Director: Tetsuya Tatamitani
Writer: Yamazaki Mari
Cast: Kenjiro Tsuda, Takahiro Sakurai, Yoshimasa Hosoya, Satoshi Hino, Junya Enoki
Language: Japanese with various subtitles
Streaming on Netflix from 28 March
3.5 out of 5 stars
In Japan, taking a bath is a way of life steeped in tradition.
Most people in Japan think of soaking in the bathtub as cleansing away not only the sweat and dirt accumulated throughout the day but their fatigue as well. Most, if not every Japanese household has a bathtub small enough for one, just to fulfill the typical custom of taking baths every night.
By extension, this culture has permeated into the public space, where everyone can experience this part of Japanese culture by dipping into onsen (hot springs) and public baths.
Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae explores another culture that established and relied extensively on this culture of soaking in baths to further expand their civilisation — the ancient Romans.
The series follows the exploits of architect Lucius Modestus in his dream to continue the family line of thermal bath architects and create the most advanced and cutting-edge bathhouses in Ancient Rome.
Lucius is an architect who is extremely driven, but unfortunately possesses very old fashioned design ideas and struggles to retain employment.
But as fate would have it, in an attempt by his friends to cheer him up in a public bath, Lucius discovers an underwater vent in a pool, and is magically transported to different bathhouses in various points of both modern and ancient Japan.
Written and made popular by manga artist Yamazaki Mari, the anime also includes an informative segment at the end of each episode, documenting the author’s travels around Japan to explore different varieties of bathhouses all around Japan, both unique and famous.
Lucius is an interesting protagonist; strict, puritanical and unyielding in his principles. I convulsed in mirth whenever he struggled to communicate in Latin with the ever so polite Japanese, whom he refers to as ‘flat-faced slaves’.
In spite of the utterly comedic misunderstandings, the Japanese hospitality of delicious food and impeccable manners eventually prevails and wears down the prickly Lucius, who learns (after much culture shock and aggrandisement) about basic bathing objects like shower caps and laundry baskets to introduce back to his society.
Quite importantly, author Yamazaki doesn’t shy away from topics such as the conventionally accepted custom of love between men in Ancient Rome. In one episode, Lucius has acquired a reputation as a premier bathhouse architect in Rome for his increasingly appealing bathhouse designs, and catches the eye of Emperor Hadrian, who happens to also be an architect himself.
The Emperor proceeds to commission Lucius to build him a personal bath, and after successfully doing so, very straightforwardly and physically hints at having Lucius accompany him personally on his diplomatic campaign to quell Rome’s vassal states. Meowr.
If anything, Thermae Romae Novae is a comical and lighthearted take on Japanese perceptions of foreigners and their general attitudes of bemusement towards them.
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