To get to know our time-traveling bather, start with Volume I. When in Thermae Romae, you need to do as this Roman does and find out how he journeys back and forth between far-spanning centuries and cultures with one thing in common – an obsession with the bath.
If the cover looks familiar, Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize-winning creator Mari Yamazaki explains how she risked marital peace to parody “one of the greatest works of ancient Roman sculpture,” Laocoön and His Sons. In spite of her husband’s angry reaction, she insists that her version of Laocoön “wearing a shampoo hat to keep the shampoo out of his eyes” is not such a far stretch: “I’m sure Laocoön washed his fair from time to time, and if he did massage his scalp, he certainly must have struck poses like the one on the cover.” You’ll find that sort of goofy humor on almost every page, all the while learning quite a bit about ancient Roman history, and modern Japanese bathing culture. Yamazaki will entertainingly convince you how such two seemingly disparate topics are actually quite related.
As Volume II begins, Lucius is a favorite of Emperor Hadrian, renowned as the innovative bath architect. In an act of potentially fatal jealousy, Senate members plot to get Lucius out of Rome with a ruse about a creating a new thermae in an area overrun by violent bandits. What happens instead is a bit of brilliant marketing, inspired by Lucius’ timely visit to a Japanese hot spring town where he wins big at a game booth, discovers kitschy souvenirs, and tastes his first bowl of steaming ramen and juicy gyoza. With further unpredictable forays into the land of the “flat-faces” (the phrase still bugs me, but not quite as much this second time around), Lucius learns to build a wooden barrel single bath shippable to the hinterlands, and how to balance the most gaudiest demands with just enough elegantly-tempered details.
Then half-way through the volume, Hadrian’s adopted heir (profligately portrayed by Yamazaki with apologies later – artistic license, right?) dies. With Hadrian’s own health less than robust, Lucius becomes determined to create something soothingly rejuvenating for his Imperator. His search magically sends him to meet “such a beautiful flat-face” as he’s never seen before … who just happens to be an ancient Roman scholar who speaks perfect Latin! Talk about back to the future … in centur-ion leaps!
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2013 (United States)