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Thermae Romae

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/03/13 15:55:40

"The original hot tub time machine."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I spent a good number of Saturdays trying to learn Japanese a year or two ago, and one thing I remember about those classes is that when students mentioned they liked manga, the teacher always asked if they read "Thermae Romae". None of us had. When I saw a film adaptation listed on the Fantasia schedule, I was tickled, and I'm even more pleased to report that it's an impish, funny little movie.

AD 135 sees Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe), bath house architect, falling out of favor; his conservative style meant to promote relaxation and contemplation is not nearly as popular as the rowdier ones designed by Vertus. One day, while visiting one of these thermae to ponder how he can innovate without creating something crass, he is pulled into an underwater drainage tunnel that sends him to a public bath house in 2012 Japan. He is stunned, but inspired, and when he reawakens back home, he creates something that gets the attention of Emperor Hadrianus (Masachika Ichimura) himself. He makes several trips to the future, not initially noticing that aspiring (but frustrated) manga artist Mami Yamakoshi (Aya Ueto) is nearby each time.

Lucius is a character type that shows up in manga fairly often - the proud man stoically suffering as that pride is continually undermined - that does not necessarily translate to other media very well; the margin notes don't even translate well to Western comics. Fortunately, screenwriter Shogo Muto and director Hideki Takeuchi manage to crack that, both making these moments very funny - in part by contrast with the nakedness that doesn't embarrass him much at all and in part due to great facial expression and voice-over from Hiroshi Abe - and having it be an actual point of characterization. It's an unusually good job of letting the same things be funny and part of the plot.

As mentioned, Abe deserves much of the credit; he not only finds the appealing side of a potentially abrasive character, but manages to give Lucius some stature and respectability despite his being wrong for a good long time about what he calls the "flat-faced clan". And, yes, we may as well confront directly that the bulk of Romans with speaking roles are played by Japanese actors, some not terribly convincingly (Kai Shishido is not fooling anybody as Antoninus). Abe is actually fairly believable, even when Lucius arrives in contemporary Japan, with the filmmakers playing him against older men whose ethnic features have been somewhat exaggerated by age.

He also gets to play off Aya Ueto, whom I hope spends more time on-screen in the already-in-production sequel. She only pops up intermittently until about halfway through this one, when Mami takes something closer to a co-starring role, but those who remember her from the Azumi movies may be surprised at how charmingly dorky and funny she is here. Her infatuation with Lucius is giddy, and she proves quite adept at physical comedy as well. Masachika Ichimura makes a good Hadrianus as well - he puts out the same combination of authority and decadence that makes for a memorable Roman Emperor.

All of them get to play out some pretty good jokes, and it may actually be the rare foreign comedy that travels well, as Western audiences may get a kick out of Lucius encountering modern Japan, even if for different reasons. The filmmakers recognize the absurdity of their concept and never try to dodge it, even though they don't make sport of the characters and their concerns, though the story straddles goofy and overdramatic toward the end (comedies that have been doing well with gags always bog down when the filmmakers decide they need conflict and resolution). There's fun had breaking the fourth wall on occasion, and the movie never seems to cheap out, even shooting some scenes in Italy for authenticity.

It is an out-there premise (although one with a certain amount of logic to it as well), and some folks may not be able to get past it or the cast playing it out. It's their loss if so; "Thermae Romae" is a plain enjoyable little comedy, just as pleasant as a hot, relaxing bath.

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