When Roman architect Lucius is criticized for his “outdated” thermae designs, he retreats to the local bath to collect his thoughts. All Lucius wants is to recapture the Rome of earlier days, when one could enjoy a relaxing bath without the pressure of merchants and roughhousing patrons. Slipping deeper into the warm water, Lucius is suddenly caught in the suction and dragged through the drainage at the bottom of the bath! He emerges coughing and sputtering amid a group of strange-looking foreigners with the most peculiar bathhouse customs…over 1,500 years in the future in modern-day Japan! his contemporaries wanted him t modernize, and so, borrowing the customs of these mysterious bath-loving people, Lucius opens what quickly becomes the most popular new bathhouse in Rome — THERMAE ROMAE
When I first heard about Thermae Romae, I thought the premise was ridiculous, and couldn’t sustain itself for more than a few chapters. I have never been more wrong about a title in my life. It turned out to be a funny story with fascinating cultural elements.
Thermae Romae is the story of Lucius Modestus, a bathhouse engineer who is conscientious about his work and very civil-minded about Rome; its people, its emperor and its culture. Everything he does is to celebrate the glory of Rome. Unfortunately for Lucius, by 128AD, Rome and it’s people are more interested in a more cosmopolitan lifestyle than reliving the glories of the past. Fortunately for Lucius however, he seems to have a remarkable ability. Every time his head is submerged in water, he is transported to a modern-day Japan bathhouse! This power also has the TARDIS-like ability of always taking him where he most needs to be. Whatever the problem is that he’s facing in Rome, he appears in some bathhouse or hot spring in Japan that provides him a solution. And he has problems right from the start of the story, as his design for a new bathhouse is rejected, and he needs to come up with something new and different to attract the people of Rome, and employers. His first trip to the future gives him the inspiration to do just that.
First and foremost, Thermae Romae is a comedy. Lucius is very clumsy, as most of his travels occur when he trips and falls face first into a bath, causing him to appear in the future, often floating face down in the water. Most of the humor comes from Lucius’ arrival and subsequent misunderstanding between himself and the Japanese. Lucius, a Roman, can not believe that another culture, one he thought to be slaves at first, could be so much more advanced than the Romans. He is often astonished by many of the things he sees in the future; personal bathtubs, shower caps and showers, TV while bathing, using steam from a hot spring to create another environment, and bidet toilets. Sometimes Lucius is so astonished that he gets an expression like that of a stone statue, blank eyes and all. For the Japanese, Lucius’ reactions aren’t surprising. They are used to foreigners coming to their baths and not know about the customs or things used in a public bath, and just chalk up his shock and awe for ignorance.
Just beyond the comedy are some fascinating lessons in comparative culture. Yamazaki does an excellent job of showing the ancient Roman customs in bathing and their bathhouses and how they compare to the Japanese. Once Lucius gets over his initial shock, she shows him as the curious and studious engineer he is, as he examines every aspect of the Japanese baths and hot springs he visits, trying to figure out their secrets. He then applies what he has learned with the technology of his day. While a lot of this is speculation, it is presented in such a way that is it not unreasonable. The problems Lucius is confronted with such as helping the old and infirm, showing others the rules of the bath house, and reinvigorating declining bathhouses are all things that could have plagued the Romans as it did the Japanese. By comparing the two cultures through this common past time, it makes both better understandable. In between chapters, there are also notes from Yamazaki explaining Roman culture, and the different reactions she seen to Europeans in Japanese baths, including pictures.
What I really enjoyed about Thermae Romae is how no matter what situation Lucius is put into in modern Japan, he is always the Roman. Since he usually appears naked, he is given a robe or yukata, which he wraps around himself like toga. His reaction to the world outside of the baths, with pollution, cars, and modern signs is very believable for a man 2000 years out of time. While it is difficult for him to accept, he comes to stop thinking of the Japanese as slaves and grudgingly accepts them as equals due to their ingenuity. He is often frustrated that he can not replicate so many of the modern conveniences, such as the glass bottles and tight seals, but he never stops trying. This really helps to make him a sympathetic character, as you can feel his frustration and understand why he feels it so keenly.
The art is wonderfully done, and is very realistically rendered. Other than the aforementioned statue look that Lucius can get, all of his reactions are authentic. There is a lot of nudity, as one would expect since most of the stories take place in baths, but it’s never done in a sexual manner. I actually like the whole nonchalant manner in which Lucius acts about his nudity. He is never embarrassed about it, and when it comes to work, has no problem with stripping down, though it’s usually backsides that are only seen, with the front being tactfully hidden behind steam or a towel. Yamazaki does an excellent job of drawing the human body. Yen Press’ presentation of this title is just as impressive. It’s bound as a hardback, and is nearly as big as a text-book. It has a see-through dust cover that tastefully covers the midsection from the original manga cover with the logo.
I absolutely loved Thermae Romae. All of the comedy made me laugh, while all of the comparative cultural elements just fascinated me. I feel like I’ve not only been entertained, but have learned a lot about both the Japanese and Ancient Roman bath cultures. It isn’t often when a book that can educate can also entertain at this level, so this makes it unique. Do not let the price of this volume discourage you. It is well worth the price, and can sit on your coffee table along with your art books and books about food.