Review: ‘Thermae Romae’ by Mari Yamazaki

The postface the author wrote for each volume of this series is titled ‘Rome & baths, the loves of my life,’ and it shows. She clearly had a blast producing this manga, which gave her the opportunity to immerse herself in those two obsessions for years.

It’s an isekai (for the uncultured swine among you, that’s a genre tremendously popular in Japan that usually consists in a Japanese person getting transported somehow, usually by truck-related means, to a fantasy world that more often than not is loosely based on Europe during the Age of Enlightenment but with cute elves and such. There are exceptions, though, as in the case of this story). The protagonist, an architect/engineer from the Roman Empire, gets inexplicably transported via increasingly contrived plot devices to contemporary Japan, from the seventies up to the modern day. He would love nothing more than to serve Rome well and cleanse the worries and pains of the population through the baths he gets hired to build, and when he gets teleported to Japan, he discovers a previously unknown race, to which he constantly refers with an ethnic slur, who appreciate baths even more than Roman citizens do. Most of the story is therefore about this Roman engineer figuring out how to take advantage of Japanese customs and inventions so he can improve his homeland, even though he can’t understand a single word that comes out of their mouths.

We go through the expected hijinks and more, but the story quickly turns serious as powerful people take note of the protagonist’s talents: the emperor Hadrian ends up becoming one of the main characters, and we also follow Marcus Aurelius from time to time, a teen during the events of the story; history ended up remembering Marcus Aurelius as a stoic philosopher due to his ‘Meditations’ and his wise rule.

It’s a shame that this manga isn’t well-known; I had no clue it existed until Netflix of all places released the trailer for its upcoming anime. The only thing that bothered me about this series is that the way the protagonist gets transported to Japan and back kept getting increasingly ridiculous and convenient, as the situation that the protagonist faced was almost always related to some problem he needed to solve at home, but if you accept like he did eventually that some Roman goddess (mainly Diana) wanted to use him for the glory of Rome, you can roll with it. Other than that, the author has a great sense of humor, the attention to detail and the research that went into it are typically Japanese, and I had a blast throughout. If you love both Japan and ancient Rome about as much as I do, you probably owe it to yourself to read this manga.

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