Roman bath engineer Lucius just wants to contribute to the Empire’s greatness and the happiness of its people, so when he loses his job because his designs are considered outdated, he’s understandably bitter. To cheer him up his friend treats him to a bath, but the clamoring chaos of business deals, wrestling matches, unruly children, and the cries of men getting their armpits waxed doesn’t improve his mood.
Lamenting the lost bastions of relaxation and contemplation of yore, Lucius slips under the water to fume in peace. He has little chance to enjoy the quiet, however, before suddenly being sucked through a drain and surfacing in another bath — in mid-twentieth-century Japan.
Believing he’s only crossed over to a next-door bath, Lucius assumes its surprised foreign occupants must be “flat-faced slaves.” The facility’s superior aesthetics and technology impress him, however, and not even the shocking realization that he’s actually far from home can deflate his excitement. Moments later, when he wakes up back in Rome after having nearly drowned, he’s consumed with the desire to design a new bath. In fact, now each time Lucius accidentally almost drowns (an oddly frequent occurrence), he finds himself in a different kind of bath (outdoor, in-home, therapeutic, etc.) in the land of the flat faces. Not one to scorn opportunity, he absorbs every scrap of innovation he can before being whisked back home, where he puts his “research” to work and gains the patronage of the wise and powerful.
Thermae Romae‘s premise is ridiculous and brilliant and its clever execution manages to be both highly entertaining and educational. Creator Yamazaki’s enthusiasm and knowledge shine through every aspect of the series, building an amusingly idealistic world in which baths can influence emperors, wars, and the fickle tide of public opinion.
As Lucius is drawn further into the unfamiliar, his eyes are opened to many new perspectives and possibilities — and as he learns, the reader learns. She also laughs. The culture and communication gaps between Lucius and his unintentional muses are a constant source of hilarity. Take, for instance, his hysterical encounter with a high-tech toilet in 2009 Tokyo, or the time he repeatedly attempts to force the return-trip trigger by drowning himself, much to the bewilderment of the Japanese people who keep rescuing him.
Yamazaki uses a fine-lined style with simple screentones for texture and shading. She maintains plenty of white space to keep things from getting too dark or busy, but with enough highly-detailed establishing backgrounds to feel substantial and anchored in whatever time and place she wants, whether it’s Emperor Hadrian’s palatial villa or a contemporary Japanese hot-springs resort. Her realistic character designs reflect the ethnicity and era of individual circumstances, with middle-aged, wavy-haired, well-muscled Lucius resembling a slightly scruffy Roman statue come to life, which contrasts to great effect with the likes of the frail, wrinkled old Japanese man who finds him in his bath and mistakes him for a new in-home caregiver.
Between chapters, Yamazaki includes images and fascinating facts about Roman and Japanese history and bathing culture. She also relates some of her own bathing experiences, her research activities for the series, and her reasons for telling the stories she tells.
The books are lovely, glossy-paged, large-format hardcover editions, the first with a transparent dust jacket with a strategically located title logo over the cover image’s manly bits. The series’ premise necessitates a lot of non-sexualized nudity and there are a few instances of folks of both genders and various ages in their altogether, although the details are usually lost behind water, vapor, and other obstructions. Male genitals are occasionally displayed on statuary, however, and a whole chapter revolves around a maritally-troubled Lucius being swept up in a (real) rural Japanese fertility festival that includes a giant floating phallus, all of which Yamazaki treats with humor and respect for tradition. Older teens and adults keen on intelligent comedy mixed with engaging history, time travel, potential romance, and an endearingly serious fish-out-of-water lead will enjoy this immensely.
Thermae Romae has won both a Manga Taisho and an Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize and was nominated for an Eisner. It has also inspired a 3-episode flash-animated miniseries and a live action feature film (with a sequel slated for release in 2014). The third and final English volume will be out in February of 2014.