MELINDA: I’m late. I’m late. For a very important date.
MICHELLE: I wonder if I could take this as a hint that you’ve finally read something I’ve been wanting you to read?
MELINDA: Hmmmm, I suspect the answer to that is “no.” I’m pretty sure I first encountered this as a small child, in Alice in Wonderland. And then a little later on a Barbra Streisand album.
MICHELLE: Oh, darn. I was hoping you’d read some of Alice in the Country of Hearts! Oh well. What did you read?
MELINDA: Well, my first read this week was Aki’s Olympos, a new josei single-volume omnibus release from Yen Press.
Olympos tells the story of Ganymede of Troy, said to have been abducted by Zeus and brought to serve him at Mount Olympus. In Aki’s adaptation, it is actually Zeus’s son Apollo who abducts Ganymede and holds him in the “miniature garden,” a prison filled with white flower petals as immortal as the gods themselves. Rather than occupying a position of honor as cupbearer to the gods as in the original myths, Aki’s Ganymede is relentlessly tortured by Apollo, who presses upon him the bleakness of his new immortality and takes pleasure in his futile attempts to escape. This torture is later escalated by Hades, who informs Ganymede that his only chance for relief would be for him to go mad, which would release him from Zeus’ celestial realm and into the dark of the underworld. Meanwhile, an eerily monstrous specter of Zeus hovers menacingly around the garden, infatuated with its human prisoner.
I’ve painted a pretty grim picture, I know, so you may be surprised to hear that Olympos is actually a fairly quiet, philosophical manga, meandering through its 300+ pages with musings on the nature of truth and immortality, and the impossibility of understanding between humans and gods. Unfortunately, “meandering” is a key word here. Despite a strong beginning, featuring a newly captured human (Heinz), charged by Apollo with the daunting task of convincing Ganymede—after years of Apollo’s goading—that escape from the garden is possible after all, the series soon loses focus, devolving into a kind of distractedly philosophical pudding that never quite gels.
That said, there’s a lot worth fishing out of this mythological goo if one has the will to do so, and I admit to enjoying quite a bit of it. Apollo’s journey is interesting in particular, as he comes to the realization that speaking the truth and knowing the truth are not necessarily the same things. Ganymede’s character, too, has a lot to offer, as he slowly comes to terms with his fate. Ganymede is described by Homer as the most beautiful of mortals, and this aspect of his story is one that Aki truly takes to heart. All of the artwork in Olympos is beautiful, in fact, almost beautiful enough to make up for its structural flaws.
MICHELLE: I have to say, “distractedly philosophical pudding” is a wonderful phrase, and one that could be applied to quite a lot of storytelling, in my experience.
And yes, despite its flaws, Olympos still sounds like something I’m going to want to check out. Especially because it’s josei and we see too little of that here.
MELINDA: I do think you’ll want to check it out. And though I think you’re likely to become frustrated with its lack of coherency at some points, I think you’ll end up enjoying it. I certainly did.
So, what have you been reading this week?
MICHELLE: First up for me is volume four of The Drops of God, a seinen series about wine that’s published by Vertical in two-in-one omnibus editions.
This series… how to describe it. My first compulsion is to say “It’s like Oishinbo with wine.” The protagonist, Shizuku Kanzaki, was never a wine fan while his father, a famous wine critic, was alive, but after his death, Shizuku becomes obsessed with learning about the stuff, which is fortunate because the terms of his father’s will require him to compete with a prententious critic (Issei Tomine) to identify a dozen or so wines based on verbal descriptions alone. In between the match-ups with Issei (the second of which closes out this volume), Shizuku and his trusty sidekick Miyabi get up to various things, which usually involve tasting a whole bunch of wine and rhapsodizing about them, sometimes with unintentionally amusing visuals and dialogue.
For instance, in this volume, the wine division of Taiyo Beer has a new client who turns out to be Miyabi’s first love from middle school. He wants to open a grocery store that stocks only name-brand wines, and it’s up to Shizuku and Miyabi to convince him that there are many worthy wines without a prestige name, and so they must search out and find certain ones capable of besting famous wines in a testing. Of course, they succeed, culminating in an absolutely hilarious scene where the first love guy takes a sip and is suddenly riding a pegasus amongst the clouds, taking a little tour of his childhood memories. I admit I laughed out loud.
I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t like The Drops of God, because I do, but it frequently strikes me as ridiculous, even more than your average sports manga (but not more so than the latter volumes of The Prince of Tennis). Perhaps it would help if I had a genuine interest in wine.
I do want to note that this volume has a special message in the back, which I’ll quote here: “The unveiling of the Second Apostle concludes “season one” of the English release. By author request, our next installment jumps ahead in the storyline to a segment on “New World” wines including those in Napa Valley. Tell all your friends about the series so there will be second and third seasons to fill in the gap! We appreciate your support.”
So now I am doing my part by telling all the folks reading Off the Shelf!
MELINDA: Important news indeed, Michelle! I, too, like The Drops of God, probably more than most sports manga, though that may simply be due to the fact that I have much more interest (generally) in wine than sports. I’m behind on this series, but I’m anxious to catch up. It’s just, well, fun. Also, it makes me thirsty.
MICHELLE: Yeah, it does kind of have that effect.
So, the last book that we’re going to discuss is one that we’ve both read, but we’re coming at it from slightly different perspectives. That is, you’ve seen the movie that it’s based on and I haven’t.
MELINDA: Indeed! It’s one of my favorite movies, even.
MICHELLE: What we’re talking about is 5 Centimeters per Second, another two-in-one omnibus from Vertical, though this time collecting the entire series. Do you want to describe the story, or shall I?
MELINDA: I can at least start! Based on the animated feature from writer/director Makoto Shinkai, 5 Centimeters per Second tells the story of a young boy, Takaki Tohno, and Akari Shinohara, the first love he can’t put behind him. He first meets Akari as she transfers into his elementary school in Tokyo. The two bond quickly, partly due to their mutual experience as children whose families move a lot. Mostly, though, they just like each other, so much so that their classmates eventually tease them about being in love. With middle school quickly approaching, they work hard to get into the same junior high, but just like that, Akari’s family is moving again, to Iwafune, quite a distance away.
The two keep in touch by mail, but when Takaki finds out that his family is going to be moving even further away, he decides to visit Akari by train while he still can. Rushing from school to the train, he is delayed several hours by a snowstorm, finally arriving in Iwafune late into the night to find Akari waiting hopefully at the station. This is the last time he will ever meet with her. Time passes, and with only letters and text messages to connect them, Takaki and Akari eventually grow apart. But Takaki’s lingering attachment keeps him from really being able to connect with anyone else.
MICHELLE: (This is spoiler territory here, so be warned.)
I really love how this story plays out because, unfamiliar with the movie, I kept expecting Takaki and Akari to reunite, especially since the opening pages portray them passing each other in the street. But it’s actually much more complicated than that, as the realities of day-to-day adult life have whittled down Takaki’s idealism to the point where he feels he has lost his real self. He never really put forth the effort to contact Akari—another character, Kanae, later shows that one can find someone if one really tries—but yet to move on, to really love someone else would feel like a betrayal. And so he is stuck.
And then at the end, we revisit the moment they glimpse each other, which is portrayed fairly ambiguously from Akari’s point of view. Did she notice him? Did she recognize him? I tend to think she did not, and I love how Takaki smiles at that realization—always kind, he is relieved to see that she’s moved on (did he notice her engagement ring?) and is not encumbered by memories of him as he has been with her. It’s sad, but it’s nice, and I love that it doesn’t go for the expected happy ending.
MELINDA: This kind of inevitable separation—both the pain of it and the cruel ordinariness of it—is a recurring theme in Shinkai’s work (you may remember that the manga adaptation of one of his earliest films, The Voices of a Distant Star, was the first review I wrote for PopCultureShock), and though he’s always explored this theme beautifully, 5 Centimeters per Second is his most poignant attempt, I think, because the barrier between Takaki and Akari is relatively small. They aren’t separated by light years like the characters in Voices. They’re on the same planet—even in the same country. But the reality is, of course, that there is so much more to it than just the distance, and it’s this kind of simple, simple truth that makes Takaki’s plight so sad and so relatable.
MICHELLE: While the title technically refers to the speed at which a cherry blossom petal falls from a tree, it rather elegantly captures the main obstacles facing Takaki and Akari: distance and time. But it’s a fall, and a separation, that feels almost leisurely because it takes place over a long span of time.
MELINDA: Beautifully said, Michelle! One of the interesting things about this adaptation is just how much more leisurely the time does pass. The film is fairly neatly divided into three parts, with the first section (Takaki’s childhood with Akari, up through the point when he visits her in Iwafune) feeling the longest and the most fleshed-out. In this manga series, the second two sections are greatly expanded upon, giving us a much closer look at the stories of both Kanae and Takaki’s later girlfriend, Risa, (who is barely seen in the film), which ultimately teaches us even more about Takaki and the women he’s unintentionally hurt with his kindness over the years. While I do miss the strength of some of the film’s imagery and direction (Takaki’s lonely train ride, for instance, feels absolutely epic in the film, thanks to Shinkai’s brilliant pacing), these additional insights really do add something significant.
MICHELLE: I thought his train ride seemed pretty epic in print, too, especially given the fact that a lot of what happens prior to that is, like, two-page vignettes charting the progress of his growing closeness with Akari, but the train ride was the first time we got a long, tense, interrupted sequence of events.
I did want to ask you… was anything different in the movie? Like, the plot? I’m kind of sad to learn Kanae’s not in it much, since I liked her a great deal, and especially appreciated the little optimistic twist (but yet still ambiguous) thrown our way at the end concerning her future.
MELINDA: Ah, I think I perhaps wasn’t clear. Kanae is in the film quite a bit (the entire second section revolves around her). It’s Risa we barely see. But even so, there isn’t actually any difference in the plot, it’s just that we’re shown much, much more of it in the manga.
MICHELLE: Well, that makes me happy, then!
MELINDA: It makes me happy, too. Good adaptations can be difficult to come by, but this one is quite good indeed.