“If there is no kindness, it can’t be called a bar.”
A lot of stories are set in bars, but very rarely are they about the people who tend those bars. So it was with great interest that I got into Bartender, a seinen manga series written by Araki Joh.
The Story: Saving Souls With A Few “Spirits”
Ryu Sasakura is a young bartender who works at a bar in the Ginza area called Eden Hall after learning all he can about the business and meeting a variety of seasoned bartenders and customers. Most often he runs into a young office lady named Miwa Kurushima, whose grandfather Taizo Kurushima is a major figure in the Japanese hotel industry.
Throughout the manga, there are a variety of stories, but generally with the same formula: someone comes into the bar where Ryu works, has a problem, and finds some resolution to that problem through one of the drinks that Ryu serves. As he elaborates on said drink, Ryu reveals (by way of analogies) what steps the customer can take to resolve his problems, whether it’s bad luck, an unrequited romance, career troubles, or just a general lack of self-confidence. In the end, all Ryu wants to do is serve the perfect glass for his customers’ needs: an ideal known as “the Glass of the Gods.”
The Cast: Lost Travelers And Their Kindly Host
Our protagonist is Ryu Sasakura, a twenty-six-year-old bartender in Ginza. He’s your typical earnest hero archetype, always ready to stand up for love and honor, although he knows he can’t do much as a bartender and can only guide people toward the right path in life. Nonetheless he strives, and it’s interesting to see how seriously he takes his profession, even if it means that people will remember his drinks more than they’ll remember him.
The other characters are a wide variety of customers, although the most common one is Miwa Kurushima, who soon acts as a cynical foil to Ryu and an everyman’s perspective on the whole Bartender saga. She gets some nice development early on with the relationship with her grandfather, but doesn’t appear nearly as often as Ryu to count as a strong protagonist.
The Anime: A Soft, Sweet Night Out
The actual anime series is only eleven episodes long and decidedly different in its approach to Ryu and Miwa’s story. Although every episode features its own vignette about one or more customers and their troubles, there really isn’t an ongoing series arc like in the original manga. Not to mention, Ryu is presented less as a well-meaning but outspoken protagonist and more as a calm and suave professional behind the bar, whose patient demeanor withstands all strife. There is also an unusual feature that has various bartenders and Miwa serve as narrators and deliverers of exposition throughout each episode, giving us the backstory of various customers before they come to see Ryu.
And then there are the actual drinks. Needless to say, if you’re an alcoholic, you might want to skip this series. The way these cocktails are poured, mixed, and served… it’s almost pornographic, being animated with such love. I kept wanting something strong to down after watching an episode (and thanks to this show, I learned enough about daiquiris to properly enjoy one in Vegas a while back).
Final Verdict: Quiet But Rich In Feeling
At first glance, this series is just a slice of life manga and anime about working at a Japanese bar. At times it might take itself a little too seriously, but at least it doesn’t get so over-the-top about how “godly” Ryu may or may not be in his skills. It’s a love letter to bartenders and the service they provide, and if you’re in the mood for something quiet but dignified, you could do worse than to go down to Eden Hall and see what Ryu has prepared for you…
Bibliography: Bartender (manga). Written by Araki Joh. Illustrated by Kenji Nagatomo. Tokyo: Shueisha. December 3, 2004 – 2009.
Bartender (anime). Directed by Masaki Watanabe. Written by Yasuhiro Imagawa. Palm Studio. Fuji TV. October 15, 2006 – December 30, 2006.