Thursday, January 3, 2013

Thermae Romae vol. 1

A manga about bathing culture doesn't exactly catch my immediate interest. I haven't even taken a bath since I was a child(I'm a shower person). But near universal acclaim from the manga blogging community for Yamazaki Mari's manga, 'Thermae Romae', made me give this license from Yen Press a second thought. I'm really glad I listened to the reviews and decided to give this series a read, because it became a surprise hit with me and now I can't wait to get my hands on volume 2 in May.

Roman architect, Lucius, is out of a job. His public bath designs are too old-fashioned for the evolving, new Rome. But after taking a trip to the public bath house to soak away his worries, he is whisked away through a drain to a strange new world. That world is modern day Japan. Coming out on the other side of the drain, Lucius finds himself stunned and fascinated by the bath culture that the modern Japanese have. Inspired by the "flat faces" who he at first perceives to be slaves, he takes their ideas for bathing, and implements them into his own designs once back in ancient Rome, turning his luck around and becoming a big hit in the bathing world.

The art in 'Thermae Romae' is quite well done, from the back grounds, to the character designs. Though it doesn't exactly stand out to me, nor is it really one of the main appeals of this series for me. I don't really know how to say this without sounding like I'm insulting the art, but "it's just there", which can be a good thing, and is in this case. It's semi-realistic and very non-distracting. While reading, I don't ever stop and think, "this art sucks", or "this art is great", so I am free to pay attention to what is happening with Lucius. So the art is quite good and well detailed. Architecture and Lucius' facial expressions are the high point of the art. It's just not flashy. It's low key and modestly does it's job.

Lucius is a very likeable character with a great passion for bathing culture. Through him, the reader gets to experience a great sense of discovery, and I was just as excited to see him implement his new ideas for bathing as he was to discover them. More than that though, he is also very prideful of Rome, and the only thing he wants more than to create great bathing experiences is to further the success of his empire. He has a dynamic personality, having great respect for the Japanese and their bathing innovations, but also showing anger and jealousy that he can't surpass their prowess. And even showing a great sense of guilt for taking their ideas for his own. Every time Lucius visits Japan, he learns and grows a little bit more, but not just in bathing innovation, but personally as well.

The production value for this book is very nice. It's got a sturdy hardcover with large dimensions. It's easily the biggest book on my shelf. That hardcover is protected by a partially clear dust jacket that cleverly covers the picture of a Roman statue's nudity. It almost feels like a text book in quality, especially considering how much you learn about the bathing culture of both ancient Rome and modern Japan. In between chapters, the author even gives us her thoughts on bathing and Rome and interesting tidbits about history. All these features are topped off with heavy, glossy pages and four pages that are in beautiful, full color. This is another book by Yen Press(along with 'A Bride's Story') that I can be proud to display on my bookshelf. Check out this "Making of Thermae Romae" article by Yen Press to see some design images and what went into producing this lovely book.

As I said, I'm surprised at how much I liked this series. It's lighthearted with a good sense of comedy. More than once it had me laughing out loud, and at the very least, it had me smiling all the way through. And it's not a stretch to say that this book is a bit educational. Of course it is historical fiction, but by the end of this series, I bet it will feel like I took an entertaining course on bathing culture. I can't say that I've become a bathing enthusiast now, but I can say that after twenty years of exclusively showering, I think I might look for that rubber drain stopper and take a relaxing soak. If only I wasn't afraid to get my manga wet, I could bath and read at the same time. Wouldn't that be nice? Anyway, is 'Thermae Romae' a must read for everyone? Probably not, but I still recommend you try it. You may be surprised like I was. Those surprises that you didn't think you'd like are always the most satisfying.