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Japan: An ancient Roman at the Japanese public bath

What could two cultures as distant in time and space as ancient Rome and the modern Japan have in commom?
Such a question might sound like a riddle to many but is actually what inspired manga author Mari Yamazaki [ja] to create Thermae Romae (テルマエ・ロマエ), a manga said to inaugurate a new genre – the ‘bath’ manga.
It is indeed ‘bath’ which is the answer to the question. The place of the public bath both as a meeting place and also for bathing as a way to wash away the cares of a working day is what links the ancient Romans and the Japanese both now and in the past.

Judged best manga at this year Manga Taisho (Cartoon Grand Prize) the comic authored by an Italian culture lover and expert, features the story of Lucius, a public bath designer in ancient Rome who, having run out of inspiration, somehow timeslips into the future, from the second century a.c. in today's Japan. In the first published volume of the series, Lucius is transported to Japanese hot springs public bath and open-air spa where he meets a surprisingly technologically developed people with “odd features”.

A manga reviewer shares her first impression after reading Thermae Romae [ja].

話といえば単純なんだけど、ルシウスの性格設定や、現代日本の<平たい顔族>たちの言動に思わず笑ってしまいます。
<平たい顔族>なんていうネーミングからして笑えますしね。

The story itself is simple, but I burst out laughing at master Lucius’ character and at the behavior of the “flat-faced tribe”.
The very name “flat-faced tribe” makes me laugh for starters.

Cover of ‘Thermae Romae’ vol.1. (C) Mari Yamazaki.

Just as for people in ancient Rome going to a public bath was a social event, it is a custom in Japan to spend some relaxing time at the public bath (sento 銭湯) after a day at work or a weekend at the hot springs (onsen 温泉), surrounded by nature.
If architecturally the Roman [en] and the Japanese [ja] bathhouses are quite different, the concept of bathing as a ritual more than as a washing practice, can be said to have crossed time and space.

Umi Urimasu said he was surprised [ja] at getting to know, for the first time through this manga, that Romans had a bath culture as developed and complex as the Japanese one.

まず冒頭から目をうばわれるのが、とんでもなくにぎやかなローマの公衆浴場シーン。将棋してる!相撲してる!垢すり器具で肌をこすっている人がいる!お菓子の売り子さんがいる!ムダ毛の処理をしてくれるサービスがある! 何なんだこれは。髪結い床ってレベルじゃない。現代人の目から見ても、2000年前の ヨーロッパの風景とはにわかに信じがたいような、それは日本人の心の故郷である「風呂」に驚くほど近い情景に見えました。ローマ人たちはこんなにも日々の お風呂を楽しんでいたのか。

You will become involved right from the first scene, which starts in an extremely loud public bath in Rome. There are people playing chess! There are people wrestling! There are people scrubbing their skin with a scrubbing tool! There is a cake vendor and the baths offer depilation as a service! What's this? It's more extensive than the barbershops that existed in Japan in the Edo period [in the 18-19 centuries].
From a modern person's perspective, it's hard to believe that this is something that happened in Europe over 2000 years ago. The situation is surprisingly similar to one that any Japanese would relate to, with the “bath” as a spiritual home. It's amazing that Romans enjoyed the bath in this way every day.

Even though bath culture does not belong exclusively to Japan, blogger Lowrence said that the Japanese should be proud of it.

ジャンルとしてはギャグ漫画に分類されるとは思いますが、テーマが逸脱すぎてかなり新鮮。
古代ローマの浴場設計技師であるルシウスが現代日本の銭湯にワープして・・・みたいなストーリーです。
なんか馬鹿げたことを大真面目にやってるというのが笑えるポイントかなぁ、と。
話の間には古代ローマについてのコラムも載っていてそちらも楽しめます。
こういうふうにやたらとメディアで取り上げられてる作品ってどうも敬遠しちゃう時があるのですが、買ってよかったーという作品です。
笑える漫画って素敵よね。
あ、あと日本の風呂の文化は素晴らしいと思います。
海外で生活していたから尚更強くそう思います。
風呂最高!

Although genre-wise, I think this can be defined as a gag-manga, the topic is unusual and rather original.
Set in ancient Rome, the story is about a public bath designer called Lucius, who is suddenly transported to a public bath in today's Japan. The fun thing is that in the manga, the characters take ridiculous things quite seriously. Before each chapter, there is also an introductory column about an aspect of ancient Rome which can be enjoyed.
Sometimes, I stay away from those works that are recommended by the media but this time I'm glad I bought it. A manga that makes you laugh is something wonderful and I think the Japanese culture of bath is fantastic. After having spent some time abroad, I became even more convinced about this fact. Viva the bath!

A scene from ‘Thermae Romae’ (C) Yamazaki Mari.

Author Mari Yamazaki on her blog said the idea for the plot [ja] of this manga dates back to when she was a small child.

私的にはあの漫画は小中学校時代に友達を笑わす為にへんなイラストや漫画を描いていた、そのノリをまんま引っ張ってしまった感じだったので、本にしていただいたというだけで「・・・こんな内輪でしか笑えなさそうな漫画、本にしてもいいのだろうか」という変な後ろめたさのようなものがあったのですが・・・
あれを面白いと言ってくださる方が沢山いてくださって、なんかもう、驚きです。嬉しいです!ありがとうござます!

I drew this manga in the spirit of when I used to draw weird illustrations in primary school to make my friends laugh. That light, entertaining spirit caught on and was chosen to be published. I even wondered if it was okay for a manga that was meant to humor a restricted group of people to be published.
To my surprise, a lot of people say that it is fun. I'm glad of it! Thank you!

The Chicago based manga artist also decided to reveal [ja] some details about the next volume which will be released in Japan in September…

「テルマエ・ロマエ」は風呂漫画というジャンル(そんなジャンルはないが)にカテゴライズされておりますが、自分的にはあれは風呂を媒体にした「日本との比較文化に軸を置いた古代ローマ漫画」だと思って描いております。
決して日本の風呂に驚く古代ローマ人漫画、というコンセプトのみのものではありません。
古代ローマと日本の共通点というのは実は風呂だけではなく、本当にいろいろありまして、主人公も今のイタリアには滅多に居ないけど、日本になら結構居そうなクソ真面目な男にしたのはそれもあるからなんです。
そんなわけでまあ、2年前、シリーズ連載にしようやと編集長が引っ張ってくれた時点で私も「そうか、じゃあもっと広い範囲で古代ローマの事が描けるかな」と思い立ちました。
一 巻はとりあえず日本の風呂にびっくり仰天一色の展開になってますが、今後はせっかく古代ローマの誇る5賢帝の一人ハドリアヌスという凄い人物も登場させら れたことだし、広範囲にもっといろいろと掘り下げた展開で皆様に知られざる日常の古代ローマ世界をご覧いただけたらなと思っております。

Thermae Romae has been categorized as a “bath manga”, even though such a genre does not strictly exist. In mind, I draw a comic about “comparing the cultures of Ancient Rome and Japan”, with the bath as a medium. It is not a manga about an Ancient Roman who is surprised when he sees a Japanese-style bath.
In fact, the bath is not the only common element between Japan and ancient Rome – there are many more. Also, even if the character isn't a typical present day Italian man, I created him as someone who could be one of those ultra serious Japanese men.
So, two years ago when my editor convinced me to publish this as a series, I thought it would be an opportunity to take a broader approach in representing ancient Rome. The 1st volume deals exclusively with the amazement of Lucius encountering the Japanese bath and its customs. With the introduction of wonderful characters like Adrianus (who was one of the most glorious 5 Roman emperors), you will see further development of a plot that portrays Roman everyday life that I hope will fascinate readers.

The manga can be also read (in Japanese only) online at this link.

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