Crowdfunding bankrolls translation of bande dessinee on wine, manga

The cover of “Wine Shirazu, Manga Shirazu” (“Les ignorants: Recit d’une initiation croisee”) published by Thousands of Books, Inc.

Wine Shirazu, Manga Shirazu (Les ignorants: Recit d’une initiation croisee)
by Etienne Davodeau, translated by Aiko Onishi (Thousands of Books, Inc.)

When I introduced the bande dessinee “Rebetiko” in a past issue of this column, its translator, Masato Hara, complained to me that, while there are so many interesting manga overseas, including bande dessinees (French graphic novels), no publisher is willing to release them in Japan. Under the Japanese book distribution system, the publisher must bear the entire loss for unsold books returned by retailers. In the current situation, when paper books aren’t selling very well, it is not surprising that only a handful of publishers would be willing to take on manga from overseas that are completely unknown in Japan.

Recently, however, a new option has emerged: crowdfunding. Under this scheme, a publishing plan is presented on the internet and funds are solicited from people who want to read the book. If the plan collects the targeted amount of funding, the book can be published with minimal risk.

“I know a very good work although it may not gain much popularity in Japan,” Hara said to me a while back, referring to a bande dessinee called “Les ignorants: Recit d’une initiation croisee.” Subsequently, a crowdfunding project was set up for this work. I also participated in the crowdfunding, though my contribution was a small one. The Japanese translation of the bande dessinee has now successfully been published and is in my possession. The work is also available in an English translation as “The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs.”

The story is set in the Loire region of northwestern France. Etienne, a bande dessinee artist, makes a proposal to Richard, an organic wine producer: “Teach me how to make wine for one year; in return, I will teach you the pleasure of BDs (bande dessinees).” Thus begins a strange joint project between the two men who are completely ignorant of each other’s jobs and the worlds they represent. The work is a kind of documentary that chronicles a whole year of this exchange.

Richard cultivates his grapes using a unique method called “biodynamics,” advocated by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and rejects any use of herbicides or insecticides. Cow manure dissolved in water and a tiny amount of minerals are the only things he treats his soil with. He cannot explain everything logically, and some of his explanations sound rather occult. However, he knows from experience that this is the only way to produce wine that satisfies his taste buds. “What a subjective way of farming,” an amazed Etienne says to Richard, who replies, “Everything about wine is subjective.”

Wine and manga, two things that appear worlds apart, begin to share an intriguing waltz as the story progresses. Etienne takes Richard to a publisher, introduces him to other artists and makes him read highly acclaimed BD masterpieces. Some works enthrall Richard, others bore him. Richard dismisses the BD master Moebius as “no good,” and Etienne laments, “Sorry, Moebius!” Richard, on the other hand, is amused by Etienne when he unknowingly pours an expensive bottle of wine down the sink, saying, “It doesn’t taste very good.”

Richard shows his stubborn side when he declares, “I seek only those who say they like the wine I produce.” Still, he is anxious to know how many points his wines get from world-renowned critic Robert Parker. Likewise, in the world of BD, it is difficult to make a living if one ignores sales figures. However, the principles that both Etienne and Richard live by are similar: They both insist on being honest and true to their own creations. One is not to be swayed by the points and scores determined by society. “Do you love it or not? This is the only meaningful question.” These words, firmly spoken by Richard, sum up the overarching theme of the work.

To be sure, “Wine Shirazu, Manga Shirazu” is subdued, but the more you read it, the more wonder you will discover. You’ll also learn about the depth of the French wine culture. And as a special gift for crowdfunding participants, my copy was accompanied by a booklet explaining BD works mentioned in the story, which I thought was an excellent touch.