Lucius Modestus, a second century Roman architect, is fired when his designs for a public bath are deemed too old-fashioned and outdated. Frustrated, he joins his friend Marcus for a relaxing afternoon at the baths. As he slips his head under the water, Lucius gets caught in the suction of the drain and is pulled under. When he is finally able to surface, he finds himself surrounded by "flat-faced" foreigners in the strangest bath house he has ever seen! Somehow, the Roman has time traveled to the 20th century. Lucius cannot understand Japanese and his Latin passes right over the heads of his fellow bathers, but he is fascinated by the innovative bathhouse design and customs that he sees. When he eventually returns back to Rome, he implements these new designs and becomes the go-to architect for new and novel baths - eventually attracting the attention of Emperor Hadrian himself!
"Thermae Romae" is one of the strangest ideas I've ever seen for a comic series. A Roman who time travels via hot baths to modern Japan? When a Japanese friend first described the series to me last year, I seriously thought something had gone wrong in his Japanese-to-English translation.
The comic book is very well drawn, an interesting hybrid of Western and Japanese comic book styles. There are some color illustrations, but the majority of the pages are black and white. The Roman scenes and characters are very naturalistic; the chiseled features and muscled bodies resembled the Greek and Roman sculptures now found in museums around the world. By contrast, the Japanese characters are rendered in a much more cartoon-y and plastic manga style, which visually reminds the reader of the culture clash between East and West experienced by Lucius in his new surroundings.
Each chapter has a basic formula. Lucius is presented with some sort of architectural challenge, and as he's mulling it over he winds up in hot water, which transports him to a new type of Japanese bathing experience. Lucius is a mix of arrogant pride - he is, after all, a Roman citizen, and therefore superior to all other races - and naïve bumpkin fascinated by simple things like plastic buckets and bottles of fruit-flavored milk. His inability to communicate with the Japanese doesn't faze him in the slightest, because they're only "flat-faced slaves" anyway. Likewise, most of the Japanese that he meets just shrug off his ignorance, observing that he's a foreigner and content to leave it at that. After being sufficiently impressed and amazed by Japanese ingenuity, Lucius is transported back to the Roman Empire, where he puts his observations into practice. At the end of each section, the author has a brief essay talking about her experiences and/or research that influenced the chapter.
I initially thought this was too obvious to mention, but on second thought I should point out that as the majority of the action takes place in bath houses, there is a lot of nudity. There's also a chapter that goes into great detail about some of the phallic cults of both Rome and Japan so, y'know, penises. I think the only visible male members are on statues, but there are plenty of naked breasts, chests and bums to offend the shy and demure.
This comic is ridiculous, charming, and hilarious. It's a great way to start off the new year, and I highly recommend it.