Manga: Thermae Romae I-III

21 November, 2011

My lovely friend Y in Japan sent me the first three volumes of the Japanese manga Thermae Romae by Mari Yamazaki which has been making a huge splash in Japan and is currently being filmed. Knowing I’m partial to anything Roman, she thought it would be a good addition to my library. I was watching the HBO series Rome at the time and pining for Lyndsey Davis’ Falco mysteries which has sadly finished after 20 brilliant adventures so it was a timely savior.

As I’ve come to expect with manga, things are never what they initally appear to be. I was expecting a solid story about a Roman bath architect/engineer, but what’s this? Lucius Modestus falls into a bath, hits his head and when he emerges, finds himself in a modern Japanese sento. Yamazaki’s about-turn completely caught me unawares and I couldn’t stop laughing at the incredibly bonkers yet utterly brilliant twist in her story. Like with many manga which is published serially in weekly or monthly installments, Thermae Romae follows a loose story arc and is a succession of short episodes.

In each chapter, Lucius Modestus manages to take a fall in a public bath and emerges in different wet locations (such as public baths, hot springs, outdoor wooden baths, private baths, theme parks, etc.) in Japan. And with each journey across time and space, he comes upon an invention that astounds him and pulls him deeper into the study and aesthetic of the bath, comparing both the Roman and Japanese traditions. And he tries to implement these very Japanese features, such as the idea of an onsen town, illustrating bath etiquette, refreshments, etc. into the Roman bath culture with great success.

What I really enjoyed about this series is that not only do you learn about Roman culture during the reign of Hadrian, especially their bath culture, but you also learn about the Japanese bath, it’s social and cultural importance, and how it is the centre of the Japanese community. In modern Japan where community life has changed dramatically, the public baths are becoming scarce even as onsen towns are flourishing. Much like the local pub, the public bath or sento was often a place where people of all generations in the community got together to gossip and share information. To put the two cultures that have most elevated the art of bathing together is really a stroke of genius.

Vol. IV of Thermae Romae is coming out at the end of the year and hopefully I’ll get my mitts on it in the not too distant future. There are scanslations available online and hopefully printed translations would become available soon.

For people who are interested in the aesthetic of the Japanese bath, I’ve found the following titles which look very interesting: How to Take a Japanese Bath by Loenard Koren, The Way of the Japanese Bath by Mark Edward Harris, Sento: The Japanese Public Bath by Elizabeth Ishiyama.

I read this as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 5!