The plot of Thermae Romae sounds like it was born from a drunken night of playing Mad Libs: a bath house architect from Ancient Rome time travels to modern-day Japan where he becomes enthralled by the designs of contemporary bath houses, baths, and toilets.
The Romans speak Japanese. A Japanese girl learns Latin in one night to communicate with the time-displaced visitor. Political intrigues play out that may impact contemporary world history. The cool spritz of a bidet inspires delicate tears of awe.
Thermae Romae is truly the Citizen Kane of time travel Roman bath house movies.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
Thermae Romae (テルマエ・ロマエ)
Director: Hideki Takeuchi
Release Date: April 28, 2012 (Japan)
Based on the best-selling manga by Mari Yamazaki, Thermae Romae is a movie that doesn’t mess around. Some other films with a similar plot may putter about for the first half hour before the time travel happens. In Thermae Romae, Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) time travels to the future twice within the first 20 minutes. It establishes the quick pace of the movie, and it also provides the basic rules of time travel in the film. They’re arbitrary rules, sure, and nothing’s every really explained, but at least there are rules (sort of). Each time Lucius zips into the future, it’s accompanied by great operatic swells and much absurd hubbub. The film is almost like a classic 70s and 80s spoof at times with how random the gags get and how they’re presented.
The sheer zaniness of the plot works to the movie’s advantage because Lucius is so grave about everything by contrast — it’s like wearing a designer suit with a funny hat. I couldn’t help but think of the 1993 French film The Visitors, which is about a knight and squire from the Dark Ages who wind up in France. (The 1993 film is better in every way than the crummy 2001 American remake Just Visiting). Thermae Romae feels like it plays things much straighter than The Visitors, which is an odd thing to say since it’s a movie about Roman bath houses and time travel.
A lot of credit goes to Abe for making the material work. Without him, I don’t know if Thermae Romae would be as enjoyable. I remember first seeing Abe in a really fun sci-fi/fantasy samurai movie called Moon Over Tao: Makaraga. He has a chiseled look about his face that oozes gravitas. If Thermae Romae ever winks at the audience, it’s never Abe who does the winking. He’s the straight man, but in playing the straight man who’s out of touch in a strange land, he also becomes the inadvertent funny guy. Being a serious man in a bizarre world makes him the perfect center of the story.
Why do Roman bath houses matter? For Lucius, the bath house is a place of reflection and elegance that symbolizes the true power of Hadrian (Masachika Ichimura) and the glory of the Roman Empire. That’s right. The bath house is basically a stand-in for cultural values and cultural heritage. As the film progresses, Lucius begins to wonder if he really is a good architect or if he’s just a good plagiarist. This is the dilemma of someone who cares about his work, his art, and about the future of Rome. The bathos just adds the to fun of Thermae Romae. (What an awful, unintentional, and yet appropriate pun.)
Again, not a wink from Abe at all. He glares, he reflects, he broods, and he expresses disbelief, but he’s never ironic. He is always a Roman. A Roman who speaks Japanese as a stand-in for Latin, by the way, which is hilarious. Doesn’t he know that Romans are supposed to speak perfect English with British accents?
Without saying too much about where the plot eventually goes, Lucius is somehow linked to a young woman named Mami (Aya Ueto). She’s a manga-obsessed lady who thinks Lucius looks a lot like the hero of Fist of the North Star. And you know what? She’s not far off with that. Mami has older relatives and friends who spend time at a hot springs, and when she’s there with them, the subtitles simulate a Southern twang, which for some reason I found just as funny as Ancient Romans speaking Japanese.
I’ve given a lot of credit to Abe, but really the entire cast deserves kudos for buying into the reality of the world. Ueto plays Mami as hapless, astonished, and obviously a little bit enamored with Lucius; Ichimura gives Hadrian the proper amount of dignity even if he’s wearing a funny wig and a fake beard. (It’s like wearing a funny hat with a toga.) Director Hideki Takeuchi didn’t skimp on production values either. Some of the shooting was done in Rome at Cinecittà film studios where they shot Ben-Hur.
More than anything, I just want to praise Thermae Romae‘s serious dedication to the art of silliness, which I hope is maintained in the sequel that comes out next year. That might be why I noted the classic spoofs of the past, like Top Secret, Airplane, and The Naked Gun. Those were all well-made movies with well-crafted jokes in which the actors played it mostly straight. Most spoofs today are cheap-o and disposable, like they should have been shelved or released DTV; and the filmmakers seem to be constantly congratulating themselves even though they’re just making pop-culture references rather than doing anything that’s actually comedic. I’m sure Lucius would agree that good spoofs are really about values and the glory of comedy.
All it took for me to realize this was watching a proud man weep on the toilet.
[Thermae Romae will screen on Sunday, July 14th. For tickets and more information, click here.]