Are you getting ready for spring, and all the harkening back to Ancient Times that it entails? If you’re like me, the Ides of March is marked on your calendar in bigger letters than the equinox. Luckily for you, Yen Press has just released the final volume in a line of manga perfect for that insatiable historian within you.
Thermae Romae is a rom-com for adults (a josei title) by Mari Yamazaki, the first volume of which I’ve previously raved about. Set in ancient Rome during Hadrian’s reign, Lucius Quintus Modestus is a stalwart Roman bath engineer, who wants nothing more than to improve the Empire through improved baths. Through the magic of the Divine, he’s repeatedly transported to modern Japan to experience its bathing culture, learning how to solve his engineering — and personal — problems along the way.
Refreshingly, the story’s neither too dark nor too light. While keeping the humor inherent in shojo, the series is a literary piece that adults can identify with, both in character and in scope. In the first volume, we saw Lucius interact with modern Japan, and improve his business and social standing thereby; this was done through a mix of zealous comedy and a serious overtone that hit just right. In the second and third volumes, the story finds its identity, transforming from a serial to a piece of literature: in book two, Lucius’s devotion to the Roman Empire is showcased as his divine trials put him to the test in service of the Emperor and his heirs, with whom he begins a long-running relationship. In book three, a romance with a modern woman comes into play, and the episodic nature is almost entirely abandoned.
This manga has a story and art all its own, one you’re not like to find anywhere else. (It’s also been made into a TV drama series using HBO’s sets for Rome, though the series has not been released in the US.) Instead of the frivolous personalities and endless boy-rescues-girl cycle characteristic of shojo, Romae has smart characters (both Lucius and Satsuki, the male and female protagonists, have the equivalent of Ph.Ds) that are well-rounded, a strongly-built world, a fun plot that continually advances, and as a bonus, handles delicate cultural issues with grace and style.
For instance, the series is wonderfully researched in both its illustrations and plot, the author, rightly so, calling herself a hobbyist historian. Each chapter ends with a narrative, two-page spread about the research she did for the chapter, or a real-life story from which she drew inspiration, offering great insight both to Japanese culture and Ancient Rome’s, in a way that’s far more approachable than the typical textbook (and more honest than an HBO miniseries).
This manga also has a more realistic art style, as my manga for adults tend to, and Yamazaki has put her research to use. Care is taken to illustrate the ethnicities of the characters: the Roman characters have narrow nose sellions and jutting chins, clearly taken from ancient statues; while the Japanese characters, many who are working-class, are realistically weather-worn, but, refreshingly, not stereotyped. Clothing is traditional and period-accurate for both cultures and all the classes therein, and while Lucius starts out naively nationalistic, he comes to learn the value of cultural exchange and positive international relations. In both artwork and story, Romae takes pains to deal with cultural relations in a positive and respectful manner. (As a bonus, the heroine’s ex-yakuza grandfather looks remarkably like Tommy Lee Jones.)
This series has both the academic side and the literary side, so there’s a lot of value for students, educators, and grazers alike and these later volumes get only better. For librarians and collectors, the book comes in hardback. Moreover, any fan of Ancient Mediterranean cultures will find a lot to enjoy as the series plays out, and though it’s aimed at adults, this is mainly because of the slower pace and adult protagonists; a teen would definitely be able to enjoy the series as well. There’s no swearing or bloodshed, though there are several (respectful) instances of nude bodies of both sexes, and mention of homosexuality in the historical asides. But don’t think it’s all genteel: there’s a wonderful chariot race in book three, and a fight with yakuza too.
Yamazaki is, in fact, married to an Italian, and so I’ll close this out by saying that, much like Ruroni Kenshin and its author Watsuki Nobuhiro, the love story told within the pages speaks draws from real life, and so is all the more poignant, and believable. For anyone who’s a fan of dimension-hopping or time-hopping stories — but perhaps outgrew Fushigi Yugi or was left annoyed at the physics of The Notebook — these last volumes of Thermae Romae will be perfect for you.