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Thermae Romae Vol. #01 Hardcover Manga Review

6 min read

Wherein ancient Rome is mixed with modern Japan in a hilarious and educational way.

Creative Staff
Story: Mari Yamazaki
Art: Mari Yamazaki

What They Say
When Roman architect Lucius is criticized for his “outdated” thermae designs, he retreats to the local bath to collect his thoughts.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 rough-housing 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 to 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!

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
With the wide variety of manga that comes out every month, there’s a ton of books on the shelves. When you’re at the book store, it can be pretty overwhelming when you have all those rows and rows of similar books with spines that don’t stand out hardly at all. When a publisher does something like Yen Press does here, giving this an oversized hardcover format with a decent dustjacket and a high price point, you have to pick it up and look at it. It simply sets itself apart by its very nature and that draws you in. Even more so when the front and back covers basically gives us solid looking Roman statues, a simple but very nicely done logo and little else other than it was adapted into a movie this past year that went over well.

So, what is Thermae Romae?

It’s a work from Mari Yamazaki that really delivers something familiar yet quite different, the kind of series that capitalizes on what something outside the norm can get away with and really draw in your non-standard crowd. The central focus is on a young man named Lucius, a Roman architect of bath houses back around 130 AD. He’s a skilled architect and engineer, but his life is troubled at this point because of the nature of the empire. While he wants to bring back a certain kind of classic bathhouse that speaks more to certain glory days, those that handle things aren’t interested in the past because it is just that, the past. There’s something that he wants to really create but there’s a certain functionaltiy that the current system has clung to and change is not something that comes quick or easy. Enough so that his employment is cut rather short since he’s pretty intent on a particular style.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t handle it all that well and just finds himself in one of the public baths where he’s drowning his sorrows in a way. Which almost becomes literal as there’s a slight misstep while there and he goes underwater and ends up resurfacing elsewhere. That elsewhere turns out to be late 1970’s Japan and a bath house there. He’s entirely confused as one would expect and doesn’t realize that he’s in the future (nor does he during any of the other leaps he goes through). Lucius believes himself to be in some strange far flung province of the empire or the hinterlands filled with “flat faced” barbarians. He can’t speak the language, but as he ends up in a small bath house, he’s fascinated by what he sees simply because it’s his whole life taken to a very different level.

His experiences in the modern world are amusing since everyone just assumes he’s an unusual foreigner and they give him some leeway. His view of them are amusing as well since he finds them to be barbarians compared to a proper Roman, but there’s something very engaging about them and he regularly thinks how they’d be a wonderful addition to the empire. But his time there is invariably limited and he ends up underwater again and thrust back into his time. It’s here that it gets even more interesting as we see how he incorporates what he learns from Japan and brings it into his time. There are obvious changes to it in some ways, and some of the things he brings back are distinctly Japanese when you get down to it, but his new creations end up causing quite the sensation and it sends him on a meteoric rise among certain circles, though there are problems with it along the way sicne his new bath houses become far too popular among some.

Each of the chapters are a decent length and it follows a familiar formula by having Lucius deal with a problem in the present, get thrown into different points in the future through some quirk and then brings all of that before ending up back in his own time again to apply it to his situation. It may be forced in some ways, but the reason it all works is because there’s just such a sense of fun and education about it. Mari Yamazaki gives us a look at different things going on in Lucius time so the story does move forward over several years here, from his first changes that he brings to the table, issues with his wife and a three year period spent with the Emperor on a campaign of war where he ended up solving some problems involving keeping the soldiers properly taken care of. With what we get in his time plus the look at it in the modern world, it balances the two well while also slowly but surely dealing with the quirks that Lucius himself has.

With the familiar structure to the book, what I found important in reading it is that you really do want to space it out. Reading something like this in a marathon session is just going to wear you down, no matter how much you enjoy the tales that you get, the humor and the balance of the past and present. Yamazaki also brings some good pages between the short stories that are two pages each in which it’s all text and a few photographs related to the story that just unfolded, giving some additional historical context that is informative but also just fun to read with the way she ties it into everything. The combination of this with everything else gives it that little additional nudge that helps it to stand out all the more, never mind the lengthy translation notes and such at the back.

In Summary
I had no idea what to expect going into Thermae Romae, but before I was able to read it my twelve year old daughter absconded with it. And absolutely loved it, which surprised me when I got to reading it myself. Mari Yamazaki does some really good stuff here even while going with a formulaic approach to it. As a study of two cultures in two different time periods, there’s a lot of great little similarities that get explored. Lucius gets fleshed out a fair bit along the way, something I wasn’t quite expecting based on how the premise was unfolding, but with the progress in time in the past and his varied experiences in the present, he’s a great character to have as the eyes and narration of the story. Yen Press has given this a really top notch look and layout here with the oversized hardcover that lets you get drawn into the story all the more and while it’s definitely pricey, it’s the kind of rare story that’s done very well that makes it worth taking the plunge on if the general idea at all sounds interesting.

Content Grade: A-
Art Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: A
Text/Translation Grade: A-

Age Rating: 16+
Released By: Yen Press
Release Date: November 20th, 2012
MSRP: $34.99

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