When Roman architect Lucius is criticized for his “outdated” thermae designs, he retreats to the local bath to collect his thoughts. All Lucius wants is to recapture the Rome of earlier days, when one could enjoy a relaxing bath without the pressure of merchants and roughhousing patrons. Slipping deeper into the warm water, Lucius is suddenly caught in the suction and dragged through the drainage at the bottom of the bath! He emerges coughing and sputtering amid a group of strange-looking foreigners with the most peculiar bathhouse customs... over 1,500 years in the future in modern-day Japan! His contemporaries wanted him to modernize, and so, borrowing the customs of these mysterious bath-loving people, Lucius opens what quickly becomes the most popular new bathhouse in Rome—Thermae Romae!
Thermae Romae won the 3rd Manga Taisho Award in 2010. A live-action film was released in Japan on April 28, 2012 and was that year's 2nd highest grossing domestic film.
Yen Press released the series in hardcover 2-in-1 omnibuses from November 20, 2012 to February 25, 2014.
The series was also published in Italian by Star Comics from October 22, 2011 to January 18, 2014 and live-action film was released in Italy by Tucker Film in 2014; and in Brazil by Jbc from August 2013 to March 2014.
Bathing is something both Rome and Japan hold dear as not only an act to get oneself clean but also as an act of socialization. Based on this concept we find our hero Lucius, a down on his luck architect from ancient Rome transported to modern Japan through the baths he comes to love to learn all about the art of the bath and to experience a major case of culture shock every time he shows up. It’s a relatively short and sweet manga, with a heavy base in comedy.
I love this manga because of the incredibly silly premise that is taken
quite seriously. You come out of the manga learning a lot as well as being entertained. The historical sections are incredibly well researched.
Thermae Romae knows exactly what experience it's trying to deliver, and it always does so, for better or worse. If you'd enjoy reading a story about culture shock from the past to the future, or a story of episodic problems always reaching fun conclusions, then how contrived it can be won't detract from your enjoyment.
The story begins in ancient Rome, with struggling bathhouse architect Lucius Modestus finding it harder and harder to get work, due to his traditional ideas in an era where the new is successful. It is ironic that he will soon become the foremost purveyor of new ideas — as Lucius enjoys
a bath, he gets sucked into a mysterious hole and finds himself in modern Japan. In of course, another bath. After all, Ancient Rome and Japan share the fact that they have a bathing culture — hot, public, communal baths, for relaxation as well as cleanliness. Yet the bathing culture Lucius finds himself in is millenia more advanced than what he is used to.
That is the core of Thermae Romae — the old being amazed at the new. Lucius will often be shell-shocked at the culture and technology of Japan, as over and over he finds himself in there, with something new to learn. He never stays long, but always has something to learn.
See, the first half of Thermae Romae follows a fairly standard formula: Lucius gets a new job or assignment to build a bath, or a bath has a problem he must help fix. As he struggles with it, he nearly drowns in some random way, and finds himself in Japan. There, he sees some modern innovation, and takes it back to Rome with him as best as he can. If you're like me, you'll find it enjoyable to see these problems solved in interesting ways. A lot of them aren't so simple; it's not just some obvious lack of technology that Lucius will then see and replicate. Plenty of the time, he faces more abstract struggles, such as how to help struggling bathhouses succeed, and the solutions he discovers can be genuinely surprising.
A formula is a formula still, and if this manga were hundreds of chapters long, it would certainly get old. At a brief 38, it's pretty much the perfect length, not to mention the second half that completely breaks the formula (more on that later). Furthermore, it knows how to diverge from its own formula even when still using it. There are times when Lucius goes to the future for a more nebulous purpose; even times when he teaches as much as he is taught. Yet a formula is still a formula, and this one comes with its downsides. Ultimately, it feels contrived that Lucius is always running into troubles that can be solved with something from the future, and that he always sees the exact solution he needs. It's a necessity for manga to deliver the kind of enjoyment it's trying to, but it still holds it back. Lucius also often never really does anything himself other than replicate what he saw. Not always; he has moments of his own brilliance, yet we still sometimes see him acting more as a vehicle to bring modern technology and ideas back rather than his own person.
And that is a shame, because Lucius is a genuinely likeable character. And overall, he shines rather nicely, even with that formulaic structure sometimes neutering him. If anything, his character is what helps it go beyond its formula. He's genuinely intelligent enough to decipher what he sees, and his attitude in Japan is more than just wide-eyed amazement. He has a genuine curiosity to understand the marvels he sees. He's honorable and capable of fighting, yet often is struggling to get his own confidence back. Most of the other characters are fine. Entertaining, sometimes funny, but none stand out as great, though they serve their role in the story well.
Sadly, there is one character that stands out as bad, and that brings me to the second half of the story. This is where it truly diverges from its formula, at least structurally. Minor spoiler ahead. Lucius ends up trapped in modern Japan indefinitely, ending up in the care of a small hotel/spa in a small town. For the most part, this works rather well. There's still the element of culture shock, yet Lucius's character gets more chances to show off how good he is. Unfortunately, the defining aspect of this is rather poorly done — the love interest. A japanese girl with whom the writer tried to cram in far too many traits at once.
Personality-wise, she's not too bad. She's not the sort of character who's grating and frustrating whenever she's on the page. But her personality is bland, and the writer is simply trying to do far too much with her at once. Minor spoilers again — she's considered the most beautiful girl in town. While also speaking Latin (unlike everyone else Lucius thus far met in Japan). Because she loves Ancient Rome. Which is why she's an archaeologist studying Ancient Rome. She also loves baths. And she's also a popular beautiful geisha.
Her very character feels contrived to be a love interest for Lucius. Sure, it's sweet when they finally get together, but it brings the manga down. And if you read the author's bio, it feels a little like she wrote herself a little self-insert.
Yet at the same time, it's the author's very passion for what she's writing about that makes this series shine. Ultimately, she loves both Japanese and Roman culture, and loves bath, and that love bleeds through into her work.