Welcome to the first installment of book reviews of inconsequence. The inaugural book shall be:
Thermæ Romæ by Mari Yamazaki
“Thermae Romae” has to be one of the most unconventional manga I have ever seen. The author, Yamazaki, is a Japanese woman married to an Italian grandson of a potter. They currently live in Chicago. Somewhat avant-garde in her approach, Yamazaki is certainly not the typical storyteller, if “Thermae” is any indication.
The story follows Lucius, a citizen of ancient Rome. Lucius is an architect – specifically, an architect of bath houses. There is no one more passionate about baths than this man. Lucius has the power to travel through time, albeit his power is uncontrollable. By way of strange fate (bordering on deus ex machina), Lucius finds himself, time and time again, in modern day Japan(‘s baths). Lucius time travels (to modern day baths) and learns much about human engineering (of baths) in the 21st century.
This is a comedy.
Also, Yamazaki writes a short essay after every chapter. The two-page essay reflects on the discoveries Lucius made in Japan. The essays cover ancient Roman bathing practices and how they are similar and dissimilar from Japanese people’s love of bathing. You can really tell Yamazaki loves Rome (and baths).
What’s absolutely stunning about this series is not that it’s so absurd, but that it’s so well received and lauded. The series has thus far released two volumes and is an ongoing series on Comic Beam. The comic has been serialized since early 2008 and presents detailed and tastefully composed artwork. The very fact that a comic about a time-traveling Roman bather has enough content to continue publishing for three years is confounding.
The fact the comic has received the 14th Osamu Tezuka Culture prize in short story form is… There are no words. This manga won one of the most prestigious comic awards in Japan, and it’s about baths. Wow.
Art: Good, it’s got realism to it.
The facial expressions are subtle most of the time, and Lucius’s comic fascination with modern Japan is told through dialogue. Yamazaki also did her homework to research what to draw; you will find very little historical inaccuracy here.
Story: It’s there.
As much as this is a comedy, there is a vague sense of narrative. On top of the episodic presentation of Lucius’s fascination with the culture of Japan, there is an overarching plot that begins to crystallize by the end of vol. 1. Lucius, a formerly insignificant architect, suddenly finds himself being lauded by the revolutionary technologies for baths; through success, he loses touch with his family life and becomes a man consumed by work and fascination for the Japanese people.
Freshness: Pretty fresh.
Cost: 680 yen + tax. Not cheap.
Will it be translated?: Not likely.
I can’t say this won’t be translated, but not so many people will be willing to take the risk of translating this manga into English for American distribution. The subject matter is baths, which culturally resounds with the Japanese, but is appreciated only so much by Americans. No matter how interesting and well lauded, most publishers would probably think twice before barging in for a translation deal.
That said, the author’s residence in Chicago may prove to make it easier for localizers, and the story is genuinely funny.
Flash Summary: Time traveler’s Thermae.
Tomo Hirai is a Shin-Nisei Japanese American lesbian trans woman born in San Francisco and raised in Walnut Creek, Calif., where she continues to reside. She attended the San Francisco Japanese Hoshuko (supplementary school) through high school and graduated from the University of California, Davis with degrees in Communications and Japanese, along with a minor in writing. She serves as a diversity consultant for table top games and comic books in her spare time.