How to Build a Series: Thermae Romae Novae

WARNING: This discussion violates my rule on not talking about anime that are just out. It contains spoilers! Be warned.

In a lot of ways Thermae Romae Novae is what you get if you write a paper for your sociology class comparing and contrasting Japanese and Roman baths, get an A on it, and decide to turn it into a manga (and later an anime).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Look, you wrote the whole paper in the first place, right? That means you were really interested in and excited about the topic. That kind of enthusiasm can come through in a story. And you got an A on it, right? That means the information there was pretty good.

The problem is turning that good stuff into a story. You know, an actual story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some characters would be nice, too.

Hmm…let me see: Let’s take this Roman dude. We’ll give him a good Roman name like Lucius. Sure, why not? And to begin his story … hmm … Got it! We’ll make him the grandson of a bath designer, and when some of his punk friends diss his grandfather’s bath, he vows to become the best bath designer EVAH.

Look, I’m not going to pretend this is the greatest beginning evah, er, I mean, ever. But it gets the job done: It introduces the main character (Lucius) and setting (historic Rome), it creates the possibility of conflict (Lucius rising through the system while the system fights back), and hooks the viewer (any viewer interested in baths or historic Rome).

Lucius (center) luxuriating in a Japanese bath with some nice monkeys and a bottle of sake

Now, if Lucius just rises through his life because he’s smarter than the other bath designers, then the show is about Lucius instead of baths. It also tosses out all the cool research you did on Japanese baths. So, let’s see: Maybe we want Lucius to improve his bath designs by learning about Japanese baths.

You know, that would do it. He could go to Japan, look around, and do all the compare and contrast stuff that got you that A in the first place. For bonus points he could be looking at Japanese culture through Roman eyes, so we can see how his perceptions are filtered by the culture he comes from, which is also kind of neat. Like, for instance, whenever he sees something driven by a motor, he assumes a human slave has to be doing the work.

So, got it: When Lucius falls into the bath in historic Rome, he pops up in modern Japan.

Okay, the science fiction writer in me wants to punch someone for that plot mechanism EXCEPT I’ve read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and if it works for Mark Twain, it works for me (and for mangaka Mari Yamazaki). Because remember: The story really isn’t the point. The information is.

When we look at it that way, Thermae Romae Novae is no worse than Cells at Work, and has the advantage of having actual people as characters.

So: Having vowed to be the greatest bath designer EVAH, Lucious periodically falls into the bath, emerges in modern Japan, sees something really cool he wants to use in his own baths, mystically returns to Rome (during the reign of Hadrian), implements the cool thing in Roman terms, and improves his rep as a bath designer. Sure, why not? That allows the compare and contrast thing to happen, right?

All we have to do is think of a way to kill this puppy once we’ve made our point.


Lucius croaks? No, that would suck.


Lucius gets the prize as the best bath designer EVAH? Well, there was no such thing and this thing is supposed to be historically accurate AND it would be kind of a cheat, since he would get the prize by ripping off Japanese design.


SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want the ending spoiled, skip the next paragraph!

Wait … wait … How about this: He works with a Japanese designer to create a great Japanese bath in the Roman style, which bring the story full circle: He’s been learning from the Japanese all along and now the Japanese learn from him!

Good enough. That’s a wrap.

What’s cool about Thermae Romae Novae is that it’s not really about plot or character, it’s about the setting: Different baths and the cultures that produced them. No more, no less. We only have characters so we can see the baths and cultures through their eyes, and we only have plot to keep the story going from the beginning to the end.

It’s a really simple formula, but it works if the topic is interesting enough. I thought it was, but that’s just me. Your mileage may vary. But the next topic could work for you and not me. Whatever.

But that’s how the formula works.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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