It would be insulting to distill a medium such as Manga into sweeping laws and maxims, as it covers every conceivable expression and technique in graphic narrative. It’s a lot like trying to make generalizations about wine. You couldn’t even bring it down to “it’s an alcoholic beverage” because, apparently, non-alcoholic wines are a thing (they shouldn’t be). But you can observe general trends and proclivities in a medium that make it distinctive aside from its techniques. For example, wine gets you drunk in a better way than spirits. Meanwhile, take any good Manga title and, most likely, you will realize it has a very good handle on when it should be earnest and when it shouldn’t take itself too seriously. When it is supposed to be larger than life and soapy, and when it is supposed to be subtle and nuanced. When it is supposed to be light and funny and when it is supposed to be thoughtful and poignant. Even the best writers in Hollywood struggle with that.
Now, if I mention the concept of “French Drama,” ironically, most people would be quicker to draw generalizations: Brainy, psychological, complex characters that make puzzling decisions, dialogues that can be subdued at first and then suddenly devolve into scenery chewing. Whatever the case, “French Drama” sounds like a strange variety to pair with the language of Manga. But an innovative maridaje is never self-evident.
Drops of God is based on the manga series of the same title by Tadashi Agi and Shu Okitomo. The series is over 4,000 pages long, and I don’t have the time and patience to compare source vs. adaptation. Nevertheless, this adaptation stands on its own, a full-bodied story with notes of manga that give it a distinctive quality. Ok, I’ll stop with the winetasting references.
Drops of God follows Camille Léger (Fleur Geffrier) and Issei Tomine (Tomohisa Yamashita). The former is the estranged daughter of the moody Alexandre Léger (Stanley Weber), the most influential wine critic in the world, while the latter is his top mentee and “spiritual son.” When Alexandre dies in Japan, he summons Camille and Issei to the reading of his will, where he sets them against each other for his inheritance: A mansion in Tokyo, the rights to his popular wine guide, and the crown jewels, a wine cellar comprising 87,000 bottles of rare and top quality wines, worth about $140 million.
To inherit everything, they will have to go through three rounds of challenges identifying obscure wines. There is one problem, though: Camille cannot drink alcohol without having a violent immune reaction and nosebleeds, a reaction tethered to a trauma, a trauma that led Camille’s mother, Marianne (Cécile Bois), to run away from her father as far away as possible. Issei doesn’t exactly have a head start on Camille. He is the sole heir to a diamond trading empire, with his distant mother Honoka (Makiko Watanabe) and grandfather (Masane Tsukayama) strongly disapproving of his career as an enologist and would very much like him not to compete for another man’s inheritance. His only rock is his browbeaten father, Hirokazu (Satoshi Nikaido).
The notes of manga come through in the outlandish premise, the soapier plot devices, and the lived-in supporting cast. But mostly, in that Drops of God is a story about two extremely gifted characters that through tests and with the help of others, manage to awaken and refine their skills. This occupies most of Camille’s arc. She had received some training as a child from his father in enology, but she also inherited his nose and tastebuds. She will be aided by two friends of his father, Italian restaurateur Luca Inglese (Diego Ribon), who, of course, has an agenda of his own, and winemaker Philippe Chassangre (Gustave Kervern), whose son Thomas (Tom Wozniczka) will become Camille’s main teacher and eventual love interest. Rounding the cast are Lorenzo (Luca Terracciano) and Miyabi (Kyoko Takenaka), two eccentric sommeliers at Luca’s restaurant, and Yurika (Azusa Okamoto), a reporter who will help Issei come out of his emotional shell and unearth secrets.
But the proper manga component comes through in the ultimate structure of the story: This is a narrative about two lost, isolated people coming to terms with their paternal figures and what they imprint and pass on us, the terrible and the great. But it is not necessarily a story about reconciliations. And this is where the body of French Drama pours in and blends its own language into the manga source. It makes the best out of restraint; the naturalism of the performances; the nuance in the use of cinematography, framing, and soundtrack; and the believable emotional arcs of the characters. It is a bit unbalanced in that the heart of the story relies more heavily on Camille’s arc, bolstered by the energetic, expressive range of Fleur Geffrier’s face. The series would’ve benefited from letting us know more about Issei and his relationship with Alexandre through proper flashbacks instead of him just telling us about their master-pupil dynamic. Still, despite its soapy premise, this is not a series that wants to tug heartstrings and force emotions where it doesn’t need to. It allows itself to be funny when it needs to be, sad when it must be, and satisfying according to its own premise.
It is also visually gorgeous, but without resorting to the clichés that a lesser movie set in Tokyo and France’s wine country would use. There are no sweeping panoramas, overlit stately vineyards, or the typical scene of a Westerner walking through Tokyo and looking upward in amazement. In fact, the story is set mostly during the fall and winter, and most of the scenes take place in interior settings. There are no liminal Japanese office spaces and charming French wine cellars. The spaces are filmed in such ways that they can be oppressive or inviting according to the character’s state of mind.
As mentioned previously, this is a series about coming to terms with what your parents gave you, but its thesis is that coming to terms doesn’t necessarily mean forgiving them; it doesn’t mean taking on the burden of heritage. And that’s what makes it more than a delightful, very rewatchable but soapy affair with a nice ending. There is a degree of ambiguity in the character’s ultimate choices, which nods to the richness of both its sources.
Alberto Cox really had to restrain himself from using even more wine metaphors than the ones he used here.