Publication: ‘3000 Years of Human Happiness Theory: A Dialogue with Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere’

Following the release of the new publication ‘3000 Years of Human Happiness Theory: A Dialogue with Yamazaki Mari x Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere’, Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere reflects on her first introductions with manga artist Yamazaki Mari, and how this latest project came into being.

Yamazaki Mari’s (b. 1967) manga has enthralled me for some time. I particularly enjoy the way she weaves fascinating but sometimes obscure historical insights into a compelling narrative that challenges us to revise what we thought about Greek or Roman history. Who thought that Roman bath plumbing could be so interesting? And to do it with beautifully captured images, deep personal dives and a witty sense of humour is no small feat. Professor Kinoshita Naoyuki, then in charge of the Cultural Resources Department at Tokyo University, had a life size blow up of Lucius, the reluctant hero of Thermae Romae in his study and it acted as a talisman for the creative work that occurred in that room.

I kept up with Yamazaki sensei’s manga and was excited when she began the Olympia Kyklos series about a young Attic vase painter who was sporty but not really into the gruelling training necessary to participate in the ancient Olympics. He would hide in a large vase when it all got too much for him and once when it was struck by lightning, he jumped timelines into 1960s Japan and their Olympics. Karma gets you in the end. He goes back and forth between Ancient Greece and Modern Japan, embracing his sporty side and learning about manga on the way, and introduces manga-esque narratives to his Attic vase painting.

When preparing for the Manga exhibition at the British Museum in 2019, I certainly wanted to include the manga Thermae Romae and managed to meet Yamazaki sensei while she was working on her manga Plinius and subsequently her Shueisha editor, Tsunashima Keisuke.

Tsunashima-san asked me to write an afterword to volume 6 of Olympia Kyklos and sent me some of the many books that Yamazaki sensei had authored that had nothing to do with manga. This was a revelation. Several of the books were dialogues with artists and other literati that she enjoyed, while other volumes were more autobiographical and some historical, such as one of famous Renaissance painters – one of her passions is Leonardo da Vinci. Yamazaki sensei has spent more than half her life abroad mostly in Italy but also in Brazil, Portugal, and the United States. She now divides her time between Tokyo and Padua.

After I wrote the afterward, Tsunashima-san suggested that Yamazaki sensei and I have a recorded discussion that would be later published in the literary magazine Subaru. The discussion in Japanese was so engaging that we ended up speaking for more than four hours. Topics covered included the United States Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression and what we could learn from it today, ramifications of Covid responses among youth and different countries approaches to the pandemic, educational policies and of course art and manga. We both felt we had more to discuss. Happily, the editors agreed, and it was decided that a book could be made from our subsequent discussions coupled with an essay and original artwork from Yamazaki sensei.

During 2022 we held several marathon discussions. Each one I spent days preparing for, led by questions sent to me by Tsunashima-san. The topics were so wide ranging that after each session I felt my brain had expanded. Yamazaki sensei’s knowledge of Western art is impressive, but she is also passionate about Japanese art and in particular Kawanabe Kyosai. The Sainsbury Institute’s then Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow Koto Sadamura was curating an exhibition of Izzy Goldman’s Kyôsai artwork at the Royal Academy. Yamazaki sensei kindly agreed to make a recorded message for the event we held, and I discovered that she had two images of Kyôsai’s crows, one black and one white on her studio wall in Padua. Yamazaki sensei, just like Kyôsai, cannot be contained in a simple category of manga artist or painter. They are both so much more than that and this is what makes her work so powerful. Recently, her Thermae Romae came out on Netflix (with a new season being currently prepared) and one glance will show you that she carefully oversaw the production and made sure it resonated with her vision. It is an entirely different style of anime, one that crosses boundaries into new territories and its new season means that it was successful.

The book was published on 10 May and another interview with Yamazaki sensei was published just afterwards in Subaru’s June edition. Inside the book is a bespoke graphic story about Palmyra with no words and drawn by Yamazaki sensei as a homage to Professor Khaled Assad, the archaeologist who was killed protecting his beloved site. The artwork was commissioned as part of the Louvre 9th art series. You see two local boys playing in the ruins who then meet Professor Assad. He shows them the meaning of the ruins and a cloud of dust transforms the desert into a bustling oasis in its prime. The boy is dazzled by the gods and one beautiful female deity looks upon him. His mother’s call brings him back to the present day and he leaves the professor. War ensues, he becomes a refugee and later when in France he visits the Louvre and encounters a sculpture of the beautiful goddess who appeared to him in Palmyra. This simple story speaks louder than words and elegantly demonstrates the power of manga in Yamazaki Mari’s hands.

You can read more articles on Nicole and Yamazaki Mari’s exchanges in the below articles:

Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere

Research Director, Sainsbury Institute