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Thermae Romae Novae (2022)

It is AD128 and the Roman Empire has been going through a period of major territorial expansion. At this time the capital of the Empire is Rome and its population needs and wants all the amenities befits its status. In streets crowded with houses, statues, street sellers and taverns you can find the local bathhouses (or thermae). All life mixes at these thermae where locals go not only to bathe and clean themselves but also socialise and catch-up on the latest gossip. Lucius Modestus is a designer of thermae but is finding that his more classical styles are not as favoured by local developers. When submerged in the waters of a bath in the thermae designed and built by his grandfather, Lucius finds himself transported to a strange place that the audience will find very familiar. As thermae are such a significant part of Roman life the ideas that he brings back and incorporates into his designs catapult him to notoriety. However new designs need more new ideas, especially when Emperor Hadrian requests Lucius' assistance for the glory and stability of Rome. 

I wish I could remember where I first heard about Thermae Romae manga. I have a feeling it was through listening to a podcast featuring Deb Aoki. The simple idea of Lucius Modestus, a roman bath (thermae) designer, travelling to modern day Japan from Rome and taking ideas back with him to incorporate into his designs sounded both a bit silly and fun. What I got when I bought it was a beautifully drawn manga by Mari Yamazaki where the characters looked like the classical sculptures I had seen in museums and galleries. Over 3 sumptuous hardback volumes Lucius travelled multiple times to the future by some unknown mechanism (but it does involve him being submerged in water) to modern day Japan where he learns about "the flat faces". He learns about the Japanese bathing culture, takes ideas back with him and even, after spending a prolonged period in a hot springs resort becomes attached to the local community. Without being able to communicate he builds bonds with the people he meets and even falls in love which sets up an intriguing final arc. With Thermae Romae Novae being funded by Netflix I had high hopes (as previous Netflix funded shows I've watched had high production values) in how the manga would be brought to life. 

I can only say I was a bit disappointed by Thermae Romae Novae. 

The premise of Thermae Romae Novae (the 2022 anime directed by Tetsuya Tatamitani as opposed to the earlier anime from 2012 which aired in a Noitamina block) is very simple. Much like in the manga Lucius Modestus is a designer of Roman baths or thermae as they shall be referred to from now on. He is "classically trained" (as he is keen to tell people) his ideas do not necessarily fit in with the current fads and fashions in Rome. After an early rejection he seeks solace in the baths and by some mystic mechanism when he submerged under the water, finds himself emerging from the bath in "The Land of the Flat Faces" … or modern day Japan to the rest of us. Marvelled by their technology, astounded by their mastery of materials and slightly unsettled that "the flat faces" could usurp the glory of Rome, Lucius absorbs features and designs we take for granted, to incorporate into his latest design. The first time it is a fruity yoghurt drink. Subsequent visits include his interpretation of a shower, etiquette posters, a wall-mounted digital TV or even the idea of a hot-springs resort. For those who grew up (or are familiar) with the Flintstones some of how modern ideas are translated to early history will seem quite familiar with Lucius' inner monologue as he explores modern day Japan quite entertaining at times.

The innovations that Lucius is pioneering brings him to the attention of Emperor Hadrian who makes personal requests on his time. Of course, this ups the need for additional innovations as Lucius is keen to do what he can for Rome,  prompting further uncontrolled or unplanned visits to the future. Often the trigger for the travel is another trip or fall into water or just a relaxing contemplative bath, but as his designers' block is pretty severe he is grateful for the knowledge he picks up. With the introduction of Emperor Hadrian (voiced by Richard Epcar who is always a joy) I thought that a more enduring story, less episodic story-telling would emerge. Frustratingly it didn't - a few suggestions or hints of Rome and the politics behind the Emperor was all we seem to get.

By now you should get the impression that each episode is a rinse and repeat of the first. We see snippets of Roman life but not enough to really get into or to get a sense of the time period. It is not an anime exploring history or really using it to propel the story. After a while each episode felt very same-y, interchangeable and quite predictable. There were a few attempts to add in something new like Lucius feeling a bit queasy and going to use a modern Japanese toilet but these variations were insufficient to take away from the predictable nature of the show. Even when in modern day where Lucius is unable to be understood (he speaks Latin) and where we could have some fun with a fish out of water scenario, everything goes well. There is no sense of relative jeopardy even with him turning up naked as he emerges out of any bath he arrives in. Only the modern day Japanese seem to query the arrival and disappearance of a mysterious stranger, he seems to pay no interest in what is going on and why he is where he is.

After watching Thermae Romae Novae I went back to the Mari Yamazaki's manga to see if I was being fair on the anime. Had I been remembering and overplaying the manga in some way? As it was only 3 (very nice hardbound) volumes I could easily get through it and compare it to what I watched. As a result I did re-write elements of this review because I had been unfair - I had mis-rembered the manga - so this is a version 2 if you will.

The manga can neatly be split in half with the 2 main stories. The first half of the manga (although told in a slightly different sequence) is well represented in the anime. Each episode of the anime is broadly told across a couple of chapters in the manga and to be fair on the anime it does do a good job of communicating the main elements of each of these stories - no matter how episodic I found them. Where the manga differs (and this is being super-picky) is that it brings in a sense of time - there is about a year between each of Lucius' adventures which does not come across in the anime at all. The other main difference is that the relationship with Emperor Hadrian is a bit more developed and there is a greater sense of why Lucius wants to do what he does for Hadrian along with some interpretation of the politics of the time. In fact this relationship with Hadrian in the manga is a much stronger element and as a result it feels a bit more like the glue that holds the disparate stories together.

The story in the manga that I enjoyed the most was when Lucius finds himself "stuck" in Japan and gets involved with the community - partly by necessity and also because he wants to. Because this was such a big part of my enjoyment of the manga I was disappointed to not see it in the anime … but it could be a season 2 … possibly.

I could (and frequently have) forgiven shows that are a bit predictable or throw-away if the character design is distinct or the world looks great. This animated series has a sense of cheapness about it. Given how good the manga looks, the sculpture like quality of the human characters or the quality of the architecture this has reference material that should  appear on the screen somewhere. Sadly what we get is that now more common flattened 3D CGI character who sort of slips or slides in front of the background. The character motion is not much to observe often with repeated walk cycles for background characters. This isn't normally an issue but it is very obvious here. 

There are also lots of static shots and static pans with copious dialogue over the top. Sometimes these shots are quite entertaining normally when Lucius emerges from a bath but in the main it just made me want to go back to Yamazaki's manga. In my experience, the static-pan is there to fill time and save some money for a more detailed scene (for example the musical numbers in Kids on the Slope contrasted against the static crowds and other reaction shots). In Thermae Romae Novae it is not quite clear where the money was being spent. Even Rome is not that detailed or visually interesting. Whilst they do clearly distinguish between the Rome of the wealthy against the commoners it is mostly with colour, not design detail. Given the reference material I can see why it would be both expensive and time consuming to reproduce it in an animated form, they could have gone for a completely different look. The opening sequence hints at a bold flat design - think of those scenes chiselled into stone. *That* would have been visually very appealing and perhaps would have worked with some of the other choices they made - who can argue with a chiselled static-pan? Don’t get me wrong - the animation and design work is perfectly functional, it is not offensive or gross. It's just that given the source material it could be a lot better.

As for the script the show fails to spark joy or much enthusiasm. The actors do their best with what they have, committing to it body and soul, but it feels very clunky and on the nose. An early scene with a young Lucius exclaiming his love of thermae and how he is going to be a thermae designer really set the tone for the series and did make me cringe. Similarly, a description of statues of the goddess Venus (and how women were described in general) was another low point. At times Thermae Romae Novae is quite exposition heavy (with the obligatory static pan) as Lucius explains the minutiae of the Roman bathing processes or interprets what he is seeing when he is in modern day. The majority of the story elements are also communicated here - it is more of a tell don't show kind of series. 

During some of these long pieces of dialogue we get some extreme tonal shifts and attempts at humour from despair. I was not a fan of these shift in tone mostly because there was nothing about the character of Lucius that made these shifts make sense. He would go from a deeply earnest sincerity to an almost over the top camp surprise/despair over nothing. The place where it would make most sense would be in modern day and whilst it did happen it seemed that incidental moments like his relationship with his wife (which is barely explored) would send him into a spiral. Had the look and design of the show been different I think I would have gone with the tonal shifts - Tatami Galaxy has many of those absurd moments but because of that slightly different look you just go with it. I get the sense that they were trying to inject humour into something that could come across a bit a bit dull or uninspiring, but as is the case with forced humour sometimes it just doesn't work.

Where tonal shift did work was when Lucius emerged from a bath or it was trying to cover up the 'nudity' claimed in the show notes on Netflix. Stray rays of light, pots, other obstructions or pixelation to hide the modesty of Lucius. Judicious use of towels too. That was a lot of fun and reminded me of the scene with Shinji in Misato's flat in Evangelion (when he discovers PenPen). It is not a new thing but it was well done and made a change from watching a show where the fanservice was all delivered by female characters. And in these scenes then Lucius looked like the Roman sculpture from the manga (which pleased me).

I feel really bad coming down so hard on this show. First up I have to say that I finished watching it (which I haven't done with shows that have a similar animation style) so there was something about the show that kept me engaged. Thermae Romae Novae is full of heart and belief that good things happen if you work hard and try. As such it has quite a positive and upbeat feeling to it. In all of Lucius' attempts to help "the flat faces" (whether in the Edo-era Tokyo or supporting an architect trying to recreate a Roman bath in the 2020s) his selflessness is reflected back and he reaps the rewards. This was something that was explored more in the manga and was definitely an element I enjoyed about it. I also enjoyed the farcical attempts to protect Lucius' modesty.

For those of us of a certain age we remember our weekday and weekend cartoons often finishing with an end of episode feature or live action insert  Often these picked on a point in the episode (the Mysterious Cities of Gold ones were pretty intense for a show aimed at children) or was just trying to get across a message ("Don't litter" or "Always pick up your trash" told by He-Man or another character). Delightfully Thermae Romae Novae features a 5 minute segment where the creator and artist behind Thermae Romae Mari Yamazaki visits hot-spring resorts in Japan and gives us a mini travelogue as she explores. As someone who has never been to Japan but from reading manga  and watching anime is familiar with the hot spring resort to actually see what they are like, the customs and rituals associated with some (for example aerating the hot spring water *by hand* to reduce its temperature at one inn) and the business that build up around them was fascinating. The enthusiasm that Mari Yamazaki has for hot springs was infectious and really grounded the feature - I would have happily watched it for more than 5 minutes and really wanted it to go on for longer.

Whilst I am still disappointed with Thermae Romae Novae it is a much softer as a result of writing this review and getting my thoughts down than after I finished watching it. I did do a small amount of reading around and revisited a few articles I had seen on the 2012 Thermae Romae anime and it is here that the Novae in the title of the 2022 anime is key. Reading the episode synopses of the episodes for the 2012 anime I noticed that there is a lot that has been taken over into the Thermae Romae Novae - it is a remake but with more episodes and some additional stories added in. Had I known Thermae Romae Novae was essentially a remake of a previous anime I think my expectations would have been different, but I would have still been wanting those story elements in the manga that I really enjoyed. (It is definitely a good read and the dust jacket on the books always brings a smile to my face.)

When I saw that there was a Thermae Romae (Novae) anime I was really looking forward to seeing it. Having really enjoyed the manga and Mari Yamazaki's pen work the idea of seeing these sculpture-like characters come to life, to watch how the modern designs and technology were incorporated into Roman designs and construction and then to watch the proverbial fish-out-of-water story unfold as he spends a prolonged period of time in Japan (the second half which was my favourite bit). The manga neatly fit around the historical events of the time but this was jettisoned in favour of the "need design, travel to future, all is well…" which works well for an episodic anime series that can be picked up at any time, but felt very repetitive after a few episodes. Once the pattern was set there was very little else happening story wise so there was no longer arc to explore which was a shame. In terms of look and animation some of the static pans or the emergence from the bath shots really captured that sculpture like design aesthetic but outside those moments there was little visually that was appealing. The show has a flat 3D CGI look which at times I found quite ugly and uninspiring. With Lucius being the object of attention in the show there were plenty of 'fanservice' moments with him at the centre - his modesty covered by a ray of light, craftily placed obstruction or traditional pixelation. These moments were entertaining but couldn't do much to save a poor script and the jarring tonal shifts. 

Thermae Romae Novae was fine (with a slight downward inflection on the end). I did not find it objectionable and it didn’t conjure up any strong feelings one way or the other. I did finish watching it and what kept me coming back was the end of episode travelogue with Mari Yamazaki who is exploring hot spring towns, their history and traditions in Japan. This was excellent and I would have preferred to watch a proper documentary series on that.



IN A NUTSHELL:  Like visiting a middle of the road spa (or hot spring) for the first time, fine whist there but not much to talk about when you get home.


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