Graphic Novel

Of Onsens, Monkeys, and Men: Thermae Romae and the Art of Manga

Over the past ten or so years, manga has gone from a highly mainstream phenomena in the early-to-mid-2000’s to a genre that is increasingly the purview of a small contingent of diehard fans. As I have been reading manga consistently for over twelve years now, I have experienced firsthand the marketplace fluctuations caused by the fall of Borders, the rise of fan translations and scans, the advent of digital manga sales and loans, and the birth of manga lending at local libraries across America. Despite this visible decline, however, industry magnates are positive about the future of the American manga industry, as an extremely well-researched article from April 2013 by Brigid Alverson in Publisher’s Weekly stipulates.

I, too, am optimistic about the future of manga in the US, mainly because I think America is starting to develop a graphic novel culture that may someday equal that of France or Japan. The recent trend of “novels-in-cartoon,” like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, and Captain Underpants, along with fresh faces in 2013 like Chickenhare, Bad Kitty: School Daze, and Stick Dog, seems to be gaining staying power while building momentum. Young fans of “novels-in-cartoon” are then being guided into young adult reading by a rash of high profile books-turned-graphic-novels, like Twilight, Artemis Fowl, Cirque du Freak, and The Infernal Devices. In short, a wide and plausibly durable potential readership of graphic novel lovers is brewing that the manga industry may be able to tap if they play their cards right and invite fresh engagement with titles that transcend preconceptions about the genre.

A handful of publishers seem to have the jump on this idea. Today, I want to highlight one manga series that was recently licensed in the US that has this broad appeal–Thermae Romae.

Yamazaki_ThermaeRomae_V1_HCIt is clear from even a cursory glance that Thermae Romae‘s publisher, Yen Press, packaged it so it would receive special attention. Bound in hardcover, printed in an oversized format (larger even than the deluxe Twilight graphic novels) with art book quality paper, and tricked out with a simple yet stately cover that effectively demonstrates the fashionable French “pop of color,” Thermae Romae grabs your attention with even a cursory glance.

Thermae Romae is built on a golden premise: hot springs and public baths, or onsen as they’re called in Japan. As you may or may not know, Japan has a fantastic onsen culture and bath time is a sacred window of relaxation. Soaking in natural hot spring mineral baths is hugely popular as a getaway, and places like Hakone are famed throughout Japan for their luxurious hot spring resorts, one of which I had the pleasure of visiting. But the Japanese are not the only group to worship baths–the ancient Romans had an equally strong affinity for this tranquil water sport. Even today the ruins and remains of Roman public baths can be seen throughout Europe. Think, for example, of the town of Bath in England, where you can still visit a preserved public bath and sip from the healing waters (now laced with lead) if you’re daring.


One of the major pools of the historic Roman public baths preserved in Bath, England (Check out the statues on the second story. Look familiar?), M. Gaseor

Thermae Romae revolves around the adventures of Lucius, a bath architect in ancient Rome. When Lucius gets fired because of his antiquated and unoriginal design plans, he begins to despair. He goes to soak away his worries in the bathhouse, only to get dragged through the drain at the bottom into a modern-day Japanese onsen! Through a series of time slips, Lucius finds the inspiration he needs to revolutionize Roman bath culture in the strange, novel customs of the Japanese. Brimming with fun cultural details about Roman and Japanese bath culture/history and sprinkled with a healthy dose of comedy and adventure, Thermae Romae is delightfully original and incredibly fun.

Between its unique, engaging storyline and its fantastic art, Thermae Romae is sure to delight both hardened manga fans and those who have never dabbled in the genre.

Still not convinced? I leave you with these pictures to get you in the mood for Thermae Romae.


An onsen in Kinosaki, a famous resort town, in 1910, Public Domain



The monkeys at the famous Jigokudani hot spring in Nagano Japan, courtesy of Yosemite

Want to learn more? Some extra readings for you.

Brigid Alverson’s article on the future of manga in the US:

The making of Thermae Romae:

~ Michelle


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