by Mari Yamazaki
published by Yen Press; $34.99 US
Only in Japan. This bizarre historical fantasy finds similarities between the bathhouses of the ancient Romans and the public bathing culture of modern Japan.
Lucius is a Roman architect seeking new designs for a public bath. He’s just been fired for having “antiquated ideas” in his modern day of 128 AD. When he seeks to relax by bathing, he gets sucked under water and comes up in a Japanese bathhouse. After the expected culture clash, he returns to his own time, where he makes himself a success by copying what he saw in the future, to the best of his ability.
Succeeding chapters of Thermae Romae continue the same pattern, with Lucius figuring out how to make an outdoor bath work and seeing a private home bathtub for the first time. His success gets him a commission from the Emperor, which results in him visiting a plumbing fixtures showroom, where he encounters the bidet. Each time, what he sees magically helps him solve his latest challenge at work, whether it’s a mineral hot spring to treat aches and pains or how to teach foreigners proper bathing etiquette. He even invents the waterslide.
There’s a distinct undercurrent of “and that’s why Japan is the best of all times!” (At least in the matter of bath culture.) It’s very rah-rah, with each chapter pointing out at least new discovery Japan does well, from their facility design to boiling eggs in a hot spring. Lucius can tend to be a little wide-eyed and “wow, isn’t this neat!” in attitude, saying that his “Roman pride is shaken” at the extent of the improvements made by the Japanese in “their mastery of the hedonistic arts!” At one point, he dubs the location of his visits “the advanced civilization of the flat-faced men”.
The oversized hardcover shows off the detailed art well, although be careful of the cover. If the clear acetate overlay slips, there is a naked man under the title logo. (A fact I didn’t discover until after I’d taken the book to work to read over lunch. Oops!) That’s a fair reflection of some of the content, too — obviously, since we’re looking at a lot of people bathing. A later chapter even deals with phallus worship in both cultures.
The layouts are straight-forward, paneled pages that resemble American comics more than some other manga. After each chapter comes author’s notes on bathing and Roman history, titled “Rome & Baths, the Loves of My Life”, accompanied by pictures of related antiquities. The first one establishes a certain philosophy, praising the topic: “Perhaps shared nakedness in the presence of hot water is a basic principle of peace.” There are also two pages of endnotes as well as key notes presented in the page margins.
The artistic attention to details of the settings made this book a pleasant read, and after, I wanted my own warm, relaxing bath. In private, though. I did appreciate learning more about the details of how bathing is done in Japan, but I’m not sure I’m ready for it.
At the publisher’s website, the book designers have written about their design choices. The sequel volume is due in May 2013. (The publisher provided a review copy.)