By Mari Yamazaki
ISBN: 978-0316232197 & 978-0316369114
The Japanese and Romans are the only two cultures in recorded history with a reverence for bathing. Mari Yamazaki was intrigued by the idea that two such separate and distinctive cultures developed a love for bathing. As a creative individual, she wondered what would happen if a Roman was transported to modern day Japan. How would he react? How marveled would he be by the modern conveniences? What knowledge would he draw from his experiences? Yamazaki’s thoughts led to the creation of the three-volume manga Thermae Romae (Latin for Roman bathhouse).
The story follows the Roman architect Lucius who specializes in designing bathhouses. His mind is dry of good ideas for his next project and he is searching for a well of inspiration. While working in a bathhouse, he discovers a tunnel that transports him to bathing facility in modern day Japan. Lucius studies his surroundings and is amazed by how the advanced technology and Japan’s different, yet complimentary approach to bathing. Lucius takes the ideas back with him to ancient Rome and builds his own versions of the bathing technology. Each chapter follows Lucius as he seeks inspiration for a project and makes his way to Japan by going under water wherever he is. In volumes two and three, Lucius gets trapped in Japan at an old-fashioned bathhouse. Fortunately for him, a young woman works at the bathhouse and she is a scholar of ancient Roman culture. She knows how to speak Latin and helps Lucius, however, a growing attraction between the two makes it hard for Lucius to decide whether to return home or stay.
I have read other reviews of Thermae Romae and it has been described more than once as a great way to introduce manga people who don’t understand it. Most of those recommended to read it are the older demographics who have a hard time wrapping their head around Japanese funny books. Thermae Romae is different from the usual imports of shojo and shonen manga, reasonably so because it is a seinen manga, meaning it was written for an older audience-primarily males. Instead of an action plot storyline, the focus is on Lucius learning how modern bathing technology works and how he can transpose it using Roman techniques. Despite the technical explanations, Yamazaki laces in comedic elements as Lucius learns, mostly from him appearing nude in random places. The romantic subplot only gathers steam in the last volume. It gently wafts through the last few chapters and attention is only brought to it when a loudmouth developerthreatens to shut down the bathhouse and he also has the hots for Lucius’s love interest. Lucius thwarts the developer’s plans using his prowess as an ancient Roman. It involves a chariot racing against a car, which is very exciting and funny.
Yamazaki’s art is another reason Thermae Romae is recommended to more mature readers. It lacks the cartoonish gimmicks that run rampant in other manga genres. Instead the characters and settings are depicted as lifelike portrayals of real people. There aren’t any exaggerations, including the typical big eyes and triangle mouth. Yamazaki even distinguishes the facial characteristics between the Japanese and Roman people. It can often be confusing for non-manga readers as to why characters never look like they’re particular ethnicity, but here it is not an issue. What is especially neat about Yamazaki’s work are how she draws the varying bathing technologies. Since Lucius spends most of his time puzzling out problems, she sketches out his thought process as he deciphers the different engineering techniques and Japanese customs.
Thermae Romae truly is a wonderful way to introduce manga to a non-reader, but it is also welcome reminder to manga fans about the medium’s scope. The series trades romantic hijinks and fantastic power displays for a quiet plot that explores how two cultures insect on a shared past time. It is intelligent and well written with very little problems. I could complain that the series ended a bit too fast and Lucius’s time in Japan could have been explored more, but Yamazaki had enough experience as a manga-ka to allow the story to ebb on its own without dragging it out. Thermae Romae is the type of manga people need to read to reinvigorate the love for the medium.