Thermae Romae, Vol. 1

By Mari Yamazaki. Released in Japan in two separate volumes by Enterbrain, serialization ongoing in the magazine Comic Beam. Released in North America by Yen Press.

Sometimes, the companies putting out manga in the West surprise you. Let’s face it, most of what comes out these days is meant to be popular and sell well. That’s the way of business. And I like a lot of popular, bestselling manga as well. But in times like these, with companies struggling to stay afloat, it’s far more likely you’ll see the latest “My Little Sister Has A Light Novel Series With An Overly Long Title” series than something from Big Comic or Evening (or, yes, even IKKI, though Viz has made an excellent effort). That’s why it’s always fantastic to see exceptions like these, a series with a nice big deluxe hardcover (which, admittedly, is probably the best way to ensure it will break even), which is about a Roman architect who finds he can now time-travel between Ancient Rome and modern-day Japan to learn about baths.

Seriously, just read that description again. It’s hard to find something farther away from ninjas and vampires. And yet I found this entire volume fascinating. There’s a nice balance between the so-called hook of Lucius marveling at the wonders of modern architecture and design (and beating himself up about the inadequacies of his time, which at times seems to be the dominant aspect of his personality) and Lucius’ own soap-opera of a life that his new designs bring about. There’s no real danger of ‘will bringing modern innovations into the past change the future’ – this isn’t a science fiction story, and notably how he does this is never really explained – it could easily be hallucinatory dreams.

But it’s his life, and those of his fellow Romans, that makes this such a page=turner. Lucius is modest to the point of self-loathing, has quite a few marriage issues (which, to the author’s credit, are not magically solved once he becomes more successful) and a number of jealous comrades. He’s also becoming closer with Emperor Hadrian, who has him design a few new baths, which leads to several obvious rumors about his sexuality (Hadrian’s tastes were well-known, though there’s a long series of endnotes for those unaware of the finer aspects of Roman history).

The Roman plotline (which actually is fairly historically accurate, to the degree allowed by the plot’s designs) is fairly heavy throughout, even as Lucius’s career prospects skyrocket. It’s therefore a relief that there’s always a modern Japanese time travel story to break this up. Lucius tends to overreact much of the time, in the best comedic tradition, and his awe in the face of things like Strawberry Milk or washcloths is just plain funny. The Japanese people he meets seem to be almost preternaturally unsuspecting and accommodating of him (oh look, another crazy foreigner) and always willing to expound on how awesome their baths/hot springs/etc are. (There’s some nationalism here, I admit, but it’s woven well enough into the plot that it’s easy to accept).

Yen’s presentation, as I noted above, is deluxe. A hardcover with a plastic slipcase in order to cover the Japanese original, which features a Roman statue with naughty bits. (Fear not – take off the slipcase and the bits are all present and correct.) The paper is high-class, and there’s comments by the author after each chapter about her research, Roman times vs. today, and how much she likes to simply bathe. A love of the bathing ritual permeates this book – not just getting clean, but everything about it – and it’s to Yamazaki-san’s credit that it doesn’t overwhelm the actual plotline of Lucius’s rise to fame and growing intrigue. This volume is a bit pricey, but it’s definitely worth it. Ask for it for Christmas!

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