Movie Review – Thermae Romae (2012)
Thermae Romae (2012) has got to have one of the most absurd setups I have ever seen about an Ancient Roman bathhouse engineer named Lucius Modestus (Abe Hiroshi) who one day stumbles upon a method of time travel utilizing mystical whirlpools at the bottom of baths that whisks him between Rome circa 128 AD and modern day Japan. Using this funky “hot tub time machine” Lucius learns to appreciate and then incorporate Japanese bath designs into his own with the help of a local aspiring manga creator named Manami ( Aya Ueto). As his renown grows back in his own time period Victus eventually meets the current Roman Emperor Hadrian (Masachika Ichimura), a kindred spirit who also believes that a good old bath experience will somehow enhance the morale of the Empire that is currently under duress from threat of a Barbarian invasion.
The “hot tub time machine” movie is perhaps one of the strangest quasi-phenomenons I’ve seen in recent years yet thinking about it if audiences can accept that some mad scientist has turned a tin can vintage Delorean into a time machine then accepting that a bath can do the same thing is not much more of a stretch. Helping Thermae Romae is the fact that the film is initially not meant to be taken seriously, a huge chunk of the narrative relying on the typical “fish out of water” plot device where Lucius stumbles around modern day Japan totally flummoxed by its almost evangelical fetish for cleanliness and truly bizarre toilet equipment. The first thirty minutes or so of the movie is devoted to nothing but comedic hijinks as Lucius keeps warping to the future, learning new ideas and then venturing back in time to implement them with entertaining results.
At first glance this kind of repetition where Victus goes to the future and returns home enlightened sounds inherently grating as if the movie has stuck itself in a kind of Groundhog Day scenario and it is a testament to both actor Abe Hiroshi as Lucius and director Hideki Takeuchi who both make the first act work well with escalating scenes of pure zaniness. Abe Hiroshi certainly seems totally invested in his character and his deadpan inner monologue observations about what he sees are oftentimes downright hilarious such as the point where he picks up a roll of toilet paper with written printed words and stunningly remarks to himself that this “papyrus” must have all the bath secrets emblazoned on it when in reality all it says is something like, “A baby who poos properly will be praised!”
In another segment his trip to the future lands him in a Jacuzzi with jet streams gently massaging his body so once back in his own time he implements a similar function for the Emperor who can now bathe in a bath full of bubbles which are created by slaves housed below in a hidden compartment all frantically blowing air through tubes. The sight is completely ridiculous yet you can’t help but laugh at the sheer audacity of the solution Victus creates. At the same time, the movie’s unconventional toilet humour is buffeted by the mere sight of Japanese actors playing Ancient Romans as the almost constant aural dissonance of characters switching dialogue from awfully pronounced Latin to pristine Japanese is oddly endearing.
Some fans might tire of this incessant focus on awkward comedy in the first act yet it just plainly works and generates some hilarity as well as imbuing the film with a wholly quirky lighthearted atmosphere that is, until the narrative is flushed down the proverbial potty turning into sappy romance and even worse political drama. On one hand crafting a full two hour movie focused solely on a man who flies through time through various different models of bath tub and his idiosyncratic observations cannot work for long but it is completely jarring and totally ineffective when it attempts to link the pleasures of bathing with the political health of the Roman Empire. The audience can perhaps tenuously accept said link with much suspension of disbelief yet the execution of the film’s last two acts is truly heinous with an overreliance on ponderous melodrama and an altogether lamentable portrayal of love that seems more suited for the cultural mores of Ancient Rome rather than modern-day Japan.
While Abe Hiroshi nails the stern machismo of Victus as well as his oftentimes hilarious observations the turn to drama forces him to suddenly appear almost taciturn as he mopes around the scenery attempting to quell his inner demons. At the same time, Aya Ueto as Manami is stuck in a totally thankless role of playing his love interest although the film never bothers to give her a good reason to be enamored by him beyond liking his physical appearance. Thus, Manami ends up being nothing more than an obedient puppy dog who merrily saunters around with Victus complying with his every wish even though he never displays any affection for her.
By essentially changing gears mid-stream the film jettisons the merry atmosphere it has taken almost forty minutes constructing but worse, it renders it all totally perfunctory in terms of the plot precisely because everything Victus learns is summarily ignored and thrown under the bus replaced by an awkward shift towards concepts of honour and ethics. The film never once bothers to answer the fundamental flaw in this regard in that Victus himself has dubious honour when he essentially copies everything he sees yet is content to reap the rewards. Even though he eventually owns up to this fact through inner dialogue the film still construes to never allow him to openly spill the beans to any of the major characters robbing him of what should have been a convincing cathartic experience.
However, limp political games aside, the movie really flounders in terms of its romantic subplot that feels more like a master-slave relationship that will please those who champion paternalistic societies that look down on the opposite sex. In all seriousness, the way in which Victus treats Manami is incredibly inappropriate at one point even physically pulling and pushing her around yet her total acquiescence to him will certainly make feminists furious. The film takes great pains to show how enamored she is with this Roman “God” going so far as to learn Latin, seemingly in a day and lending her moral support even if all he does is ignore it which makes his final decision in the climax regarding their coupling ring false.
Technical aspects of the film are certainly sound with some convincing albeit stereotypical depictions of Roman architecture and an appropriately whimsical original score. In this regard special mention goes to Walter Roberts who plays an inexplicable Italian tenor who routinely pops up in the time travel montages belting out indiscernible operatic songs giving these temporal sequences are even more eccentric feel. Roberts even manages to take part in the silly comedy when at one point he’s shown resting in a seat oblivious of the fact that the time travel montage has started prompting him to jerk out of slumber and haul his ass to the camera marker before singing.
It is these moments of humour that are the true selling points of the movie and it is more than a little disappointing to see the filmmakers jettison the comedic stylings of what could have been a truly hilarious romp and force it to become an insipid moral tale of political intrigue that truly misses the mark in attempting to force a solution based on the therapeutic benefits of a good hot bath.
** out of ****
2012, Japan, 108 Minutes, Toho
Directed by Hideki Takeuchi
Screenplay by Shôgo Mutô
Based on a Manga by Mari Yamazaki
Produced by Naoto Inaba, Miyoshi Kikuchi, Kaoru Matsuzaki
Executive Producer Hirokazu Hamamura, Minami Ichikawa, Chihiro Kameyama, Atsushi Terada
Original Music by Norihito Sumitomo
Cinematography by Kazunari Kawagoe
Hiroshi Abe: Lucius
Aya Ueto: Manami
Masachika Ichimura: Hadrianus
Kazuki Kitamura: Ceionius
Riki Takeuchi: Tateno
Kai Shishido: Antoninus
Midoriko Kimura: Mami’s mom
Bunmei Tobayama: Kishimoto
Walter Roberts: Tenor
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