The Freewheeling Yamazaki Mari: Citizen of the World and Bestselling Manga Artist

Kiyono Yumi (Interviewer)[Profile]

[2017.11.13] Read in: 日本語 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS |

Yamazaki Mari is best known as the author of time-travel manga Thermae Romae, about an ancient Roman architect who gets ideas for bathhouse innovations during trips to modern Japan. She first visited Italy on a solo journey when she was just 14 years old. Since then, an unconventional life has taken her to numerous countries, including Syria, Portugal, and the United States.

Yamazaki Mari

Yamazaki MariManga artist. Born in Tokyo in 1967. Traveled to Italy aged 17 to study oil painting and art history at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. Made her debut as a manga artist in 1997. Won the third Manga Grand Prize and the 14th Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for Thermae Romae. Works include Kokkyō no nai ikikata (A Life Without Borders), Dansei-ron (On Men), Steve Jobs, and Plineus (Pliny the Elder) (with Tori Miki). Now lives in Italy, after previous stints in Syria, Portugal, and the United States. Received the Art Encouragement Prize of the Japanese Ministry of Education in 2015 and awarded the rank of Commander of the Order of the Star (Italy) in 2017.

Yamazaki Mari’s Thermae Romae is one of the best-selling manga series of recent years. The story is a hilarious tale of an ancient Roman architect specializing in bathhouse design who one day discovers a tunnel that leads to a modern Japanese sentō (public bath). He is bowled over by his encounter with Japanese bathing culture and the exotic and perplexing things he sees, and astonished by the high level of civilization attained by this previously unknown people he calls the “flat-faced tribe.” The winning mixture of surreal humor and informative attention-to-detail has helped the Thermae Romae series to sell more than 9 million copies to date. A movie version came out in 2012, followed by a sequel in 2014, both of which topped the box office charts.

YAMAZAKI MARI  The idea for Thermae Romae came to me when I was living in Lisbon with my husband and my son. We lived in a draughty old wooden house that was about 80 years old and starting to show its age. And there was no bath in the bathroom! Like all manga artists, I spend hours hunched over my desk every day. Problems with stiff shoulders and back pain sort of go with the territory. I longed to soak in a nice hot bath.

I was so desperate I went to a hardware store and bought a tub that I used to fill with hot water and splash about in. It was the best I could do, but really it wasn’t a very satisfactory arrangement. You know how particular Japanese people are about their baths. So I was always grumbling to myself about how much I wanted a proper bath, and I used to fantasize about sentō public baths and onsen in Japan. And I think that’s when I had this funny idea for a fantasy that would bring a man from ancient Rome into contact with Japanese public baths and the people who hang out there.

The comedy manga series Thermae Romae was inspired by the idea of bringing together the bathing cultures of ancient Rome and modern Japan. It has been translated into eight languages. There are six volumes in all, published by Enterbrain.

The Wanderlust Gene

INTERVIEWER  You have lived with your Italian husband Beppi Chiupanni in Lisbon, the Veneto region of Italy, Cairo, Damascus, and Chicago. It seems you really have had a “life without borders,” as one of your book titles has it.

YAMAZAKI My life has always been about improvisation and pot luck. My family background was somewhat unusual for Japan. There were just the three of us: my mother, a younger sister and me. My mother was quite unconventional. When she was growing up, the assumption was that a woman would get married and devote herself to running the family home. This idea still has some purchase today, but back then it was pretty much taken for granted. But she turned down all suggestions of an arranged marriage, and insisted that she would make her own way in life as a musician. She was a viola player, and one day she moved from Tokyo to Hokkaidō, where she had no family or contacts whatsoever, to join the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra.

That’s where she met my father, who was the conductor. He died when I was still a small child. But my mother refused to feel sorry for herself or change her way of life. She continued to travel widely to give performances, leaving me and my sister at home to fend for ourselves while she went off to Wakkanai in Hokkaidō or Hong Kong or wherever it might be.

In those days, terms like “single parent family” and “latchkey kids” had a very negative connotation. But to me, my mother seemed free. She was standing on her own two feet and making a living doing what she loved. It’s thanks to her example that I have been able to live my life without being held back by national borders or the gender barrier or anything like that. I’ve always felt that I’m a human being first, and a woman second.

INTERVIEWER  You were just 17 when you dropped out of your Catholic school in Tokyo and went to Italy to study art. Did you have any doubts or fears about what you were doing?

YAMAZAKI None at all. I’d always loved drawing. It was something instinctive in me. I remember when I told the nuns at school that I was leaving to study art in Italy, they warned me sternly that I would never be able to make a living out of drawing. But that wasn’t enough to put me off.

In fact, it was only by a kind of accident that I ended up going to study in Italy. My mother was supposed to take a trip to Italy when I was 14, but for some reason she couldn’t make it. So she asked me if I wanted to go instead, and packed me off to Italy on my own. At one stage during the trip, I was on a train from France to Germany when an old Italian man asked me where I was going and what I planned to do when I got there. At the time, I had ideas of going to study art in London, and was planning to travel to England to have a look and get a feel for the place. When I told the old man this, he seemed quite upset and worried. I remember him saying: “What kind of parents would let a young girl like you travel on her own?”

After this expression of concern, he started to tell me in no uncertain terms that I was making a big mistake. “If you want to study art, where else but Italy?” He was quite insistent about it. As it turned out, that meeting marked the beginning of a friendship that eventually included the whole family, my mother included.

He turned out to be a ceramics artist called Marco Tasco, who was quite well known in that region of Italy. Twenty years later, after he’d passed away, I would end up marrying his grandson Beppi. But of course, at the time I had no idea of what the future had in store.

Turbulent Years as a Single Mother

INTERVIEWER  Florence in the 1980s was a center for leftwing intellectuals, and you became a frequent visitor at a bookshop where writers, socialists, and exiles gathered for lively conversations.

YAMAZAKI  I fell in love with an Italian “poet” who used to frequent the bookshop. He was the kind of person who liked to talk passionately about the workers, but never actually did any work himself. We lived together, somehow scraping by on the allowance my mother sent me from Japan and the few lire I made from drawing caricatures and selling trinkets on the streets. But sometimes we didn’t have enough money for the rent and we’d be thrown out of the apartment and have to spend the night in the station.

Eleven years after I met the poet, I became pregnant with my son. Right up until the day he was born, I was supporting myself with my art, and responsible for taking care of the poet as well. What a life! When I look back on it now, I realize that I was spiraling down, led astray by a kind of misguided mothering instinct.

And then, as soon as my child was born, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to look after anyone else anymore but my son, and the two of us came back to Japan together. It was when I was trying to rustle up the funds to come back to Japan that I taught myself how to draw manga. I started submitting entries for newcomers’ prizes run by manga magazines in Japan. I eventually won a special commendation prize, and that’s when I started out on the road to becoming a manga artist.

But I couldn’t make a living just from manga. I did all kinds of things to make ends meet. I taught Italian at a university. I worked on TV as a reporter specializing in hot spring resorts. And I continued to draw manga, all the time bringing up my son. I felt like I was always performing about seven different roles at once.

One of my jobs was as a kind of cultural exchange curator between Japan and Italy. This job involved a lot of travel, and that’s when I met Beppi for the first time. We’d heard of each other before, but never actually met until then. Beppi’s a scholar of comparative cultural studies, and we struck up an immediate rapport discussing Renaissance historians. I suppose he must have been thrilled to find someone he could talk to about things like this, because after I came back to Japan, he started sending me these long, sprawling letters, and one day he called me long distance and shyly begged me to marry him.

He was so insistent! I told him, “Fine, I’ll marry you. Are you sure there’s nothing else?” And that’s when our wandering life began: Cairo, Syria, Lisbon. So I was back on the road again!

Differences between Italy and Japan

INTERVIEWER  For a while, you enjoyed the slower pace of life in Lisbon. But then Thermae Romae became an overnight hit, taking everyone by surprise.

YAMAZAKI I’d always assumed I would spend my whole life as a complete unknown, quietly drawing my manga but never achieving any kind of fame. And I was quite satisfied with that. But then suddenly this thing exploded and it started to take up all my time. My husband got quite angry at one stage, and started asking: “What about the family?” It’s been a rollercoaster ride.

But all the upheavals and traveling in my life have given me a perspective on Japan, my home country, allowing me to see its good and bad points in a cool and detached way. One thing people talk about a lot these days is communication, for example. I think Japanese people really do tend to “read the air,” and leave a lot of things unspoken. People cultivate this ability to discern nuance from expressions and other non-verbal clues.

Italians, by contrast, tend to be quite assertive. It’s all about “me,” and they’re not afraid to express an opinion, often quite loudly. Over their long and tumultuous history, this idea that people do not simply “understand” one another has become the keynote of their concept of human nature. So, whereas Japan places a high premium on social harmony and order, the Italians have an absolute respect for the individual and the family.

Cultural differences can be seen in the urban landscape as well. In Japan, people have no hesitation about knocking down old buildings once they start to get in the way or are felt to be inconvenient. Replacing old buildings with new ones is seen to be more convenient and more profitable. But in Italy, destroying old buildings like this would be unthinkable. It’s something you simply don’t do, regardless of the financial aspects. Even in a commercial city like Milan, you’re still not allowed to build any structure higher than the Duomo.

It’s not a simple matter of which approach is better or worse. But I think there are a lot of things that Japan could learn from countries like Italy, which have managed to preserve a much better sense of their long history as something that is still alive in the present.

INTERVIEWER  What aspects of Japan can the country share with the rest of the world in today’s globalized age?

YAMAZAKI Oh, that’s obvious. Onsen or hot springs! I once led a tour group of ten quite feisty and gung-ho Italian women on a tour of Japan. And the thing they enjoyed more than anything was their stay in a traditional hot-spring inn. They loved the simplicity and harmony of the traditional Japanese inn, as well as the wonderful service and attention to detail at mealtimes and throughout their stay. The service in Italian restaurants and hotels can be a little brusque, shall we say, or disrespectful. And they were amazed by how quiet the inn was at night. That came as quite a shock to them, since Italians love to talk till late into the night!

Hot springs like this are a part of traditional culture that Japan should be proud of. The Japanese should cherish this part of their traditional culture and pass it on to future generations, just as the Italians have preserved their old cities and buildings.

Another thing Japan can be proud of is the hardworking dedication so many people display to their jobs. There is an attitude of unostentatious application and devotion to their work. It’s a kind of robust reliability. You could compare it to a car like a Toyota Corolla. It’s nothing flashy, but it will never break down on you, even after years of rough handling. I think there is something very admirable about this. And it’s this spirit of dedication that has made Japan one of the world’s leading countries as a producer of finely crafted products.

This craftsman-like approach to work is not confined to traditional handicrafts. Beauticians, chefs, and engineers all show the same attitude. Without this kind of almost spiritual dedication to the task in hand, there would be none of the almost obsessive attention to detail we see in so many aspects of Japanese life. As the world becomes increasingly homogeneous, this characteristically Japanese approach to work is something that Japan can look to capitalize on as a distinctive strength of the culture.

Today’s “globalization” is essentially based on the standards of Western, European culture. But properly digesting and absorbing elements from a different culture is not something that happens overnight. Italian history suggests that it takes a timespan of a century or two. Rather than hurrying to immerse themselves in the global culture, if people were more aware of the distinctive histories and cultures of different countries and regions, I think those traditional cultures would have a much better chance of survival.

Speaking for myself, the experience of living a life of poverty in Italy surrounded by some of the finest art in history has been a real treasure for me. It taught me that money is not the measure of a human life. This helped me maintain a sense of perspective and keep my feet on the ground when my manga became a hit and I suddenly came into contact with big money.

Yamazaki’s manga version of Walter Isaacs’ biography of Steve Jobs, in six volumes, published by Kodansha.

INTERVIEWER  Now you’re based in the old town of Padua. What’s it like living there?

YAMAZAKI  Padua is an old city about thirty minutes by train to the west of Venice. It’s home to many cultural treasures, including the Scrovegni Chapel, often described as Giotto’s masterpiece. But there are industrial zones outside the old center, and the city does not depend on tourism alone. It has a robust economic foundation, strong enough to withstand the trends of the times.

Padua is not the only town like this. All over Italy there are old cities and towns with their own distinct characters. Bologna, Parma, Modena . . . I suppose if there was one thing I would say to Japan, it would be this. That rather than trying to follow every fleeting trend, “globalization” or tourism or whatever it might be, it is more important to preserve what is unique about Japan and hand it on to future generations as the basis of a distinctly Japanese way of life. In Padua, buildings and cultural heritage from all the different periods of history exist side-by-side. It makes the city into a harmonious, multi-layered palimpsest of history, which I think is extremely precious.

Dividing my time between Italy and Japan sometimes feels like living a double life: it’s fun, but with double the hassle! It’s not always easy, but I think the Italian passion for life, the determination to enjoy life with all your senses, is something wonderful. And the experiences I have had through living in Italy, which has been a crossroads of civilization since ancient times, and all the encounters I have had with people from different countries and backgrounds, all these things form the backbone of my life.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 4, 2017. Interview and text by Kiyono Yumi. Photos by Ōkōchi Tadashi.)

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  • [2017.11.13]

Journalist. Born in Tokyo in 1960. Graduated from Tokyo Woman’s Christian University before earning a graduate degree in system design and management from Keiō University. Studied in Britain and worked for a publishing house before going freelance in 1992. Covers domestic and international developments in urban development, local communities, and changing lifestyles, writing for various major periodicals and online publications. Works include Sumu basho o erabeba, ikikata ga kawaru (Deciding Where You’ll Live Will Change How You’ll Live).

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