moderately interesting spin to be put on some of these tropes. From seeing Shizuku demonstrate his skills at decanting at the beginning, to meeting with “homeless” wine expert Robert Doi and tackling the puzzle of two wines, and his pledge to help a failing restaurant, wine is an intrinsic part of everything here. The series also feels built for people like me who know nothing about wine beyond the fact that it’s made out of grapes. Though there’s a lot of knowledge on display here, it isn’t always presented in a seamless manner. Expect lots of talking heads and infodumps throughout. That said, writer Tadashi Agi (who has written a lot of stuff under various pseudonyms) does manage some real moments of poetry in the descriptions of how the various wines make the people who taste them feel.
While Agi manages that, the real work of selling those feelings in a visual sense belongs to Shu Okamoto, and he’s up to the task. From simple things like having a character standing in a field of flowers, or having various pieces of art come to life behind the characters, to trickier things that include a silent montage of Shizuku wandering through a fruit garden, to the mystery of a woman who won’t turn around, these metaphors for the taste of wine are artfully rendered and give the reader an idea of what can’t be conveyed on the page. His characters are also distinctive, with his overall style resembling a more full-figured take on Ai Yazawa’s thin and spindly one. The frequent lapses into cartoonishly exaggerated character expressions don’t really endear themselves to me, as most of the comedy here isn’t all that funny, though part of me realizes that these were probably concessions to making this work more accessible to everyone.
Promoting the appreciation of wine is the main goal of this series, and even if the creators had to resort to some familiar and low-brow tactics in order to do it I think they were mostly successful with this volume. I certainly hope the storylines get more interesting as they go on, or that things go off in unexpected directions. Right now it seems that Yutaka’s test isn’t really a challenge to his son, but his final attempt and getting the man to understand his love of wine. I’m also willing to bet that Issei, who was adopted by Yutaka a week before his death, is actually Shizuku’s half-brother if not a full one. The circumstances of the critic’s role in this affair are too random to be mere chance. With those two things in mind, my challenge to the creators is this: surprise me. Defy my expectations and serve up a tale as stunning as the wines described herein. I know you guys want to tell the world about the greatness of wine, but you can do that by telling an imaginative -- don’t be content with being a high-class advertisement.