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Bartender (2006)

In a hidden nook in the Ginza district of Tokyo stands the door to Eden Hall. You wouldn't see the sign or notice it unless you were looking for it or if perhaps you felt its pull, drawing you in to push open the heavy wooden door. Upon entering Eden Hall you will be greeted by Ryū Sasakura who is an exceptionally gifted barman who is able to serve just the drink to suit your mood, circumstance and situation, the fabled "Glass of the Gods". This is the world of Bartender and you are invited in to take a seat.

Bartender (the anime) is based on a manga of the same name. It was created by Araki Joh and Kenji Nagatomo and was published from 2004 to 2009. The 11 episode anime was directed by Masaki Watanabe and produced by Palm Studio in 2006 (right in the middle of the manga run). It was written by Yasuhiro Imagawa who had worked on other Palm Studio productions like Tetsujin-28-Go. The series itself is very episodic in nature - there is no ongoing narrative arc across the episodes although there are a recurring cast of characters that builds as the series progresses. Whilst there is a hint of the supernatural with bar Eden Hall and how people come to it, Bartender is more slice-of-life with a heavy dose of niche artisanal produce.

I pre-ordered a copy of Bartender because it looked very different to anything else I have on the shelves and fancied something different to robot-based action. I didn't really know anything about Bartender which was actually quite nice when going into it. I had no expectations so found it quite easy to sit in front of a few episodes and just experience what was put in front of me. From the off what stood out was the way in which the stories were being told followed closely by their content. Given that the anime takes place in a bar they are of a more mature nature in the themes they contain. At the same time, these themes are pretty universal - love, death, loss, determination, finding yourself. In many cases, the tale behind the liquor, spirit or other alcoholic beverage mirrored or paralleled the situation of the person sat at the bar.


I mentioned above that there is a recurring cast of characters and although Bartender has no ongoing narrative arc (in the anime, I can't speak to the manga) the cast are used to tell and narrate the stories. I enjoyed the change in voices and the rhythm it brought to the storytelling. It was almost musical or at the very least like a poetry recital. With plenty of fourth-wall breaking by the characters I got the sense of a classic stage play that ran throughout the anime. Scenes are often in a single room (normally Eden Hall), there is strong use of spotlights or a split-screen scenes where a narrator stands surrounded by shadow (or moodily lit) whilst a scene plays out on the other side of the screen. If it wasn't for some deliberately "stagey" camera angles you could almost be watching an animated play.

Each episode starts with a fact or story about a spirit or alcoholic drink that will feature in the episode and ends with a recipe for something that features in the story somewhere. The episodes range from out-and-out fun ones to ones with a more melancholy tinge and these were the ones that lingered with me more (particularly episode 9, The Bar's Face) ... as did the one where Sasakura is ill which I found quite absurd. I was left with an impression more than a vivid recollection of the episode which given that hint of a supernatural quality of Eden Hall and Sasakura for me fit with the overall tone of the show.

Whilst I could get behind the stories within the episodes the bit I struggled to really accept was the quasi-romantic view of the bartender. From the merest detail, be that a word, tone or their appearance they can infer all manner of information, very much like Sherlock Holmes would, and from there prescribe the drink that will cure their ills. I like the idea of it but as I say I struggled to embrace it fully. Perhaps if it had more of an ongoing story, where a character comes in more than once I would have been able to build a bit of that picture which could have then been filled in by Sasakura's brilliance.


In terms of animation and the look of the show, a couple of things really stood out for me. The first was how the bottles and their arrangements were rendered within the anime. It looked like a lot of effort had gone into getting them just right, how the light reflected off the bottles, the texture and shape of them, the logos and branding. It was almost like an advert. Similarly how they were displayed behind the bar had real impact, as I guess it should do in a bar like that. You could see the effort and I imagine fun (and stress) that Palm Studio had in using computer modelling and rendering in 2005/6 to do that work. In a similar vein, there are some neat little flourishes, like how Sasakura uses the cocktail shaker where time has been taken to get the animation fluid and give it a sense of weight.

This contrasts pretty heavily with the rest of the show where in the main the character animation and movements are fine. I keep thinking and wanting to say serviceable which is a term used a lot but that, for me, is the best description. The animation is serviceable - it does the job to convey what is happening. The character designs (which I appreciate are from the manga) didn't leap out at me but equally never felt that the captured that "ordinary" quality that say Naoki Urasawa captures. There are lots of slow panning shots, sequences with dialogue where nothing changes which are often punctuated by one of those rendered bottle sequences.

Now, if someone was to pen and release and anime called "Barista" where characters go into a coffee shop (or café) and are served an exceptional coffee beverage to suit the time, place and mood, where they discuss in detail brew methods, recipes, coffee-producing regions and processing methods I would be all over it. Coffee is one of my hobbies. Because I'm not hugely into cocktails and alcoholic beverages the detail that is taken over the cocktail recipes (which feature in every episode), the slow-motion pan across the perfectly rendered bottle or the discussions on some of the drinks on display or their history didn't catch my imagination. I found it interesting, it just didn't inspire me. However, if you are someone who is interested in cocktails or spirits and their history there is something for you to enjoy. (Having done a quick search online I am now aware there is a manga titled Barista so if there is an English language release I will pick it up to see what it is like.)

Unlike The Drops of God of which I have read a few volumes of the manga, it doesn't portray the experience in a novel or interesting way that you kind of get a sense of flavours or the experience the patron has at the bar at the hands of this amazing bartender. What interested me more, what kept me watching, was the way in which Bartender told its stories and the kinds of stories they chose to tell. The animation was fine, the bottles and logos were lovingly realised, but there was something special in a couple of the stories that portrayed a slice of life I have never experienced that I would go back and watch particular episodes again. 

 FORMAT: SERIES AVAILABLE ON: BLU-RAY FROM: Anime Limited [UK] Shout Factory JAN 21 [US] RATING: TV-14 [US] 12[UK]  RUNNING TIME : 22mins x  11 episodes


IN A NUTSHELL:; A cocktail of cast, characters and stories told in a way that creates a pleasant aftertaste. Some will linger longer and be more enjoyed than others.