[Review] Thermae Romae Novae

10 years ago I wrote about a unique little short series unlike any other before it about hot springs, time-traveling Romans, and the wonders of fruit milk. Fast forward to today—we’ve been given a retelling of that same imaginary tale in a full series format. Thermae Romae Novae is a refreshed take on Lucius’ journey and experiences through the Roman Empire and Japan.

Original Series

I recall the short series fondly. Released in 3 full episodes—or 6 mini parts—the anime was a bit of a wake-up call. I had never seen anything like it, from the art style to the animation and of course the story itself. Calling it an animation felt a bit dishonest, since the experience was something more akin to a slideshow with the limited movement and duration. You could even describe it as a colored manga put on screen, turning from one page to the next with almost no motion in-between. Despite this, I loved Thermae Romae. I learned about both Roman and Japanese bathing cultures, and planned on experiencing indoor and outdoor hot springs first hand some day.

2012 Lucius gaping in awe at a Japanese toilet
2022 Lucius looking on his friend’s sculpture

The Remake, Novae

A decade of countless anime made me forget many of the details of the original series, but key images and experiences still stood out to me when I revisited Novae. I actually misunderstood the intention of the 2022 series, expecting it to be a continuation of what transpired before rather than a remake of the same story. While I ended up not at all disappointed with the retelling, I have to admit that I was initially put out at the decision. I probably wouldn’t feel as favorable had I watched these two back-to-back, but let’s be real, who would actually do that given the obscurity of the original? If anyone did watch the short in anticipation for the remake, let me know how you felt about it in the comments.

There are several factors that help Novae stand out from the short, first and foremost being the writing and animation which with the increased episode count and length now going much more into detail per arc. I was worried that telling these same stories would feel overly long, but that was not the case. What did bother me more were the visual changes like minor character design choices and the overall art style. I’m not sure why, but Lucius’ hair color changed from blonde to brunette, so I didn’t even recognize him in the first episode until he was directly addressed. I’ve never read the manga, so I don’t know how he was originally drawn. And then there’s the art, which did look more substantial than the short series, but ended up feeling somehow more rough in detail with the increased animation. I’m not sure how to put it into words, but I almost felt like if the work was going to get more exposure like this it would have been nice to have seen a more polished look in line with other anime…or perhaps that would have made the show appear too generic and lost part of Thermae Romae’s charm.

Another area that bothered me much more in Novae was in the humor surrounding slaves and Japanese people. Again, I don’t know if this is so much a factor I overlooked in the past and I’m more sensitive to it now, or if because of the nature of the short series jokes passed by much more quickly before moving on to the next slap stick moment. Either way, I couldn’t help but grimace every time Lucius referred to the Japanese as “flat-faced,” or assumed them to be slaves because of their “otherness.” He does it so frequently, that you start to filter it out which I’m not sure is a good thing. I stomached it because I do think it’s probably in line with the attitude of his time period, social status, and environment. The humor that pairs with his comments also suggests the author wants us to view his reactions as ridiculous. Being a woman who herself studied abroad and now lives in Italy, she obviously doesn’t view herself the way Romans might from that era.

Seeing Lucius in his home country and once again time traveling to different periods and areas of Japan reminded me once more of why the original charmed me in the first place. Viewers beginning with Novae will still feel that silliness and curiosity offered in the short, only this time they’ll get more detailed information about the architecture and Lucius’ personal life. The time spent with his family, employers, friends, and strangers continues to entertain and you’ll start looking at every body of water as a suspected wormhole to Japan. Or perhaps the reverse, to the Roman Empire?

Extras with Mangaka Mari Yamazaki

The end of each episode gifts us with a slice of life with the original creator of Thermae Romae, Mari Yamazaki. She takes us with her as she explores an aspect of Japanese bathing culture, from the too-hot Kusatsu Onsen and its famous yumomi cooling the water with large wooden paddles, to the drinkable hot spring water (insen) of Shima Onsen, and even to the kaiseki menus available at Hoshi Onsen. Her voracious curiosity about everything hot spring can be felt through the screen and is infectious–I want to visit every one of the locations we see. One day, some day!

Rating: 1 dango


*Rating system:

  • 0 dango – average and forgettable.
  • 1 dango – very good in its category.
  • 2 dango – excellent show that is worth a try.
  • 3 dango – exceptional show one must watch.

References:

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