A Hot Soak and a Cool Book: A Review of Mari Yamazaki’s Thermae Romae


If you’re into the ancient world or the Greco-Roman era like I am, this book is for you. Thermae Romae, or Roman Baths, is yet another gem in Yen’s prize-winning arsenal. By female writer and illustrator Mari Yamazaki, the two-book series tells the story of a Roman bath architect, Lucius Modestus, who is magically transported from the Roman Empire in 100 AD to modern-day Japan, and back again.

The book has won both the Manga Taisho Grand Prize in 2010 and the 14th Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize, and it shows: Not a single page is extraneous to the storytelling. Each chapter is a self-contained short featuring the main character and a look at some segment of Japanese bathing culture, in honest but uplifting ways. The story progresses well and imaginatively. The art style superbly suits the aesthetic principals of ancient Rome. This book is everything you could want it to be.

Originally written for adults, the humor is frank. So too are the topics covered and their depictions, whether it be in caring for the elderly, going to fertility festivals, or being mistaken as the new pet of Emperor Hadrian. But that’s exactly why it shines: Yamazaki lightly pokes fun at everything, while taking an academic view of things. As the book goes on, the seasoned American manga reader will find that frankness amusing, endearing, and a relief: Finally, a fiction that is, while fantastic, but not sensationalized. Yamazaki includes her own research experiences in bathing in Japan and Italy, which adds a little extra something to the presentation, as well. This is a work where the older reader is confidently spoken to at his or her maturity level.

Thermae Romae feels like a lighthearted tale a professor might spin at a cultural studies lecture to help a modern student conceptualize practices in antiquity. It brings ancient Rome into focus, while critiquing modern Japan, maintaining a positive angle on both sides. For this reason, I feel the series would be very good for students of Japanese culture in high school or above, or for writing students who want perspective on composing historical fiction. There’s even a chapter on proper bathing practices in modern Japan.

Luckily for educators, Thermae Romae comes in hardcover library binding. That makes it a little more expensive, but the durability is well worth the investment. Each volume is oversized — almost 8.5″ x 11″ — and 350 pages, so hardcover was a good and proper pick on the part of Yen’s staff. All around — the art, story, translation, and physical aspects of the American publishing — the work is solid. Plus, now I get to geek out about more Greco-Roman stuff. What isn’t to love? Thermae Romae: the first hardcover manga I’ve ever owned, and totally worth it.