Thursday, August 11, 2011

Yamazaki Mari: Thermae Romae (2009-present)

Some friends are wild about this manga, so we borrowed it and gave it a try.  As usual, my wife zipped through the two volumes we borrowed in about five minutes (yukking it up the whole time), while it took me the better part of a Sunday afternoon...

The author is Yamazaki Mari ヤマザキマリ, and the title is テルマエ・ロマエ, or Thermae Romae.   It's from Beam, which is a pretty dependable publisher;  usually they do things that are aimed at grown-ups, and are relatively sophisticated, or at least interesting.

This is, sort of.  The set-up is a lot like that in JIN, only in reverse.  In ancient Rome (Hadrian's reign), we meet an architect named Lucius Modestus, who specializes in designing bathhouses.  While in a public bath one day he slips through a mysterious drainhole and surfaces in a modern Japanese public bath.  Astonished by everything he sees, he comes up with a great idea for the bath he's designing back in ancient Rome, and then just as mysteriously fades out of consciousness and wakes up in the bath back home.

It's a comedy, of course.  It's the gags that have made it a huge hit in Japan (there's a movie planned, live action), and I have to admit they're pretty good.  The art is mostly forgettable (Yamazaki employs a light, sketch-like line, which lends everything an airy, marble-like look), but good enough that a lot of the gags depend on making readers recognize similarities between the way she draws characters and the kind of Roman sculpture you've seen in school books and on public TV.  Not just famous people like Hadrian, but even Lucius himself is drawn like a sculpture come to life, with comically rigid postures and facial expressions.

Some of the gags amount to no more than that, visually punning on famous statuary.  Elsewhere her humor exploits the predictable situational humor of an ancient Roman showing up (naked, of course) in a modern Japanese setting.  Culture shock, technology shock, etc.

And it is enjoyable, as far as that goes.  I mean, I laughed at several episodes.

There's a disappointing undercurrent, though (is that a pun? can't tell).  Like JIN, there's a wish-fulfillment thing going on here.  Minakata Jin went back in time to introduce modern medical technology to late early-modern Japan and thus changed world history to make it appear that modern medicine depended on Japanese innovation and ingenuity.  Here an ancient Roman jumps forward in time and marvels at the superior technology and ingenuity of modern Japanese bath culture, then goes back to introduce it into Ancient Rome.  The manga doesn't take it seriously enough to develop this into a full-fledged alternate history of the Roman bath.  But still Yamazaki is pandering to her Japanese readership's cultural nationalism, flattering them on how superior their bath culture is to Rome's.

Which is kind of pathetic, if you think about it.  If you're reduced to boasting that you're technologically and socially superior to a 2nd century CE culture, you're not really boasting at all.

Of course, the implication is that modern Japan's bath culture is also superior to that of the modern West.  That's the real ax Yamazaki's grinding here.  And, let me hasten to add, I don't necessarily disagree:  I enjoy an onsen as much as anyone.  But Japanese cleanliness vs. supposed Western dirtiness is an old Nihonjinron theme, and Yamazaki is catering to it (not so much in the manga as in her prose afterwords to each episode).  And that's a little dispiriting.

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