What’s it about? Roman architect Lucius gets an unexpected new source of inspiration for his bath house designs when he discovers he can transport himself to modern-day Japan.
Thermae Romae Novae is a reboot of Thermae Romae, something of a cult classic shorts series that was just as delightfully bonkers as its Ancient-Roman-reverse-isekai premise suggests. Each mini episode would follow Lucius on an adventure from the thermae of Rome to an onsen in Japan, where he’d inevitably have some zany fish-out-of-water misunderstandings but ultimately learn something about public bath culture or architecture that he could bring home. They were generally funny and silly and over-the-top, with Lucius’ formal old-timey language and Roman sensibilities juxtaposed against the backdrop of rubber ducks, shower caps, and drink vending machines.
That’s a review of Thermae Romae, not Thermae Romae Novae, but I feel it’s necessary because this is the premise of the series, and you wouldn’t really know it just from Novae’s first episode. “All Baths Lead to Rome” serves as almost a prequel: if you’re familiar with the work, you get to enjoy seeing an origin story of sorts for Lucius, watching him run around as a child getting bullied and bonding with his grandfather, all of which will lead him to his career as a thermae architect. If you’re not familiar with the work, you’re probably asking “who’s this sad, small, ancient boy?”
You can still enjoy the scene-setting, as this is a fairly in-depth rendition of daily life in Rome, from chariot races to communal toilets to city food stalls. And, of course, a detailed tour through a Roman bath house with all its different steps and their supposed health benefits.
The animation in Novae, while still a little stiff, has a lot more motion and depth to it than in the shorts, giving the impression that Novae is a more serious, full-fledged anime adaptation of Yamazaki Mari’s manga. Which is cool, for now, though I wonder what role it’s going to play in the comedy to come. Arguably one of the things that made the shorts funny was the flat-ish animation, juxtaposed against energetic voice acting and the High Drama of everything going on. But we shall see.
More of a concern is that there… isn’t an awful lot of comedy in this premiere to a comedy series. It takes itself pretty seriously, plays itself pretty straight. Even our first glimpse of Lucius’ isekai-by-bathwater powers is framed as something shocking, otherworldly, full of wonder… rather than the ridiculous “Roman man pops up in a Japanese hot spring” hijinks that I’m used to.
Is Novae still going to be funny? By Jupiter, we can only hope so! The character drama in this episode—Lucius getting bullied in corny scenes that go on too long, father-son tensions, et cetera—is fine, for sure, but it’s not the thing that makes the series stand out.
From a feminist analysis perspective, there’s not much on the table: this is a story about male professionals in the men’s only bath, which doesn’t leave much room for female characters in the cast. The only ones we meet in this episode are Lucius’ mother and (very briefly) grandmother. Lucius getting picked on for being “wimpy” and getting into a fist fight with his bullies also plays on pretty familiar tropes of masculinity and boyhood (though ending the episode with the boys meeting again as mature adults, apologizing and reconciling, was a nice touch).
If it can get back to business and commit to being silly, Novae might hit its stride. But aside from offering me an artistic glimpse into the ancient world, this premiere hasn’t done much for me—I can always just go and watch the original shorts if I’m in the mood for bath time nonsense.