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Friday, April 11, 2008

A manga drunk on French wine

Siblings Yuko and Shin Kibayashi move the market with a fluid pen


Special to The Japan Times

Hearing a 2001 Mont-Perat described as "just like a rock concert by Queen" is enough to make any self-respecting Frenchman expel a snort of derision from his finely-tuned nostrils.

News photo
Long popular in Japan, "Kami no Shizuku" is now being translated into French as "Les Gouttes de Dieu." © GLENAT

But the enormous impact the wine manga "Kami no Shizuku (The Drops of the Gods)" has had on wine sales across Asia cannot be shrugged off with a boff of Gallic unconcern. Just two days after the issue with that particular comment came out, a Taiwanese importer sold 50 cases of Mont-Perat.

Thus, when the French version — titled "Les Gouttes de Dieu" — was published in France last week, it came out in a storm of media attention.

"We had a team from French TV in Japan for the last month interviewing the authors for a report on the increasing sales of wine in Japan, which — due to 'The Drops of the Gods' — are said to be up by more than 20 percent," says Stephane Ferrand of Glenat, the manga's publisher. The camera crew are just packing away their gear when The Japan Times arrives to interview the authors, siblings Yuko and Shin Kibayashi, who cowrite the manga under the pen name of Tadashi Agi.

The interview takes place at Shin's house, which in a way embodies the spirit of the manga itself by combining classical European features with a contemporary edge: A grand piano sits in one corner of the room, while at the other end is a gigantic screen for viewing movies.

"Most young Japanese children have no contact with European culture, but we had a lot of influences when we were growing up," says a relaxed Shin, his arm across the back of a grand leather couch designed to seat around 15. "Our mother was an artist and our grandfather taught us about French cuisine. When we were in kindergarten, he took us to French restaurants."

This is the room where the pair plot each installment of the manga, which has been published weekly in Morning magazine since 2004, and regularly hold wine-tasting parties.

Prior to working with his sister, Shin was in television. He has the easy charisma of someone used to dealing with the media. Yuko is also unruffled by press attention. Dressed casually and attractively, her makeup discrete, she radiates poise and authority. They obviously work well together, her gravitas providing the counterweight to his bubbling enthusiasm.

"While we are drinking wine, we play a kind of game to try to find an unusual phrase that sums up the experience, not using the sort of language a sommelier would use, but using images to make it sound more delicious," explains Yuko. "For example, is it a male or female wine?"

The two main characters of the comic book have their own personalities based on wine regions.

"We wanted to create someone with the personality of a Bordeaux, so the character of Shizuku is very cheerful and friendly," Yuko continues. "On the other hand, we wanted an opposite type to balance him out. So we made up Issey, who is modeled on the wines of Burgundy. He's more complex."

Shizuku was the original protagonist of the drama: a young wine neophyte who is given the challenge of discovering 12 legendary wines when his father, a wine critic, dies suddenly. Shizuku's father has made Issey, a wine expert, into Shizuku's rival by adopting him. Whichever son succeeds in finding the bottles inherits the father's valuable collection of rare vintages.

News photo
Yuko and Shin Kibayashi have cowritten the manga "Kami no Shizuku (The Drops of the Gods)" under the pen name of Tadashi Agi since 2004.

Though Shizuku was supposed to be the hero of the manga, Issey's character was developed in response to letters from fans.

"Women love these lonely characters," says Shin. "But Shizuku, like the reader, doesn't know much about wine, so they can discover wine knowledge with him.

"We've had an especially strong effect in South Korea," he says. "Soon after our book was published there, people started reading it like a textbook to learn about wine."

The manga is also published in China and Taiwan, where, when a wine is featured, sales increase. Bottles of Colli di Conegliano Rosso Contrada di Concenigo saw an increase of 30 percent after a mention.

"We are pleased to recommend wine to people. But the bad thing is when the price goes up because we recommend one," says Shin. "We recommend cheap wines and also expensive ones, but if it's not tasty we don't include it."

For French readers, the real draw is the huge bias the manga has toward the wines of France.

"French wine is made to very strict rules," points out Shin. "For example, whether it's a good or bad year, the practice of putting a sheet over the vines to protect them from the rain is forbidden."

"In America, they are only concerned with producing healthy grapes, like a factory," continues Yuko. "They don't trust in nature. When it doesn't rain, they water the fields, and when it rains too much, they cover the fields."

Doubtless, the French won't have a problem with the Kibayashi's bias toward the country. What might be more problematic is the colorful language employed to describe the wines.

"The first wine in (the French version of) the manga, Les Amours Chambourd Musigny, 1999, we described as being like walking in a quiet forest and being followed by two butterflies," says Shin.

"One we're writing now is a description of the feeling you get after climbing the summit of the Matterhorn and you look down at the ground," adds Yuko.

French-wine expert Tim Johnston, who owns Juveniles bar in Paris, wasn't sure if the French — given such off-the-wall descriptions — could swallow the manga.

"It doesn't seem to me like a serious art form, and the French are so stuffy about wine," says Johnston. "I can't see it going down well with the establishment."

If the manga manages to break through these barriers to become a success in France, it will pave the way for an Italian edition. For now the signs are positive.

"We exhibited at Paris Book Fair last month and had a great welcome from the public," says publisher Ferrand. "We sold all 300 volumes of the manga that we had at our booth in three days."

Another French-wine expert, Michel Dovaz, who wrote the introduction to the French edition, obviously supports it.

"I think the manga demystifies wine a little," says Dovaz. "If we take wine too seriously, we can take the joy out of it."

Bringing your own

As well as entertaining at home, authors Yuko and Shin Kibayashi love to dine out. They are — not surprisingly — particularly fond of restaurants where you are allowed to bring your own bottle. Yuko recommended her favorite such eatery.

"I love Kagurazaka and Bar Poisson Seafood Dining in Idabashi," she says. "The owner is a wine aficionado and has traveled all around Burgundy. He is also excellent at wine tasting. Although the restaurant allows BYOB (Bring Your Own Bottle), the wines in the restaurant itself are reasonably priced and taste wonderful." Expect to pay ¥4,000-7,000 per person for meals — and an extra ¥2,500 corkage charge for the privilege of opening your own bottle.

Kagurazaka and Bar Poisson Seafood is a 5-min. walk from Idabashi Station (closed on Sun.); gourmet.gyao.jp/0002146353/; (03) 5228 7670

Other BYOB restaurants in Tokyo include:

Cuisine219 in Aoyama, which specializes in Californian dishes, uses only seasonal vegetables to create its menu. Dinner is from around ¥2,500 per person, with an extra corkage charge of ¥2,000.

www.cuisine219.com; (03) 5772-2190

Il Girasole in Shinjuku specializes in Italian dishes and is known for excellent seafood. Though the dinner course starts from a pricey ¥4,000, there is no corkage charge.

www.ilgirasole.jp/page002.html; (03) 5366-3822

Black Heart in Kokubunji specializes in "rustic continental cuisine," though Burgundian-style snails and oysters doesn't exactly smack of the simple life. Expect to pay around ¥2,000 for dinner. Corkage is free.

www.blackheart95.com; (042) 323-4366

Il Bianco in Roppongi is another Italian restaurant that offers BYOB. An evening meal costs around ¥3,000, with an extra ¥2,000 corkage charge.

www.ilbianco.jp; (03) 3470-5678



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