Comic Picks By The Glick

Thermae Romae vol. 2

June 7, 2013

So you’ve got a series about a bath engineer from Roman times who makes a habit of falling into water and waking up in modern day Japan.  Once there, he observes some notable aspect of their bathing culture and then tries his best to replicate it after he falls into water again and winds up back in the Roman era.  That’s your formula and there’s no deviating from it.  How do you shake things up without “shaking things up?”  Rather than give us any “Back to the Future” or “Terminator”-style time travel shenanigans, mangaka Mari Yamazaki decides to play with the pacing a bit to give the stories more room to breathe.  The end result doesn’t transcend the title’s premise, but it does keep things interesting enough for those of us who liked the first volume.

Though a plot against bath designer extraordinaire Lucius was teased at the end of vol. 1, it winds up being quickly dispensed with after his two-chapter sojourn to the Roman hills filled with bandits and a Japanese bathing town.  Being the first multi-part story in this title so far, Yamazaki mainly plays with extending the setup and payoff, as one part takes place entirely in Rome and the other almost completely in Japan.  She’s not reinventing the wheel, but there are some good culture-clash bits as Lucius discovers ramen, Japanese knicknacks, archery booths, and currency.

The chapter that follows is the sole done-in-one story in the book as our engineer protagonist finds out about the simple joys of a heated barrel.  It’s alright.  Things then pick up with the next three-part narrative that has Lucius being drafted by his friend to design a bath for a nouveau riche group of Romans with utterly gaudy tastes.  He then winds up paired with a Japanese bath designer in much the same situation as him and as anyone could’ve guessed the two wind up working together to overcome both of their problems.  What saves the story from being overly saccharine are the details invested in their efforts.  The two craftsmen’s triumph isn’t a bit of authorial hand-waving, but something that feels earned through their similar-but-different ways of integrating the goddess Diana and a giant gold bathtub in their respective bathhouses.  It also helps that Lucius and his Japanese partner have great chemistry in their collaboration and in their commiseration that transcends the language barrier.

However, the biggest change to the structure of this title starts halfway into this volume as Lucius undergoes another journey to Japan... and winds up staying there much longer than he has before.  Marking his arrival in a seaside hot springs inn is Satsuki, a gifted Roman scholar who not only speaks Latin, but has great skills as a geisha too.  It’s one of those “love at first sight” meetings that’s immediately obvious to the audience and less so to the characters themselves.  Satsuki is a familiar character type, the kind of smart, beautiful woman who would normally be the center of attention if not for her odd hobbies.  In this case, rather appropriately, it’s her love of Roman culture that winds up keeping the men at bay.

Yes, this all sounds horribly contrived and it certainly is on one level.  On another, Yamazaki’s unspooling of Satsuki’s life growing up makes it all go down surprisingly well and even relatable.  We all have had our childhood obsessions that seem strange to those around us, and even ourselves in retrospect.  That some of us are still living ours as Satsuki is makes her only more likeable.

While Lucius’ extended stay in Japan has the potential to yield his most remarkable achievement yet (after all, he has to do SOMETHING with all of this knowledge he’s accumulating), I worry that things might descend a bit too far into silliness.  This setup and potential romance come off as a nice change at first, but then we start getting into the inevitable business of the time traveler experiencing future shock at things like TVs and electricity.  I realize that something like this was bound to happen, and Yamazaki acknowledges as much in her notes, yet there’s no real imagination to these scenes.  They’re pretty much played straight with the expectation that Lucius’ reaction to Japanese TV will provide a satisfying comic payoff.  At least things don’t degenerate into ridiculousness they way they do at the end of the volume when a horse who is in love with the time traveler bursts into the inn to seek him.  No, really.

I certainly hope Yamazaki can right the ship after ending the volume on a scene like this.  It’s a real “What was she thinking?” moment that the title could’ve done without.  “Thermae Romae” has a unique, winning formula that doesn’t have room for rampaging, lovestruck equines.  I want to see more aspects of Japanese bathing being adapted for Roman times in ways that would impress MacGyver!  Though this volume ended on a very irritating note, it was a fun read overall.  Not anything essential -- despite what the stellar production values from Yen Press would indicate -- but superior fluff nonetheless.

Jason Glick

Podbean App

Play this podcast on Podbean App