If you’ve watched anime on Netflix recently, you might have been recommended a series called Thermae Romae Novae. You might have glanced at the picture, wondered, “Is this a series about a guy from ancient Rome taking a bath?” and immediately moved on. I’m here to tell you that’s almost exactly what this series is about, except the Roman is also a bath architect who gets transported to modern-day Japanese baths in this series. A bunch. That’s it. And Thermae Romae Novae rules.
If this sounds like an odd premise for an 11-episode anime TV series, it’s not; it’s an absurd premise. It’s so specific, goofy, and potentially off-putting that it feels like a minor miracle that Thermae Romae Novae—Latin for “New Roman Baths”—exists at all, let alone is airing on Netflix in the U.S. Based on the award-winning manga by Mari Yamazaki, Thermae Romae Novae stars Lucius Modestus, an architect who gets repeatedly commissioned to build increasingly difficult public and private baths for the populace, a nouveau-riche merchant, Emperor Hadrian himself, and more. Each bath has one unique problem that needs to be solved: one has a natural hot spring but its water is too hot, another is visited by foreigners who don’t understand Roman bathing etiquette, and other issues. The way Lucius solves these problems is by inevitably falling into a Roman bath or body of water, emerging in modern-day Japan, and getting inspired by the various marvels he sees there. When he’s sucked back to Rome, he does his best to make an equivalent of what he saw using ancient means.
I don’t exactly know who Thermae Romae Novae is for other than—maybe—myself. The only historical information it gives is how Roman baths worked, and once it’s taught that there’s not much more to tell. If anything, the series seems to be a celebration of the wonders of modern-day bath technology everything bath-adjacent. So in addition to traditional baths and hot springs, this includes personal baths, bidets, water park slides, spa towns, and more—all things Thermae Romae Novae’s Japanese audiences would already be well aware of.
Are they getting their entertainment from the fish-out-of-water scenario? In seeing a guy from the past sit down on a massage chair and assuming there must be slaves inside it kneading the muscles? Or thinking an inflatable dolphin toy is for young children to practice riding a horse in a safe environment where a bath would break their fall? Or his astonishment at the deliciousness of a post-soak fruit milk? Presumably so, although I’d like to think there’s a pleasure for Japanese audiences in seeing their love of baths reflected in so a thoroughly foreign culture as ancient Rome.
What makes Thermae Romae Novae so wonderful to me, however, is how damned weird it is. Not that the episodes themselves are bizarre, at least once you’ve accepted that Lucius is going to inexplicably get teleported 2,000 years in the future and halfway around the globe each time. What’s bizarre is the premise itself, and how it can be stretched out through 11 distinct episodes about different bath issues. Even despite its time-traveling element, it’s banal.
But this is one of the things that anime and manga do so well, or at least what the media permit to be done—allow creators to make highly specific series that seem to have no broad appeal, and give them a chance to make them broadly appealing on their own. There are series about any kind of sport imaginable, including skydiving (Dive!!). In the Shonen Jump manga anthology, a new manga series has arrived called Akane-Banashi, all about a teenage girl who wants to learn the art of rakugo, which is a centuries-old type of solo performance comedy. The beloved Keep Your Hands Off Eizoken! chronicles a high school club that sets out to make a short anime film. And in The Great Passage, a man strives to become the best possible editor of a new dictionary. I repeat: a dictionary.
But even those series have overarching plots that evolve over time. More purely episodic anime and manga include Bartender, where a man solves his customers’ problems by making them each the perfect cocktail for their unique circumstances. In The Way of the Househusband, an ex-yakuza uses his criminal experience to deal with various household chores and problems. One of the weirdest is Saint Young Men, where Jesus and Buddha share an apartment in modern-day Japan and simply deal with different aspects of modern life. One problem, one chapter or episode.
I’m trying to think of any medium, other than manga and anime, that would be so bold as to commit to a premise as esoteric as this one. There’s vaguely an arc in Thermae Novae Romae in that Lucius’ increasingly clever baths cause him to gain the attention of Emperor Hadrian and his wife Livia’s dissatisfaction that her husband works all the time, but they hardly matter. It’s all about baths—Roman baths, Japanese baths, bath-adjacent problems, bath adjacent solutions. (At one, Lucius is tasked with building a bath that will make the people of the Roman empire accept the next emperor-to-be. He succeeds.)
Although the structure of each episode is always the same, the abundance of creativity in the premise is astounding. As long as you’re willing to place yourself in the middle of the Venn diagram of ancient Rome, modern-day Japan, and bath technology, Thermae Romae Novae is a whimsical, if simple delight. And at only 11 episodes, it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
If you have Netflix, why not give the anime a chance? If not, no worries. After all, it was made for me, not you.
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