Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Lucius Quintus Modestus continues to visit modern-day Japan almost every time he falls into water, and he brings what he's learned back to improve the thermae of ancient Rome. But his patron, the Emperor Hadrian, is having problems, especially when his heir takes ill. He wants Lucius to help guide his heir apparent, but when a voyage to the future doesn't result in an immediate return to the past, will Lucius be able to fulfill his promise?
Every so often, someone holds up a particular title to show how anime and manga can be about anything. Baking bread? Check. Farming? You bet. Pachinko? Mahjong? Double check. The similarities in the bathing cultures of Ancient Rome and contemporary Japan? Now, thanks to Mari Yamazaki, we can answer that with a “check.” In the second oversized volume of Thermae Romae – oversize in both the sense that it is the size of a standard hardcover (if not a little larger) and that it contains two volumes of the original Japanese release – Yamazaki continues to probe the ways the two cultures express their love of the bath, both public and private. Through her time-traveling hero Lucius Quintus Modestus, an Ancient Roman bath engineer, we see the ways both Japan and Rome enjoy their baths, and don't worry, that's neither as weird nor as boring as it sounds.
Actually, this volume is a vast improvement on the first, which followed a definite “lather, rinse, repeat” formula that had Lucius visiting Japan and returning to try to replicate their bathing innovations within each chapter for 300-odd pages. While the first half of this book, the original volume 3, does maintain this basic format, the second half introduces an ongoing storyline that has Lucius stuck in Japan, unable to return to Rome. This section is not only a nice change from the basic pacing of Yamazaki's series, but it also gives us a chance to see Lucius actually react to the modern world in a way that we haven't previously. It also provides some romantic subplot, which allows Lucius to develop as a character in a different way, even if parts of it smack of self-insertion wish fulfillment: the object of his interest is Satsuki Odate, a brilliant scholar of the ancient world and basically an Ancient Rome otaku. When other girls have a favorite member of SMAP, Satsuki has a favorite Roman emperor. She speaks fluent Latin and starts a club at university where they basically LARP life in Ancient Rome, and her would-be boyfriend cuts his hair like an Ancient Roman. She dreams of having been born during the Empire...and all of a sudden, this gorgeous naked Roman man appears in the hot spring! Could he be her ticket to Rome?
In all fairness, Yamazaki does not seem to be making an attempt to make Satsuki her manga alter-ego. It is rather that we know she has a thing for Ancient Roman culture – she is writing this series, after all – and Satsuki's existence just seems a little too convenient. Then again, who else could Yamazaki have put in the story for Lucius to communicate with? A Catholic priest, really one of the only other options for someone who speaks fluent Latin, does not seem like a good choice of someone to get along with the somewhat prickly and decidedly pagan Lucius. Be that as it may, this on-going tale of Lucius forced to live at a hot springs inn gives him something to think about besides bath improvements and innovations, and we begin to see him as more than an engineer. His utter comfort with his naked body in a modern Japanese setting is a fascinating contrast, and his reaction to electricity (and television in general) is interesting and says a lot about him as a person.
There is one other story of note in this volume that does not entirely follow Yamazaki's pattern, and that is one where Lucius finds himself helping a Japanese engineer to create a Roman-style bath. The reversal of who is helping whom is a nice change in the pattern, and it allows for a more equal relationship between the two cultures. Otherwise the first half of the book is much like the previous volume – good reading and interesting, but perhaps best in small doses until you get to the ongoing plotline of the second half.
Yamazaki's art remains detailed in the right places with a great sense of place, particularly with regards to Ancient Rome. Her attention to how things were done, the intricacies of dress depending upon the situation, and the foods consumed really bring you to the ancient city. It is of note that she has grown somewhat more circumspect in terms of male nudity, and there are very few penises to be seen, even fewer than in the first volume. Body types, however, remain distinct, and perhaps one of the best ways this is showcased is in the way that old people really look old. Her essays about history and her own personal experiences also remain worth reading; American readers will likely be interested in her views on Chicago, where at the time of Japanese publication she had recently moved. (Non-city people will certainly appreciate her view of the city as claustrophobic.)
With its large size, glossy pages, and unusual subject matter, Thermae Romae is certainly one of the best looking manga on the market, to say nothing of one of the more interesting. While the idea of public bathing may still seem strange to some of us, Yamazaki makes it a good read and fans of Ancient Rome should feel right at home with her depictions of the city and part of its everyday culture. The inclusion of an ongoing storyline helps to make this a better series, so if you're looking for something just a little bit off the beaten manga path, you could do far worse than to follow Lucius on some of his adventures.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Ongoing story helps keep things moving, lots of varied body types and a great sense of place. Beautiful book.
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