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Iaponia Capta Cepit: Bathing Cultures and Roman Syncretism in Thermae Romae (2012)

Released in 2012 and based on the manga of the same name, Thermae Romae presents the bath-designer Lucius Modestus as he struggles to revolutionize the public baths of Rome under the reign of Emperor Hadrian.  When Lucius visits a public bath, he is dragged down into the water, emerging in a modern-day Japanese onsen (public bath), where he encounters modern technology and Japanese people who he believes to be Roman provincial slaves.

In Thermae Romae we are introduced to Japanese bathing culture through the eyes of an ancient Roman, a man who sees the Japanese as naturally inferior.  For all that Yamazaki (the creator of the manga) and Takeuchi (the director of the film) work up the comedy of the situation, Lucius, as an ancient Roman, asserts certain assumptions about his superiority.  After all, as provincials of the Roman Empire, Lucius argues, the Japanese must accept that their technological advancements are free to be adopted by the Romans themselves. 

Yet Lucius’ adventures in Japan are not simply a comment on the acquisitiveness of the Roman Empire.  A one-time tour guide for European tourists in Japan, Yamazaki’s inspiration for Lucius’ adventures came in part through the faux pas committed by western tourists in her native country.  And that country’s toilet and bathing technology has long been something that draws the attention of western tourists (Homer Simpson once stated about a Japanese toilet that “they’re YEARS ahead of us!”)  By transporting an ancient Roman to modern Japan, Yamazaki and Takeuchi infuse Lucius with characteristics of the feckless westerner in Japan; he disregards local custom and refuses to learn the local language (it is the Japanese protagonist, Mami, who eventually learns Latin).  Thus, Lucius is not simply a reflection of Roman cultural syncretism, but of (Japanese perceptions of) all western culture that has, over the centuries, sought to obtain, control, and subjugate foreign culture and technology.

In this paper I will examine the way that Roman provincialism and syncretism is transformed in Thermae Romae (2012) from a historical fact (as discussed by Webster and Gruen, amongst others) into a commentary on modern tourism and western colonialism.  By integrating European music and Japanese casting into an original presentation of the Roman world, Thermae Romae presents both an entertaining story of cross-cultural time travel, while also poking fun at tourism and the colonial (and colonizing) tendencies that lie behind it