Roman and Japanese Intersections in ‘Thermae Romae’ (Takeuchi, 2012)

Thermae Romae (trailer here) began as a manga in 2008, written by Yamazaki Mari. It was later made into a six episode flash anime series (January 12 – 26, 2012) in the lead-up to the release of its film adaptation on April 28, 2012. Yamazaki has garnered honors for this project, winning both the Manga Taisho (‘Grand Cartoon’) Award and Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize Short Story Award in 2010, and in 2017 receiving the Order of the Star of Italy from the Italian ambassador to Japan for her incorporation of Italian heritage in her work. [1] The movie went on to become the second highest grossing film at the Japanese box office that year. As of 2015, it was the 95th highest grossing overall. [2] Structured as a romantic comedy, Thermae Romae’s characters grapple with the importance of thinking of others before oneself, the elusiveness of professional fulfillment, and the under-appreciated creativity involved in borrowing ideas from other cultural contexts.

Plot and Characters

Filmed at NuBoyana Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria, its story unfolds in two dramatic contexts: Rome of the second century CE, under Emperor Hadrian (Ichimura Masachika); and Japan of 2012. [3] For the most part, the Roman storyline is dramatic and the Japanese comic. The film begins in Rome, following the character Lucius Modestus (Abe Hiroshi), a Roman bath engineer. Lucius finds himself in a rut, both professionally and personally. In a Roman bath market depicted as thriving on superficial novelty, he has no relevant ideas and frowns on novelty for its own sake in any case. Lucius’ consequent downcast outlook on life has long since infected his marriage, creating distance and disaffection. While at the baths one afternoon reflecting on these matters, Lucius suddenly finds himself transported to modern Japan, where he pops up in a bathing establishment, frequented by the elderly. As the plot progresses, Lucius adapts the novel (to him) bathing concepts from modern Japan to 2nd century Rome, revolutionizing the bath scene of his day and rejuvenating his career in the process. He repeatedly encounters on these time-slips a young manga artist and writer named Mami (Ueto Aya), with whom a largely implicit romantic scenario begins to develop.

Back in Rome, Lucius’ new ideas bring him to the attention of Emperor Hadrian himself who plans to use his talents for the betterment of the Empire. Hadrian recognizes that Rome’s cultural institutions, such as its baths, are the Empire’s connective tissue, with much greater long-term capacity to preserve its disparate cultural components than Rome’s legions. He sees a role for Lucius in capitalizing on this cultural ‘soft-power’. Eventually Mami, who has begun to learn Latin and study Roman history, time-slips back to Rome with Lucius where she discovers that the timeline is about to take a terrible turn. The virtuous Antoninus (Shishido Kai), whom Mami knows to be Hadrian’s successor, is assigned to take over the governorship of a province, while the evil Ceionius (Kitamura Kazuki) will remain in Rome as a likely successor to Hadrian. History says it should be the other way around. Furthermore, Ceionius is supposed to die two years into his governorship when a plague ravages his province. Unless history is put right, the virtuous Antoninus will die instead, while Ceionius becomes emperor in his place. Furthermore — and Mami rouses the morose Lucius with this point in particular: under an emperor Ceionius, the Roman Senate will not deify Hadrian.

Lucius is able to restore Antoninus to Hadrian’s favor and prevent his dispatch to a provincial governorship by crediting him with the idea for an audacious plan. Hadrian is on the frontier overseeing a war with powerful enemies of the Empire. His troops are exhausted and unable to carry on. Lucius secures permission to build a bath adjacent to the battlefield, for the resuscitation of the troops. Confounded by the pace at which he must complete the work, however, Lucius is rescued by a troop of elderly Japanese citizens who time-slipped with Mami to Rome (or rather to the site of the battle that Hadrian’s army is fighting). They realize that, while an indoor bathhouse (sento) is impossible, an outdoor hot springs bathing establishment (onsen) can be built in the time available, and they proceed to do exactly that. The exhausted and injured Roman soldiers recuperate at the onsen, return to battle at full fighting strength, and score a victory for Hadrian.

Communal Bathing

The film’s background themes include the common ground between modern Japan and ancient Rome, based on their shared appreciation of communal bathing. The film indicates that in Japan the health-giving qualities of bathing have received greater attention and that the more group-oriented Japanese society has allowed bathing to function as a restful rather than raucous form of leisure. On the other hand, the film’s implicit recognition of the decline of communal bathing in Japan among the non-elderly suggests a nostalgic perspective. Its depiction of bathing in Roman society as omnipresent and central to Rome’s imperial greatness only underscores this.

The Japanese storyline begins by following the character of Mami, an aspiring manga artist and storyteller who, like Lucius, is unable to interest anyone in her work. Her drawing is good enough, but, according to the criticism of one would-be publisher/mentor, her storytelling lacks inspiration. Walking about, depressed at her latest failure to break into the manga business, she witnesses the nude Lucius on his first time-slip to a Japanese bathing establishment (sento). Believing Lucius to be the perfect model/inspiration for the lead character of her manga, she rushes for her sketch materials, only to find upon her return that he has disappeared.

Although Roman communal bathing is depicted as somewhat crude and chaotic, its social importance, suggested by its ubiquity and rough and tumble vitality, underscores the sense of loss to Japanese culture that the disappearance of communal bathing as institution would entail. In accordance with current cultural trends, the film presents Japanese communal bathing primarily as the province of the elderly. Secondly, it shows the non-elite bathing establishments that the elderly can afford (especially the rural ones) as economically imperiled. Mami’s return to the rural bathing establishment run by her mother (Kimura Midoriko) marks the failure of her career ambitions in Tokyo. She does not want to work there. Yet, to Mami’s dismay — since she still needs a job — her mother reveals that she is near to closing the bath business altogether.

Young and old characters alike are comical in the Japanese storyline, but the aged characters who congregate in the baths ultimately contribute vitally to the plot, whereas the younger ones (apart from Mami) do not. Accordingly, the importance that Japanese bathing and related practices have in the Roman storyline put into relief the importance of Japanese values as expressed through the fortunes of an imperiled cultural institution.

A Tale of Two Phalluses

Buoyed by his newly successful career as a bath engineer, Lucius purchases a gift for his wife. It is a small ornamental phallus attached to a necklace. Since Lucius has been a somewhat absent husband, disinclined toward sex and having children, this gift signifies an about-face, a signal to his wife that he now shares her vision of their marriage. In this context the phallus necklace resembles a fertility charm. When Lucius arrives home, however, he discovers that this gesture is too little, too late. The unpleasant truth is that his wife has moved on. He finds her and one of his acquaintances having sex. Shortly thereafter he time-slips once again to Japan, 2012.

On this occasion, Lucius finds himself in an onsen. He is surprised to see several women in the pool alongside a giant phallus and another woman riding atop it. The film provides no further context for this scene, but its Japanese audience may have recognized it as a festival (matsuri) event in which the attendees engage Konsei Daimyõjin (‘Konsei the Great Shining God’), a kami or divinity represented in phallic form, embodying the male sexual and generative elements. The scene that Lucius witnesses resembles the Konsei matsuri at Õsawa Onsen in Iwate Prefecture: “… held every May since 1965 [that] culminates when women enter one of the open-baths and try to climb on to a floating wooden phallus, an activity that has probably been inspired by other ‘phallus-riding’ events.” [Turnbull, 212]

A number of phallus-themed festivals, some including (non-aquatic) phallus-riding, sprang up in the period from the 1960s through the 1980s. Such matsuri were created in some cases to improve the local tourist industry. [4] [Turnbull, 212] The essential role that Konsei Daimyõjin performs, however, is a serious one:

The achievement of conception is the speciality of this most phallic deity, and websites exist to direct childless couples toward onsen … (hot spring resorts) where a combination of a luxury hotel and the spiritual power of enshrined sexual gods such as the great procreative Konsei Daimyõjin will help achieve their desire for a family. [Turnbull, 213]

The women that Lucius encounters at the onsen are engaged in an activity that lies at the intersection of leisure, popular health beliefs, and Shinto religious sensibilities. The giant Konsei phallus that they unintentionally present to Lucius contrasts comically with the tiny one on the necklace he planned to give to his wife. Although Lucius’ procreative plans do not reappear in the film after his marriage falls apart, the comical onsen encounter suggests that the revitalization he planned for his personal life is to be found through his encounters with Japan rather than his old way of life. The life-changing dynamic that he expects to initiate for himself instead comes to him from others.

‘Glocalized’ Rome

The reception of Rome as a source of visual entertainment, edifying or otherwise, is a global phenomenon. That is to say, the manifold cinematic and televised representations of Rome are, like everything else, consumable everywhere. Like other globalized cultural products, globalized Rome can also be rendered local by people anywhere in the world. The process of making a globalized product local in some fashion has been dubbed ‘glocalization’. [Atkins, 206]

Scholar E. Taylor Atkins, discussing a 1991 educational documentary The Japanese Version, quotes a customer at a Japanese Old West theme bar about the establishment’s cowboy symbolism. His reply:

You guys [Americans] have it all wrong. [Cowboy mythology is] not about being an individual. It’s about working together. Whenever those guys had a problem, they’d gather together and figure out how to solve it. That’s why those [television] shows [Rawhide and Laramie] were so popular in Japan: they used teamwork.” This account “indicates the sense of ownership that Japanese feel about culture appropriated from abroad and the authority with which they invest it with their own meanings and self-stereotypes. [Atkins, 205]

This glocalization of Hollywood’s cowboy culture offers an informative analogy for that of Rome in Thermae Romae. In the film, Rome has many points in common with Japan, but ultimately — to judge from Lucius — it is prone to a toxic individualism with negative consequences for its government and citizens alike. The film’s ‘self-stereotype’ of Japan as a Confucian culture that privileges the group over the individual exists side by side with the depiction of both Mami and Lucius as creatively and professionally unfulfilled in their respective economies — a condition that profoundly frustrates them both. The communities of successful practitioners of Mami’s and Lucius’ respective crafts do not appear in an especially positive light in the film. However, although Mami’s interest in Lucius gives her character purpose, she ultimately has a community that is invested in her, in contrast to Lucius’ lonelier Roman existence. Her community, however, consists by and large of the retired elderly. There is comedic purpose in this, but it also suggests that younger Japan finds itself somewhat more removed from the cultural ideals that their elders still embody.

A second self-stereotype of Japan at work in the film is that it is a nation which primarily takes the products of other cultures and makes Japanese versions of them. This is not explicitly stated in the movie with reference to Japan, but it certainly is made clear in Lucius’ anxiety over taking ideas from Japan and adapting them at Rome. Lucius must grapple with the identity crisis implicit in this stereotype; i.e. the anxiety that he is an imitator of the creativity of others rather than a creator himself. The example of Rome as an imitator of Greece is also invoked in this thematic connection. Part of Mami’s attempt to reconcile Lucius to himself is to show him the positive value in recreating ideas from one cultural context for the benefit of those in another.

One result of casting Japanese actors as the principal Roman characters is that the Rome of the film may even more easily serve as a sort of mirror for aspects of present day Japanese society. Another conception of Japan with much evidence to support it, which is opposite to the one featured in the movie, is that it is a supremely original, creative media mega-exporter (e.g. anime, etc.) that has revolutionized the culture industry around the world. The complexity and contradictions wrapped up in the questions of originality and imitation find perhaps one further implicit comment in the fact that Thermae Romae originated as a manga, an art form original to Japan which has exercised a powerful influence on graphic art worldwide.


[1] Loo, Egan. AnimeNewsNetwork. “Mari Yamazaki’s Thermae Romae Wins Manga Taisho Award.” March 17, 2010. Accessed March 12, 2018.

Wikipedia, Accessed March 12, 2018.

Hodgkins, Crystalyn. AnimeNewsNetwork. “Thermae Romae‘s Mari Yamazaki Honored with Order of the Star of Italy.” October 13, 2017. Accessed March 12, 2018.

[2] Wikipedia.

[3] As of this writing, it is incorrectly listed on IMDB as having been filmed at Cinecittà.

[4] For an example of the promotion of phallus-riding as a curiosity for the consumption of non-Japanese tourists (virtual or otherwise), see this rather glib write-up about the Iwate prefecture event from SoraNews24, the English language version of Rocket News 24, a Tokyo-based media site.:


Ashkenazi, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. ABC Clio: Santa Barbara, CA. [27-36]

Atkins, E. Taylor. A History of Popular Culture in Japan. Bloomsbury, 2017: 203-208.

Jarnes, Mark. “Japan Times,” November 5, 2016. “Washed up? Tokyo’s iconic. communal bathhouses face an uncertain future.” Accessed March 10, 2018.

Turnbull, Stephen. Japan’s Sexual Gods: Shrines, Roles and Rituals of Procreation and Protection. Brill, 2015.

About Seán Easton

I am a professor in the Greek, Latin, and Classical Studies department and the Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies program at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota.
This entry was posted in Classics, Classics, Cinema, and Popular Culture, East Asian Reception of Greece and Rome, Non-Western Receptions of Ancient Rome, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s