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.

March Was Made of Yarn

Title: March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on
the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown
Editors: Elmer Luke and David Karashima
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 216

As the March 11 anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami draws closer, Japanese bookstores have begun to promote retrospective magazine-books. These publications are filled with huge glossy photographs of destruction, and the number of people killed is printed in bold characters across their covers. Although such disaster porn is disturbing, it helps to illustrate a definite aspect of the reality of what happened a year ago in Japan.

March Was Made of Yarn helps to illustrate another aspect of the reality of the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear crisis. If pictures and body counts inform the physical reality, then this collection of fiction and nonfiction offers insight into the emotional reality. Thankfully, March Was Made of Yarn is infinitely more gentle and subtle than sensationalist reporting and sentimental recollections of heroism and despair.

Even though all of the short pieces brought together by this collection address the events of last year in some fashion, many do so obliquely, and the themes of the pieces are universal. What is it like to live through a crisis? What is it like to know that other people are living through a crisis? What does it feel like to worry about the future? What does it feel like when science fiction becomes reality? What happens when you’re so sick with worry that you can’t fall asleep at night? What happens when words can no longer express truth or meaning?

March Was Made of Yarn features the work of internationally renowned Japanese writers such as Ogawa Yōko, Murakami Ryū, Kakuta Mitsuyo, Furukawa Hideo, and Tawada Yōko. These writers don’t cut corners in their craft simply because they happen to be responding to a topical issue; and, although none of them are writing “happy” stories or essays, their work is a pleasure to read. Kawakami Hiromi, who rewrote her debut story “Kami-sama” (translated as “God Bless You”) to address the incidents at the Fukushima reactor, reminds us that, even though we live in a world shadowed by the fear of radiation and environmental poisoning, we still need to eat, and we still want to go outside. The title story, Kawakami Mieko’s “March Yarn,” deals with the strange ways in which people process their memories and their understanding of their relationships with each other. Tanikawa Shuntarō’s poem “Words,” which opens the book, poses the question of how we can even write about things for which there are no words (yet still “Words put forth buds / From the earth beneath the rubble”). The translators who contributed to this volume are among the best in the field, and their skill illuminates the entirety of the collection.

March Was Made of Yarn isn’t just an excellent anthology of work related to the Tōhoku disasters; it’s an excellent Japanese literary anthology period. The range of authors represented by the book has the most even distribution of gender, generation, and genre I’ve ever encountered, and the English-language contributors, such as David Peace and John Burnham Schwartz, bring an added level of flavor and diversity. This collection is also accessible to casual readers, as few of the stories are any longer than twenty pages, and it has been beautifully published by Vintage. I don’t know how so many good things were able to come together to create this amazing book, but I am extraordinarily grateful that it exits.

March Was Made of Yarn should be available at all major bookstores in North America, Britain, Australia, and Japan, and it’s available on the Kindle Store as well.

If you don’t mind reading entirely in PDF digital format, please consider checking out Waseda University’s Japan Earthquake Charity Literature Project, which has some overlap with March Was Made of Yarn. It’s free to download and read the PDF versions of the stories and essays on the website, and the reader is encouraged to make a donation to disaster relief efforts afterwards.