Saturday, March 8, 2014

Thermae Romae vol. 3

When I first heard of this "manga about bathing", I never would have imagined that it would become one of my all time favorites. Any synopsis you could give this story wouldn't do its comedy, charm and true passion for bathing culture any justice. And with the final omnibus from Yen Press, I feel that 'Thermae Romae' has solidified itself as one of the best manga licensed in English, and a modern classic. I really loved it.

The first two volumes were all about Lucius learning about modern bathing culture, and applying what he had learned to his Roman style bath houses. Things mostly felt episodic in nature, but Mari Yamazaki managed to keep things fresh by introducing a few minor twists and surprises while still keeping the same format. This volume however, freshened things up even more by focusing more on story continuity, making things interesting up to the very end.

When we last left off, Lucius was seemingly stuck in the modern day hot spring town of Ito and had struck up a relationship with the lovely scholar, Satsuki. Always the bath enthusiast, Lucius took advantage of Satsuki's knowledge of Latin to help him learn as much as possible about modern bathing so that he could utilize it to make the city of Baiae the best hot spring resort possible, and soothe the health woes of Emperor Hadrian. Needless to say, a time traveling Roman was a lot for her to wrap her mind around. Not to mention, the town was being overrun by extorting gangsters. With these developments, Lucius concludes that he must have been brought to Ito by fate, so that he can help preserve their wonderful bathing culture from the intruding criminals trying to tear it down to create their own resort that disregards the rich history already present. At the same time as he gathers more bathing knowledge and fights off the thugs, his relationship with Satsuki progresses into romantic territory.

Besides the change of focus to plot progression, one of the most welcome additions to this volume is a new character. That is, Satsuki's grandfather Tetsuzou. He's a hardboiled old man and he looks just like Tommy Lee Jones! I just thought his demeanor was really cool. He helps fight off the gangsters, and will do anything to help his granddaughter. And he didn't even bat an eyelash at being sent back in time to Lucias' era, keeping his cool and handing out chiropractic adjustments where needed. I liked this character a lot and would have loved to see more of him. If I'm lucky, maybe I will one day because in Mari Yamazaki's afterward, she states "I hope to wrap up their stories as well when the time is right.", referring to Tetsuzou and the other side characters.

One curious thing I noticed, and this isn't a criticism, is that the art seemed to change a little towards the end. I feel like the lines got thicker and darker, and I may just be imagining it, but the architecture seemed to get a little more detailed. There could be any number of reasons for this, and it may just be in my head. Either way, I like both the thick and thin line style of art, and while in a past review, I said the art is well done but doesn't stand out, I've really grown to appreciate it especially with this volume. Mari Yamazaki is truly a master draftsman.

Well, all good things must come to an end. And 'Thermae Romae' was a really good thing indeed. I'm thankful that I got to read this wonderful series. While this final volume ended on a really good note, reading more of this time traveling, bath loving universe would make me very happy. As I understand it, there is a spin-off in the works, so hopefully Yen Press will keep an eye on that and keep 'Thermae Romae' fans like me in mind.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Insufficient Direction

I wouldn’t call myself an “otaku”. I don’t know the names of voice actors, I don’t loyally follow certain anime studios or directors, and my manga tastes are pretty modern and mainstream. But even I know who Hideaki Anno is, and I’m familiar with Moyoco Anno through ‘Sakuran’. Vertical Inc. has been a good bet in the past, so I thought, why not give this "Double Anno" one shot a try? And I'm pretty glad I did, because even if I wasn't otaku enough to get all the references, it had more than enough charm and comedy to make up for it.

'Insufficient Direction' is an autobiographical manga about the married life of "Director-kun" and "Rompers". With a bit of artistic license to make real life situations more comedic, Moyoco Anno shows us what it is like to live day in, day out with "one of the big four of Japanese otaku". Torn between being a good otaku wife, and keeping a sense of normalcy, Rompers deals with long car drives listening to nothing but anime theme songs, Director-kun wearing Kamen Rider cosplay to their wedding, and regular couple stuff like taking care of each other when sick.

Right of the bat, I was a bit overwhelmed by the Japanese cultural references. Some chapters, it seemed like every panel had a reference to an old anime, manga or tokusatsu show that I had never heard of. There is thirty pages of comprehensive annotations in the back of the book to explain all the references, but that didn't quite fix my problem. When a chapter is so packed full of references, you can either flip to the back of the book almost every new panel, wait until the end of the chapter and the go back to make sense of the conversations, or read the annotations before reading the chapter. I tried all three methods, and none were as fulfilling as already knowing what they are talking about(so much went over my head, the few times when I did get a reference, it felt like a victory). It's like needing a joke explained to you. If you have to explain the joke, it's not funny. I would have enjoyed this manga so much more if I was a super otaku like Director-kun and could just naturally relate to them.

Luckily, not every chapter was a bombardment of otaku knowledge. There was just as much content based on genuine, cute, and funny married couple interactions that I'm sure anyone can enjoy. There's a funny chapter where Rompers wants to buy a house, but Director-kun thinks it is too much trouble. The way Rompers convinces him it is a good idea is by telling him that there would be enough space to build a fancy model train set and display more Kamen Rider figures! We also get to see them nurse each other back to health when ill, Director-kun get terrible sunburn on vacation, and I really like how they sing together while driving in the car. I know "Director-kun" is a comedic caricature of Hideaki Anno, but he really is a funny guy. I don't think I would want to put up with his not bathing for five days, but as an outside observer, his antics really cracked me up sometimes. And the best part was Rompers gradually becoming a bigger and bigger otaku just by being near Director-kun. I did learn a lot about otaku cultural, but the cute and funny interactions are what made the book for me.

Looking at 'Sakuran', you can see that Moyoco Anno is a great artist. I wouldn't say her full breadth of skill is displayed here though. Not that it was needed. For this type of story, a more simple, cartoony style was much more effective and very enjoyable. She draws herself a baby wearing a onesy and a bib, and "Director-kun" would be easiest described as Hideaki Anno being inserted into a 'Peanuts' comic strip, often sporting a pot belly and a cat-like smile. This style may be more simple than her other works, but it lends itself perfectly to the comedic mood of the book.

Despite initially being overloaded with otaku cultural references, this book appealed to the slice-of-life fan in me and I was able to thoroughly enjoy it. So much so, that if Moyoco Anno ever creates a sequel, I would definitely want to read it...though it might be a good idea to brush up on the last forty years of anime, manga, and tokusatsu so that I can share in their otaku enjoyment more.