Comic Picks By The Glick

Thermae Romae vol. 1

November 17, 2012

If you read something this year with a more unique premise than this... please let me know.  I don’t think you will, but I’d certainly be surprised to see it.  This is further proof that the Japanese can make a manga out of even the most unlikely, or even uncommercial, subjects.  While it certainly has its virtues, I’m also left with the feeling that it’s ultimately more of a novelty more than anything else.

Lucius Modestus is a down-on-his luck bath designer in the time of the Roman Empire.  No one wants to use his old-fashioned designs and he’s currently out of work.  Fortunately he has a friend, Marcus, who suggests a trip to the local bathhouse to lift his spirits.  While examining a vent in one of the baths, Lucius is promptly sucked into it... and winds up in a bathhouse in modern Japan.  Amazed by its design and accompaniments, like fruit milk, he does his best to translate these innovations into the Roman era and resuscitates his career in the process.

Mangaka Mari Yamazaki makes the “so bizarre it must be read to be believed” premise succeed through liberal amounts of good-natured culture clash humor and a commanding knowledge of ancient Rome and Japanese baths.  At least, she knows enough to convince me that she has a commanding knowledge of the two, and she goes into even greater detail about these in the between-chapter segments.  The actual humor is more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny as the majority of the jokes can be summed up by, “Lucius is confounded by the intricacies of modern Japanese culture.”  It’s all fairly predictable for the most part, but the payoff for each chapter comes in seeing the results of his efforts to translate the knowledge he has gained from time travel to his era.  Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing a Consul who was at death’s door rejuvenated to the point of taking a new wife and fathering a new kid thanks to the outdoor hot spring Lucius whipped up.  Other times we get something almost MacGyver-esque in its ingenuity, such as the personal bath created for an elderly architect.

It’ll at least bring a smile to your face and Yamazaki’s detailed style works well in showing us these two different eras now linked by bathing.  You can tell, though, that she’s clearly more enamored of Rome given the detail she lavishes on the period setting.  There’s also an interesting contrast between the stoicness of Lucius and the clearly animated Japanese characters in this series.  He’s the straight man for the humor of this series, but it’s played off of rather well and comes naturally from the culture-clash setup.

However, this utterly unique premise doesn’t really make for an interesting ongoing narrative.  Having Lucius time-travel to solve the conundrum facing him in each episode gets old rather quickly, and you’ll either have to surrender yourself to the fact that he will encounter some kind of bath in every chapter, fall in, and emerge in modern Japan or else you won’t have any hope of enjoying what this title has to offer.  Such a setup makes for a very episodic read with no momentum to carry you between stories.  This title may be easy to pick up, but it’s just as easy to put down as well.  Yamazaki tries to build some narrative threads with Lucius’ efforts to win back his wife, and his employment by Emperor Hadrian, but they feel like they’re perpetually on the back-burner compared to the bath-building which is the focus of each story.  The volume ends with the emergence of a potential threat for the character which could give things some momentum, yet it’s hard to get worked up about it since it’ll likely only serve as a vehicle to more time-travel shenanigans.  Now that I’m finished with this volume I can’t help but wonder if I’ve seen everything this series has to offer.

At least it looks great.  While Viz’s hardcover presentation of “Nausicaa” was very nice, this volume is arguably better.  It’s a normal-sized hardcover with a clear dust jacket and high-quality glossy paper which makes the art look that much sharper.  We also get copious translation notes from translator Stephen Paul at the end as well as color pages in the middle.  While this presentation virtually screams “high class” it’s also heartening to see publisher Yen Press put the effort into making this stand out.  Like the hardcover presentation on “A Bride’s Story,” you really get the feeling that the publisher believes in this project and wants to make it stand out.  They’ve certainly succeeded there (and I hope the upcoming collection of short stories from Kaoru Mori gets the same treatment).

It’s hard not to enjoy the talent Yamazaki displays in making this bizarro premise work as well as the good humor it displays.  However, I can’t see the series sustaining this appeal over the long run because repetitiveness has already set in with this volume.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t check this out, in fact everyone should if only to say that you’ve read a story about a time travelling Roman bath builder.  Do you need to read any more?  I’m not so sure about that, but I’ll have my answer when volume two comes out next March.

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