Manga1Just when did bookstores in the States start carrying an extensive collection of Japanese manga?  During my teen years in Asia, I deemed manga reading a jejune addiction, not as pernicious as smoking, but nonetheless a pesky deterrent to some aspects of adolescent development.  It was not until a few years ago when my cousin, Andrea, mentioned the international bestseller, The Drops of God (神の雫), that I read my first manga.  Had manga re-invented itself?
Manga protagonists, at least the few I have gotten to know, are often debonair figures endowed with both extraordinary ability and a nonchalant air.  They are almost always ostracized by an entity, be it a family, an industry, or possibly an entire civilization.  The quest is usually spelled out in the first few chapters, with willing readers expecting a story arc and hero’s journey.  In The Drops of God, Kanzaki Shizuku, a beer salesman, is tasked with identifying thirteen wines in order to inherit the vast estate bequeathed by his estranged father.
Manga2Probably the most “legitimate” tea-themed manga, Cha no Namida (茶の涙), tells the story of Rui Naitō, the former head tea master at Japan’s most reputable tea company.  An expatriate in France, twenty-something Rui-san interacts with different characters in each chapter to resolve their tea-related issues.  When an Algerian tycoon longs to savor the tea of his youth, Rui-san helps identify and find tamaryoku cha, which the Japanese are still grateful to be able to export to North Africa during the post-World War II economic turmoil – a free history lesson for readers.  Hōjicha’s low caffeine content prompts Rui-san to recommend this inexpensive tea to a supermarket chain’s condescending chairwoman, who is suffering from chronic stomachaches – interesting health advice.  Other teas mentioned include sayama cha, kōri-dashi gyokuro, asamiya cha, kawane cha, and chocolate flavored not with matcha, but with sencha.  Rui-san turns out to be a celestial being aiding and catalyzing other characters’ life transformations.  If he could only transplant himself back to Japan where he belongs, he would be truly perfect, or should we say kanpeki (in Japanese)?
Manga artists certainly have mastered the art of hyperbole. In Cha no Namida, a gigantic brick of ice compresses premium tea leaves for the preparation of kōri-dashi gyokuro.  The manga’s appendix, however, suggests the use of ice cubes and teas that cost just a bit more than 1,000 Yen, transporting readers back to reality.
Manga3There probably aren’t too many young men named Kanzaki Shizuku and Rui Naitō who look like Kanzaki Shizuku of The Drops of God and Rui Naitō of Cha no Namida.  The Jo Twins of the Korean idol band Boyfriend are known for their anime-like good looks, and Cha no Namida’s creators note Rui Naitō’s interracial heritage by highlighting his blonde hair on the book’s cover.
Manga protagonists can certainly be damsels in distress as well.  Hana-Kimi, known originally as Hanazakari no Kimitachi e, tells the story of a teenage girl who disguises herself as a boy in an all-boy school so she can encourage and room with the star high jumper.  The heroine of Ikemen desu ne, also through cross dressing, joins her twin brother’s all-boy band.  And then there is the overexposed Hana Yori Dango, which has been dramatized in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.  For this post, I watched the first episode of all three soap opera productions and must say the Japanese version is the most entertaining simply because it is based on Japanese manga infused with Japanese imagination, Japanese humor, and Japanese-style hyperbole.
In the past, curiosity had led me to attend the exhibit of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb and to look up Doris Lessing’s graphic novel, Playing the Game, on the Internet.  Neither Cha no Namida nor The Drops of God has converted me into a manga or graphic novel enthusiast.
Unlike The Drops of GodCha no Namida has yet to be translated into English.  Other titles, such as Caramel Milk TeaTea for Two, and the inscrutably entitled Bad Boy Drinks Tea, seem to have been translated.  However, one should not expect to learn much about tea from any of them.