Title: Thermae Romae
Genre: Comedy, Historical
Publisher: Enterbrain (JP), Yen Press (US)
Artist: Mari Yamazaki
Serialized In: Comic Beam
Translation: Stephen Paul
An innovative yet quirky combination, Mari Yamazaki’s Thermae Romae tells the story of Lucius Modestus, a Roman bathing architect who’s in a bit of a trouble. He has been criticized for his outdated ideas when it comes to creating a thermae, and he can’t come up with anything better. He goes to drown in his sorrows at a public bath when, as he submerges himself underwater, he sees an unusual drainage. When he goes to check it out, he is sucked right in. Desperate for air, he gets back up to surface, only to discover he’s surrounded by Japanese men he calls “flat-faces” and is stuck in a Japanese bath. And that begins the absurdity that is Thermae Romae.
This is a combination that has not be seen before — a merging of two of the most respected enjoyments of two cultures — the bath. Throughout history, both the Japanese and the Romans valued their baths and how they took it, but does it sound like those two could be combined into a solid manga? Not really. However, Yamazaki somehow makes this concept work well enough. While it merges the two distinctive cultures together, it doesn’t linger in them long enough to overstay its welcome. That of course means its pretty formulaic stuff. Lucius happens to meet someone in need of good thermae, he analyzes it, an accident involving him occurs in the Roman bathhouse, he winds up in a Japanese bathhouse, and learns something new before blacking out and awakening back in Rome. This format changes stunningly when it gets to chapter 6, when it half introduces a continuing arc, and indulges itself in dozens of phallic references. That caught me off guard. But the core still remains in Thermae Romae: Lucius, who can’t come up with anything on his own, gets an idea from going to Japan and learns something to apply for himself.
This makes Thermae Romae interesting from start to finish, but I think that’s all I can say about the manga. The art is pretty good, with drawings of famous Roman figures (including one of Priapus, the Greek god of Fertility), the characters themselves are well designed for the most part, and the bathhouse designs are superb. The characters are well thought out and stay true to who they are, like Lucius who only wants the best for Rome so he begrudgingly swallows his pride as he sees how advanced Japanese culture is, or Hadrian, who not only shows his vision of what he wants for Rome’s future, but also shows his clingy side to men (that, as it turns out, really destroys Lucius’s credibility later on). If those are well done, then what is the problem with Thermae Romae? Merely the stories and the price to get this manga.
Not all of the stories are interesting, especially when you know it’s the same song and dance each chapter. It is definitely great to see editor’s notes from the author in this book, but did we need all of them? I guess that’s merely me being picky. Whatever the case, some of the jokes in this manga fall flat, and some of the dialogue is pretty boring. But despite that, none of that is really a bad thing. Issues like that can be fixed as the series continues. The real problem comes with the price tag, and that is when I start to hesitate. With it being in hard cover format and a combination of volumes 1 and 2, paying close to $36 is pretty steep. I had to question whether or not Thermae Romae was worth that price, and at this point, I’m not too sure because I wasn’t blown away. If you have the money and you are convinced that bathing history and hilarity is for you, you should splurge on Thermae Romae. If not, you may have to order it off Amazon to feel like you got your bang with your buck.
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