Thermae Romae

Thermae Romae

Title: Thermae Romae
Japanese Title: テルマエ・ロマエ(Terumae Romae)
Artist: Yamazaki Mari (ヤマザキ マリ)
Translation: Stephen Paul
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 2009-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 372

This manga is fantastic.

There’s a drawing of a naked man on the cover (you can see his penis under the removable acetate), and there’s a chapter about Roman and Japanese phallus worship. There’s also a chapter about the Bar Kokhba revolt that’s sympathetic to the Romans. The manga tacitly acknowledges Roman homosexuality (Emperor Hadrian is an important character) and Roman slavery (Emperor Hadrian thinks it’s funny that his pet crocodiles have bitten his slaves). All of this is in the background, however; and, if you can get around it, you will love this manga. It’s like reading a super-awesome issue of National Geographic, except with time travel.

Thermae Romae is about Lucius Modestus, a Roman architect living in the first half of the second century who specializes in designing baths and balnea, or bath houses. At the beginning of the story, he sees his own time as possessing an inferior bathing culture and wants to return Rome to the glory days of bathing, but his designs are considered old-fashioned and unmarketable. While taking a breather in a public bath house after being fired from his job at an architectural firm, Lucius slips and is sucked through a water vent into a sentō, or public bath, in twenty-first century Japan. Lucius thinks the Japanese are just slaves from one of the lands that Rome has conquered (he calls them “flat-faces”), and the Japanese think Lucius is just another clueless foreigner (they call him “gaijin-san”), and thankfully no gaping time-travel-related holes open in time and space. Lucius is taught the joys of contemporary Japanese baths; and, after being sucked through another hot water vent, he returns to Rome to share his own adaptations of certain aspects of this culture, which prove popular with his fellow romans.

Although the story gradually develops over the course of the manga, it remains largely episodic. In each chapter, Lucius encounters a problem, is transported to contemporary Japan, learns about Japanese bathing culture, returns to Rome, and implements his own versions of what he saw in Japan to the amazement and delight of everyone involved.

Through these episodes, the reader gets to visit various parts of the city of Rome, as well as locations such as Emperor Hadrian’s mansion in Tibur, Trastevere (a small city on the banks of the Tiber River), and the Roman province of Judea. Also on offer are the hot springs of the Tōhoku region, including monkey hot springs and therapeutic hot springs for convalescents. In his accidental journeys to Japan, Lucius also finds himself in the bathroom of a private residence, a corporate showroom for bathtubs, and even an aquarium that uses the water from a natural hot spring to create a habitat for crocodiles and banana trees.

If exploring contemporary Japan and ancient Rome is half the fun of this manga, the other half is watching Lucius in action. Lucius, earnest to a fault, is a classic straight man who is very serious about everything and responds to every situation he finds himself in with utmost sincerity. Although his upright personality isn’t directly exploited for laughs, it occasionally leads to humorous situations, such as when Lucius takes off his clothes in inappropriate places (for science!) in modern Japan. Mostly, however, Lucius’s personality allows him to act naturally in situations that would otherwise be extremely awkward or uncomfortable. He’s a sympathetic character, and his intelligence and curiosity allow the reader to see and experience more than would be possible if Lucius were a more cynical or self-conscious person.

At first glance there seems to be an undercurrent of “everything in Japan is the best thing ever” running throughout the manga, but I don’t think the artist ever takes the story seriously enough for her celebration of Japanese bath culture to come off as jingoistic. Through Lucius, who is by turns clueless and comically sincere, Yamazaki pokes fun at both ancient Rome and contemporary Japan. The Romans thought they were the most civilized people in the world, but their culture is capable of improvement through outside influences; and, while Japan has a fantastic bathing culture, it’s not flawless either. If Emperor Hadrian trying to recreate the scenery of the Egypt in his private estate is a bit silly, so too is a Japanese zoo that grows bananas. Whether it’s foreign live-in caregivers for elderly people in Japan or Lucius’s frustrated wife leaving him for another man after he runs off to spend three years in Judea, the manga always treats its subject with gentle good humor.

Yamazaki’s art isn’t hyper-detailed, but it is pleasantly realistic. Although she uses screen tone, most of the texture in her drawing, such as the roughness of cloth or the movement of water or the blush on freshly bathed skin, is conveyed by pen strokes. She slightly abbreviates both line and texture in about half of her panels to give the page a clean and open feel and to draw attention to the more visually dense panels. There are always several pages in each chapter that display nothing more than talking heads, but Yamazaki is capable of conveying such a wide and deep range of emotion with facial expressions and body language that these pages never become oppressive or boring.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise for me in Thermae Romae were the two-page essays at the end of each chapter. These essays, which are always accompanied by a handful of captioned images, offer the reader a few more details about the cultural and historical elements of the preceding chapter. Yamazaki supplements factual information with her experiences travelling through Europe and Japan and anecdotes about famous figures of the ancient world, and her essays are entertaining without ever becoming too personal or pedantic.

Yen Press has done a beautiful job with Thermae Romae. Although the book is a bit too large to comfortably read in the bath, the extra size is worth the better print quality. It’s also worth mentioning that Stephen Paul’s translation is superb. When I read the manga in Japanese earlier this year, I wondered how certain aspects of the text (such as the Tōhoku dialect spoken by a handful of secondary characters) could be handled in translation, and I think the translator and editorial staff did a wonderful job; the language in Thermae Romae is beautifully smooth with no awkward translatorese or corny attempts to reproduce dialect.

Thermae Romae is fantastic. I’m so happy this manga finally made it to America.

Snow Country

Title: Snow Country
Japanese Title: 雪国 (Yukiguni)
Author: Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成)
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publication Year: 1956 (America); 1947 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 175

Snow Country won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, a year which serves as a convenient temporal marker for the changing perception of Japan in the collective consciousness of the Western world. The postwar American occupation of Japan had ended fifteen years prior, and many of the American G.I. officers returned home from the country with the knowledge and motivation to create Japanese Studies departments in American universities like Columbia and Harvard. With their classes and translations came a new respect for the Japan of the twentieth century among academic circles. Meanwhile, Japan itself had risen from the ashes of wartime devastation and had begun to enter an era of double-digit GNP growth. The city of Tokyo had hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964; and, with the ultra-modern Tokyo Dome stadium and high speed bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan was able to prove itself the technological and economic equal of any country in the world. The Nobel Committee thus awarded its literary prize to Kawabata for reasons that were partially political, as they would to many candidates over the following four decades. As with these other laureates, however, Kawabata did not win the world’s foremost award for literary distinction for political reasons alone.

According to academic lore, Kawabata’s candidacy was largely a result of Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Snow Country. Snow Country is an aesthetically magnificent book, and Seidensticker was able to do justice to Kawabata’s subtle and poetically resonant prose with his English translation. We are of course lucky that Seidensticker’s translation is so masterful; but, even if it had been merely adequate, the relatively early introduction of a translation into English would still have gained Kawabata a prominent position in the field of international literature. American and European prose writers and poets had cultivated a love affair with haiku and the Japanese aesthetic principals often associated with Zen Buddhism, and Snow Country delivered such “Japanese” sensibilities by the bucket load. In many contemporary reviews of the novel, Kawabata’s prose is repeatedly praised as being delicate and “haiku-like.”

As a prominent member of a literary group called the “New Sensationalist School” (新感覚派), Kawabata was interested in representing the various sensory stimuli of modern life in his writing. Earlier in his career, this interest lead to novels such as The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, a loosely-structured work that pulls together various bits of urban ephemera, such as newspaper articles, playbills, advertising posters, and overheard conversations. In Snow Country, however, Kawabata turns his keen gaze on a small mountain village in the “snow country” of Niigata prefecture, a region on the west side of the Japan Alps that is referred to as such due to its heavy winter precipitation. Along with luxuriant snowfall, the words “snow country” conjure up images of ski vacations, deliciously warm hot springs, high-quality saké brewed with snowmelt runoff waters, and small, traditional inns catering to all of the fall and winter tourists. To men of a certain generation, the snow country is also associated with the geisha who service these tourists. Unlike the artistically skilled geisha of urban areas such as Kyoto, these “hot springs geisha” are known for using their minimal training in music and dance as a cover for more intimate performances.

Snow Country is about a man named Shimamura who travels to the snow country to meet a hot springs geisha named Komako. The novel begins during Shimamura’s second trip to Niigata as his train emerges from a mountain tunnel into the open air:

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.

This is one of the most famous opening passages in Japanese literature. In the original language, when Shimamura’s train emerges from the long tunnel, he crosses a kokkyō (国境), or a border between countries, and, as he does so, “the bottom of the night becomes white” (yoru no soko ga shiroku natta). It is such terse and powerful descriptions that American critics have described as “haiku-like,” thus connecting Kawabata with premodern poets such as Bashō and Issa.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Kawabata’s New Sensationalist School was interested in describing the sensations of the modern era – thus the emphasis on “New.” Premodern poetry was no longer enough to describe the modern landscape, even in a place like the snow country. The New Sensationalists thus incorporated the methods of photography and cinematography into their writing. For example, while Shimamura is still on the train going deeper into the snow country, he watches the image of a woman reflected on the surface of his window.

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.

Not only is Kawabata referencing movies directly both in his description of the scene and in his play on light and mirrors and unreal images, but he’s also obliquely referencing the modern state of being overwhelmed with sensory input. On another level, by having Shimamura watch himself watching the reflection of a woman instead of directly addressing her, Kawabata hints at the fractured nature of the modern self, which, despite having finally developed a modern ego, is now mediated through various technologies. It would take some time to fully unpack this passage, but what I am trying to get at is that, instead of thinking of Kawabata as the successor to some mystical Zen poetic tradition, it’s useful to understand the author as looking through the modern lens of a camera, both in his still frames and in his tracking shots.

If a haiku is supposed to capture the “thusness” of a single moment, for instance, Kawabata instead uses his descriptive passages in the way that a movie director might use an establishing shot, namely, to suggest things about his characters that can’t otherwise be established in the absence of devices like narratorial exposition. In showing the reader an image of the house where the geisha Komako lives, Kawabata is essentially showing us Komako herself:

To the right was a small field, and to the left persimmon trees stood along the wall that marked off the neighboring plot. There seemed to be a flower garden in front of the house, and red carp were swimming in the little lotus pond. The ice had been broken away and lay piled along the bank. The house was old and decayed, like the pitted trunk of a persimmon. There were patches of snow on the roof, the rafters of which sagged to draw a wavy line at the eaves.

What the reader is supposed to understand from this description, especially as it is combined with Komako’s behavior and dialog, is that, although Komako tries to be bright and cheerful, there is something about her that is wasted and neglected as a hot springs geisha out in the rural snow country. Such a passage might indeed be “haiku-like” – but, then again, it is also intensely cinematic.

In Snow Country, Kawabata is writing about “traditional” Japan using “traditional” nature imagery, but he is also fully aware of the modern world and its literary devices, which include notions of dramatic structure, character psychology, and withholding information from the reader in order to force her to draw her own connections. It goes without saying that Kawabata was familiar with the canon of premodern Buddhist poetry, but he was equally familiar with the great novels of English, French, and Russian literature, as well as the cinematic auteurs of the early twentieth century.

It is also interesting to note that the majority of Snow Country was serialized between 1937 and 1941, a period of time in which writers, artists, and other intellectuals were indiscriminately jailed if they expressed even a hint of dissatisfaction with the fascist regime. By writing about geisha in the snow country, Kawabata could escape the attention of government censors. Yet, by not writing about the war – not a single mention of the Japanese state and its military action appears in the novel – Kawabata is, in a sense, resisting it by turning his back on it. Furthermore, when Japan does appear by association in the novel, it is not a healthy country. Shimamura, the modern dilettante who writes essays about Western ballet (which he has never actually seen), possess both wealth and power but refuses to do anything useful with it. Komako, an intelligent and essentially kind-hearted young woman with a glimmer of undeveloped talent, is pushed from male patron to male patron while rotting away in the heart of “traditional” Japan. Although Snow Country is unarguably an extraordinarily beautiful novel, its themes of waste and the contrast between hardship and indolence can be seen as a veiled commentary on the state of the nation during the opening years of the Pacific War, which director Toyoda Shirō subtly yet unmistakably drew out in his 1957 film version of the novel.

I think Snow Country is a fascinating novel. To dismiss it as a vaguely misogynistic, somehow Zen-like pastiche of auto-Orientalizing imagery is to do it a disservice. After all, Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for a reason. Snow Country is a pleasure to read, and it’s a pleasure to think about and discuss, which is probably the reason it’s assigned so often in “world literature” classes. As with all modern and contemporary Japanese literature, however, I have to insist that Snow Country be read as “literature” before it is read as “Japanese.”

Getting Wet

Title: Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath
Author: Eric Talmadge
Publication Year: 2006
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 255

For the past two weeks, the internet has been deluged with people talking about how Tokyopop is going out of business. Somehow, in all the confusion, it seems that it’s slipped everyone’s mind that Kodansha International is closing its doors as well. At least, it’s ceasing all operations at the end of April. Which was yesterday, I realized a few hours ago – to my considerable dismay.

In my startled panic, I thought about writing a brief retrospective highlighting the excellent work the publisher has done with regards to promoting Japanese literature in America. I thought about how the company has put out the early novels of Murakami Ryū (such as Coin Locker Babies and Almost Transparent Blue) and the murder mystery novels of Miyabe Miyuki (such as The Devil’s Whisper and Shadow Family). I thought about how the company has published offbeat classics like Natsume Sōseki’s Botchan and Kawabata Yasunari’s House of the Sleeping Beauties. I thought about how the company has taken financial risks to publish niche-interest period dramas such as Ariyoshi Sawako’s The River Ki and Fujisawa Shūhei’s The Bamboo Sword, and then I thought about how the company has taken on even greater financial burdens to collect contemporary avant-garde short fiction in anthologies like Monkey Brain Sushi and Inside.

But really, I think what I’m going to miss the most are Kodansha International’s intelligent and beautifully published books about Japanese culture, like Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto, Kiyoko Morita’s The Book of Incense, and Jay Rubin’s Making Sense of Japanese. And of course Eric Talmadge’s Getting Wet, which is probably my favorite “foreigner writing about Japan” book ever.

As its title suggests, Getting Wet is about baths in Japan. Private baths, public baths, bathing resorts, and bathing theme parks. And of course you can’t talk about baths in Japan without talking about onsen, or hot spring baths. Talmadge covers onsen in Hokkaido, onsen in Nagano, onsen right in Tokyo, and onsen in the Izu Islands south of Tokyo. There are onsen with mineral water, onsen with radioactive water, onsen with electrified water, onsen on the lips of volcano craters, onsen so acidic that your eyes hurt for days afterward, and onsen with snow monkeys.

There are plenty of books on Japanese baths floating around, but what I like about Getting Wet is that it’s not a traveler’s resource like A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs or a coffee table design book like The Japanese Bath. It is instead a collection of eleven journalistic essays unified by the theme of bathing. These essays aren’t travel literature, per se, but rather memoirs (if such a stodgy word is actually appropriate) of life in Japan cradling a core of interesting contextual information. For example, the fourth chapter, “Under the Bridge,” is about a trip to the Oedo Onsen Monogatari theme park in Odaiba. Talmadge begins by admitting his reluctance to don a yukata (he claims that they always flip open at the front at inopportune moments – which they do) and then walks his readers through the park before comfortably sliding into an essay about the Arima springs in Kobe, where emperors and the Heian nobility used to bathe. Talmadge then compares the Japanese history of bathing to that of the West, storied as it is with the opulence of the Greeks and Romans and Moors. Elsewhere, when Talmadge talks about mineral springs, for instance, he explains how our skin works and how our bodies retain water. When he talks about the onsen in the north of Japan, he writes about economic depression and the drive towards international and regional tourism (and why these initiatives never work). All of this writing, both travelogue and journalism, flows together smoothly, as if it were a feature in National Geographic.

Except Getting Wet is a lot more interesting than National Geographic. The way its author writes reminds me of the way my favorite grad student drinking buddy tells stories. His vocabulary is colorful but not ostentatious, he’s done his research and knows his facts, and he’s not afraid to laugh at something that’s ridiculous or unpleasant. Talmadge’s language is crisp and clean and for the most part professional, but every once in awhile he’ll let a colloquialism slip in (“The bath was – excuse me – fucking hot. It was really fucking hot.”), which adds both spice and warmth to his narrative. To put it simply, Getting Wet is a pleasure to read. Even if you don’t care about hot springs or bathing. Even if you don’t care about Japan. In terms of interesting and enjoyable essays, Eric Talmadge is right up there with John McPhee and Annie Dillard.

The book is a pleasure for other reasons as well. What I have always loved about Kodansha International is the attention and care they put into each publication, from the font to the page layout to the beautiful cover and binding. Most of these small touches are up to the reader to discover, but I should mention, in the case of Getting Wet, that the photographic illustrations are especially stunning. I don’t mean “stunning” in the sense of “created by a professional photographer with professional software,” but rather that the pictures are unusually sharp, printed in soft yet high-contrast greyscale, and perfectly positioned beside the text. In other words, the high quality of the images is something that you don’t find often even in art books published by specialty presses.

Kodansha International’s Japanese parent company has recently invested quite a great deal of money in Vertical, so I think that perhaps it’s not unreasonable to assume that their fiction licenses will change hands at some point. I’m not so sure what will happen to their non-fiction, though. Kodansha International put out beautiful books, and it will be a shame to see publications like Getting Wet disappear. I have loved Kodansha International and its books for many years, and I’m going to miss them now that they’re gone. Thankfully, the international arm of the company is resurrecting itself as a high-profile manga publisher, so this story may just have a happy ending after all.