Sweet pairing of wine and manga
Just how did a Japanese comic hero become the most influential voice in Asia's wine markets?
Tokyo - Sipping a 2001 Bordeaux from Chateau Mont Perat, a bead of sweat trickling down his left cheek, Shizuku Kanzaki is suddenly overwhelmed with images of a turntable, guitars and Freddie Mercury.
'It is powerful,' he says of the wine, 'but it also has a meltingly sweet taste, with an acidic aftertaste that catches you by surprise. It is like the voice of Queen's lead vocalist, sweet and husky, enveloped in thick guitar riffs and heavy drums.'
Since coming out of nowhere four years ago, this 20-something Japanese would-be sommelier has quickly become the most influential voice in Asia's wine markets.
In Tokyo, wine sellers monitor his weekly pronouncements before adjusting their stocks accordingly.
In newer markets such as Taiwan and urban China, his recommendations are turning the newly affluent into wine converts. And in Seoul, South Koreans now talk about 'terroir' and how a bottle 'marries' with a particular dish without blinking.
Never mind that Kanzaki is a comic- book figure, the hero of a manga series, The Drops Of The Gods, created and written by a Japanese sister-and-brother team. Asian readers who have never heard of Mr Robert M. Parker Jr. (leading American wine critic) scrutinise the comic hero's every sip, learning about wine in words and images that may seem strange to traditionalists.
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The cover (pictured) of a Chinese edition of The Drops Of The Gods and a page from a Japanese edition.|
The series has evoked images as disparate as the painting The Angelus by Jean- Francois Millet (to explain a wine's richness) and a marsh north of Tokyo (to describe a difficult yet rewarding vintage).
'These are images that emerged from wines that we actually drank,' said Yuko Kibayashi, 49, who created the series with her brother, Shin, 46. 'It is like a game.'
The Kibayashis, who write under the pseudonym Tadashi Agi, came up with the series while collaborating on another comic more than four years ago. During their work sessions, their spirits ran high as the wine flowed.
'We found ourselves looking for the drama behind the wines we were drinking,' Shin said. 'It started with one wine, 'This wine is definitely a woman.' '
His sister said: 'Right, with black hair.'
At Shin's Tokyo home, the siblings said they have long been wine lovers - so much so that they rent an apartment just to stock their 3,000-bottle collection and pay for an earthquake-warning system to protect it.
Neither has any professional wine-tasting credentials, they say they are interested not in using the sommelier's jargon but in describing wine from the average drinker's perspective.
Indeed, their manga series follows Kanzaki as he learns about wine, allowing the reader to do the same. At the start of the series, he rebelled against his father, a famous wine critic, by refusing to drink wine and working instead for a brewery.
Suddenly, though, his father dies and leaves in his will a description of 12 wines he considers the world's best, comparing them to the disciples of Jesus.
Pitted against his adopted brother, who happens to be a sommelier, he must catch up in his knowledge so he can find the 12 wines mentioned in the will and inherit his father's vast cellar.
The comic - which appears every Thursday in Japan in a magazine titled Weekly Morning and has been compiled into 17 books so far - rapidly became a hit in East Asia, where people are still learning to drink wine.
The manga will also be adapted into a television drama likely to star Korean star Bae Yong Joon.
The wines featured are selected by the Kibayashis, who say they have no sponsor. They do, however, accept free bottles from wine importers, though 'our stance is that we will not necessarily feature them'.
In general, French wines have received the most attention in the series. The Kibayashis are unabashed Francophiles who say they do not feel American wines have the depth of those from the Old World.
'I do not feel the terroir,' Shin said.
His sister said: 'They are too simple. Wines are like human beings. The first time you meet, instead of being all smiles and wanting to become friends right away, there has to be some formality, some conversation, before gradually becoming close. When you open an American bottle, it is all big smiles.'
It may be fortunate for Americans that there are no plans for an English translation of The Drops Of The Gods.
For France, though, whose share of the Japanese wine market had been falling in recent years, the series has been an unexpected blessing.
A French translation of the first book was published in France in April and, thanks to strong sales, was followed rapidly by the next four titles in the series.
There is no word yet, though, on whether French readers think 2001 Chateau Mont Perat tastes like Freddie Mercury.
Chinese editions of The Drops Of The Gods are available at Books Kinokuniya. Prices vary from issue to issue.