The Italian Almanac

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Thermae Romae

Thermae Romae

An Ancient Roman time traveller who shuttles between his own era and modern-day Tokyo is the hero of the comic strip awarded this year's global manga prize. Lucius, a Roman architect who specializes in designing public baths, stars in a strip called Thermae Romae, which has been announced as the winner of Japan's 2010 Cartoon Grand Prize.

Created by the Europe-based Japanese artist Mari Yamazaki, the comic tells of how Lucius, a resident of Hadrian's Rome in the 2nd century AD, is transported into 21st-century Tokyo. The architect is sucked into a hole in a vast bathhouse in Ancient Rome and is ejected into a modern Japanese equivalent, a sento, where at first he doesn't even notice the difference so similar are the two structures. After the first incident he learns to travel back and forward between the two cultures, although he believes the voyage carries him merely to a far-off country, not another time. Inspired by his trips into modern Japan, he develops similar innovations for the Ancient Romans, where his suggestions for fruit milkshakes and showercaps are an instant hit.

Yamazaki, 42, is originally from Japan but has spent much of her adult life in Europe. She moved to Italy at the age of 17 to study fine art, where she met and married a comparative literature student and history buff, who helped inspire the character of Lucius. But the idea also came from Yamazaki's own passion for Japan's public bathhouses

The first version of Thermae Romanae was published just over two years ago, in February 2008. Since then, it has been serialized in Japan's Monthly Comic Beam, published by Enterbrain, and the first graphic novel devoted entirely to Lucius's adventures appeared in November 2009. The cartoon has enjoyed huge popularity, generated largely by word-of-mouth publicity. Over 400,000 editions of Thermae Romae have been sold to date and Yamazaki's success at the Cartoon Grand Prize looks set to win her time-travelling Ancient Roman legions of new fans.