[REVIEW] Thermae Romae Novae
Japanese bathing culture, writes Garrett G. Fagan in his exhaustive 1999 text Bathing in Public in the Roman World, “bear[s] resemblance…to documented Ancient Roman practice.” Since that is likely to be a persistent question in the back of your mind as you watch Thermae Romae Novae, the most recent adaptation of Mari Yamazaki's Thermae Romae manga, it's good to get it cleared up right from the start. Although Fagan goes on to note similarities between Finnish and Roman bathing cultures before saying that, strictly speaking, the Islamic hammam is actually the most similar to how things were done in Ancient Rome, Yamazaki is well within acknowledged history of bathing culture to draw a line between modern Japan and Lucius' world under Emperor Hadrian.
That's fortunate, because part of the joy of this series is the realization that people are people no matter where and when they live. Having Lucius travel through time and space to a totally foreign world only to realize that the people there aren't so different from the ones he knows is a nice cultural message, and, more importantly in the context of this show, takes the sting out of his racist comments made at their expense. It must be noted that his words about “flat-faced slaves” are time-period appropriate; the Romans were xenophobic to a certain degree. That doesn't stop Lucius' words from being vastly uncomfortable for modern viewers, but for what it's worth, he does eventually stop adding “slaves” to his narration and he does come to appreciate the people he meets, at least as much as he's culturally able. And since he doesn't spend all that much time in Japan in this version of the story, we perhaps should take what we can get on that front.
Luckily that doesn't entirely take away from the more enjoyable aspects of the series. The plot – that Ancient Roman thermae (bath) architect Lucius Modestus rises to fame because he somehow keeps naked time-traveling to Japan and brings home ideas to improve Roman bathing culture – is the right kind of goofy that makes for good edutainment. Lucius is proud of what he does and of his family legacy of building and designing bathhouses, but he's also mired in the past, and no one wants his old-fashioned baths anymore. His arrogance makes that hard for him to swallow, and when he first gets whisked away to Japan he can't quite stomach the idea that someone not Roman might have an edge over him in the bath design game. But slowly his prejudice is worn away by the sheer joy of learning new ways to design public baths, as well as new methods for enjoying them, and Lucius comes to respect the Japanese – which he shows by happily appropriating their ideas. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that?
This doesn't always work in historical context, which perhaps shouldn't be a surprise. The major standout is when Lucius brings back the idea of drinking fruit-flavored milk; Ancient Romans not only didn't drink milk, they also disparaged those who did as barbarians and inferior to Romans. Likewise, the presence of bearded Roman men is a bit odd for the time period, although Hadrian's fondness for Greek culture did make him one of the few Roman emperors to wear one, so the fashion was changing at the time. It is worth noting, however, that the ill-behaved Russians Lucius meets in Japan are much hairier than any of the Romans we see in the show; this is perhaps a nod to pre-Hadrian Roman beauty standards and an earlier background line in a bathhouse when a man is offering body hair removal. Beyond that, though, history is decently well respected (one episode is set in the Edo era and background commentary tells us it is a year after the Black Ships arrived, so we know it's 1854), which is both nice and important for this kind of show.
While there is an overarching plot, it definitely takes a backseat to Lucius' time-traveling adventures. Lucius' relationship with his wife Livia forms the through-line of the story, and manga readers will notice that things pan out a little differently for them here than in the source material. Hadrian and Lucius' pal Marcus get more screentime than poor Livia, and it frankly feels like Lucius forgets that she even exists most of the time. On the balance there are many more male than female characters, but that does make a degree of sense, given the segregated nature of public bathing – Lucius only shows up in a mixed bath twice (once in 1854 and once in a rural area in the modern world), so women wouldn't be expected to be there. He does, however, pop up in a waterpark and a bath showroom, which causes considerably more of a kerfuffle, since he's in the buff both times.
The animation for the show isn't terrific, which is a shame, and while aspects of Yamazaki's artwork transfer quite nicely, there's a grainy filter over the whole show that detracts from the overall look. Presumably the goal was to make everything look “old,” but it just looks as if you need to adjust the screen, which isn't great. On the plus side, there are distinctly different body types and male figures on display depending on a character's age whether they're Roman or Japanese, and that's a wonderful detail – and an important one, since most of the people we see are naked. This apparently also gives the series an “M” rating, which frankly feels unnecessary – there's nary a penis to be found, and since everyone has a butt no matter what their gender, slapping an “M” on the show is a bit silly.
Each episode ends with a brief segment of original series creator Mari Yamazaki touring various hot springs in Japan, and these are in some ways the highlight of the series. Yamazaki is clearly having a wonderful time learning more about traditional bathing culture, and there are plenty of practices and facts that are fascinating to learn even if you aren't an onsen afficionado. Honestly, this could be an entire full-length series on its own and it would be wonderful. (And as an added bonus for literature fans, she pops into a room at a ryokan where Yosano Akiko stayed and sees a framed, original poem she wrote there.) Yamazaki ends each segment by drawing a new illustration of Lucius on her tablet, and this is both a lovely chance to see her at work and to compare her original art with the adaptation's.
Thermae Romae Novae isn't perfect. It's got grainy images, stiff animation, and not much of an overarching plot. But it's also a genuinely interesting and occasionally funny show about an unexpected cultural intersection with two stellar performances (in Japanese and English) for Lucius. Whether you've read the manga or not, history buffs shouldn't miss this, and neither should anyone just looking for an easy-going, comfortable viewing experience.