One of the things I really enjoy about Thermae Romae is the way I can see some of my own reactions mirrored in those of Lucius. I’m a huge fan of onsen – they’re one of my favorite things about Japan – and yet so strange to foreigners as to take some serious getting used to. And I’ve never felt more a foreigner in Japan than when I’m visiting a public bath, which seems so quintessentially Japanese – and the way they deal with Lucius in their midst is very familiar. Having discovered the monkey bath, fruit milk and the washlet among other wonders this episode’s miracle is the onsen town.
Having been to one or two, I can honestly say the onsen town seems like a bizarre yet wonderful place to at least one foreigner besides Lucius. A whole village where everyone gets to walk around in yukata and geta on the streets, wandering from hot spring to hot spring? Count me in – even if they are sometimes full of tacky souvenir shops selling “hot spring buns” and pimping silly entertainments. The timing of Lucius’ visit is once again fortuitous, as his current charter is to build a bath in the smoldering remains of the Vesuvius eruption, where he runs into some trouble with a local gang of aromatic brigands he tries to win over to this side with promises of potential riches under their feet.
Thermae Romae – 06
And so it ends with Lucius discovering perhaps that greatest of all Japanese wonders, ramen.
Ah, ramen. There’s no food that’s more of a sensual experience – a delicacy that ties all the senses together, and a food of the people. Cheap, democratic and delicious. I really appreciate discovering all the wonders of modern Japan again, through Lucius’ eyes. It’s not just ramen, though, but also gyoza and the sex club – as run (mysteriously) by the same man who led the bandits in ancient Rome, (Touchi Hiroki). When Lucius returns to Rome after diving into the river chasing after his “battle trophy” – the stuffed hippo that will later turn up on an altar – he has his greatest success yet in turning Vesuvius into an onsen village. Romans wearing t-shirts and buying onsen tchotchkes? Why not, indeed.
It’s pretty damn remarkable that a three-episode series with bare-bones flash animation and a public domain soundtrack could accomplish so much, but Thermae Romae really made an impression. I only wish this series had been longer because it ended up being one of the surprising highlights of the season so far. The writing was consistently sharp and full of wit, and I love the way it captured the culture clash between Lucius and the Japanese so perfectly. It’s an extreme and silly example, of course, but the interplay between modern Japanese and foreigners really isn’t so different – there’s that same sense of discomfort tinged with curiosity and a genuine desire to help that I see in Japanese faces every time I visit the country (though less of it now that I can speak a bit of Japanese). The entire series is cut through with moments of inspiration, like Lucius paying for ramen with a Roman silver coin. Can you even begin to imagine what that would be worth? The pawnshop owner could surely retire.
Of course this was ultimately about the wonders of the bath, and I appreciated the fact that in its final scene this humble little anime was able to instill a sense of what the mangaka was trying to communicate. As the strains of “Ode to Joy” played, Lucius sat in the baths with centurions, nobles and former bandits – all of them equals naked in the steaming water. Like ramen the bath is a democratic place, and it was so even in ancient Rome – one of the few places where rank meant little – and Yamazaki-sensei wrote the manga in part to celebrate that, and how the Japanese shared this love for the experience with the Romans.