This holiday season reminded me of what I love about anime. The Hybrid One was gracious enough to lay out his Top 25 favorite anime, meanwhile I continue to struggle putting out work for this site and others I represent. There’s an ever present need to catch-up in our pop culture world. So it’s good to sit back and reflect on the programs that made us love anime for what it is. There aren’t too many people who know about the existence of this anime, let alone seen it, but it stands out to me as one of the most elegantly written, composed, and unique programs out there.
Series Director: Masaki Watanabe
Series Composition: Yasuhiro Imagawa
Screenplay: Yasuhiro Imagawa
Music: Kaoruko Ohtake
Original Author: Araki Joh
Director of Photography: Norio Matsuda
Animation Production: Palm Studio
Synopsis: At the illustrious Eden Hall cocktail bar located in downtown Tokyo, the genius prodigy bartender Ryū Sasakura is said to create the perfect cocktail for every customer who enters. By serving his “Glass of the Gods” to those who are skeptical, melancholy, or in the search of creative freedom, he opens up a new world of discovery through the history and meaning of spirits he pours.
Bartender is unlike any slice-of-life you will ever find out there as the series is presented as a dramatic anthology. Each episode is primarily self-contained; sticking to a romanticized idea that every person, just like every cocktail, has his or her own story. There’s a beautiful stage play aspect to every episode, filled to the brim with stories and trivia about Japan’s cultural history with alcohol. Scenes bounce from one moment to the other through flashbacks to present settings, interjected with long discussions about mixology time and time again. If you are a teetotaler, this is no show for you as it glorifies the significance and decadence of cocktails as a universal subject.
You’ll also be keen to notice that although there are only two main characters between Ryū and reoccurring customer Miwa, every character plays an integral part to the episode. Bartender distinguishes itself through the use of a fifth wall narrative, where characters will be properly introduced and then spring boarded to the roll of narrator as the story sees fit. It overcomes the trappings of other educational, slice-of-life tales through the grace of deep character stories rather than focusing on single characters. Through this method, every piece of beverage trivia and flowery sentence has a beautiful sense of emotional weight.
What’s uncomfortably noticeable off the bat from Bartender is the poor art style. At best it’s average and at worst it’s abhorrent from the generic designs to the crudely, half-drawn backdrops. Thankfully, this is mostly offset to some stunning CGI showcasing all the bottles available and a strong use of filtered photography to emphasize on the clarity. I don’t mind the art quality as long as it’s thematically fitting, which Bartender hits in spades.
The sound elevates the series to have an unmistakable aesthetic, with an emphasis on soft, jazz instrumentals incorporating delicate piano and wondrous violins. The OP and ED are stunningly beautiful at capturing the swinging highlights to the somber downtime of the bar atmosphere. The voice acting is also delivered stunningly well from the main cast to one-offs. You’re eased into Eden Hall thanks to the sophisticated cadences of Leo Morimoto, the universal narrator for the series. Takahiro Mizushima does a tremendous job giving Ryū a debonair, gentle exterior compacted from intelligence and wisdom beyond his years. That’s the word to define this series: gentle.
Series creator Araki Joh stated in an interview with www.tofugu.com he became a strong manga writer by focusing on his interests. His passions have guided his hand to create stories on dogs, wine, and alcohol, but with an intense focus on making every single word count. Because of this, I feel that every word spoken about the beauty and fascination of spirits comes without a hint of fireball-laced cynicism. Screenwriter Yasuhiro Imagawa does a phenomenal job transitioning these stories from print to audio, because the speeches would come off cheesy if not for the painstaking details and individual context.
There isn’t a lot to Bartender outside of the initial premise; that a man can deliver revelations to his customers through his cocktails but it gives you perspective in what makes alcohol such a worldly symbol. The episodes of a salaryman gathering courage against his boss or the couple going on their first date are all stories we can relate to. We drink to socialize and feel empowered, yet there’s the deeper, cultural importance of what spirits have served towards humanity; a gateway to new experiences. Thanks to its nuanced approach towards inner conflict, I would dare say Bartender is quite possibly most grounded, human anime in the medium.
My favorite pieces of entertainment are those that live and die by the quality of their writing. If Bartender did not handle it’s subject with such precision and loving care, it would be a forgotten relic before the big anime boom of 2007. It goes beyond what Shokugeki no Soma does for food or Hikaru no Go does for the sport. If you can’t accept the volume of the importance of cocktails, this isn’t your kind of anime. I imagine the slow, episodic nature of each story will already keep some people at arms’ length. But the work presented here is unquestionably intimate and gorgeous in its style.
I invite you all to sit down once at Eden Hall and try something new. Even the touches of magical realism emphasize the core belief of the series; that people are wonderful, complex creatures like the spirits they drink.
My Rating: 10 out of 10
Bartender is currently unlicensed and unavailable in the United States. The entire series can be found via youtube, but subtitles only. The original manga is ongoing in its third incarnation Bartender à Tokyo, written by Araki Joh and published by Shueisha/Grand Jump
For more of Scott’s work, you can find it the “Animated Anarchy” banner at the website: http://oneofus.net