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Thermae Romae II
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by Jay Seaver

"A second trip to an entertaining cross-time well."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: 2012's "Thermae Romae" adapted a manga with a delightfully high-concept premise - an architect of Roman bath houses ("thermae") finds himself in modern Japan, which loves the institutions just as much as his homeland, and tries to introduce twenty-first century luxury to ancient Rome. It's a neat idea, and the sequel does find new facets of it to tap, but it's gotten stretched rather thin by the end.

A year has passed in both time zones, and in AD 136 Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe) is charged with upgrading the thermae in Rome's Colosseum. Though not a fan of bloodsports and aware of how the roman senate seems to be using them to undermine the pacifist policies of Emperor Hadrianus (Masachika Ichimura), he sees a chance to improve the situation for gladiators, especially once a trip through the vortex shows him how contemporary sumo wrestlers unwind after a match. As he makes more trips to the present to learn about water parks and hot springs resorts, he once again crosses paths with Manami "Mami" Yamakoshi (Aya Ueto), now a reporter for a bath-enthusiast magazine, as her comic version of Lucius's previous visits never took off.

Sequels have conflicting demands - "move forward" and "more of what I liked" - and Thermae Romae II often feels like screenwriter Hiroshi Hashimoto had ideas for doing the former but often fell back on what was expected. There's a potential theme going untapped, with Lucius amazed by the innovations of the "flat-faced clan" but worried that by copying them he is not actually creating, while Mami had her manga rejected because editors found her artwork lacked its own style, but it doesn't play into the film's resolution much at all. And while it's one thing for a man to act like a bit of an oblivious doof around the girl who likes him once, doing it for a second film is much less cool.

The worst part of that is that it marginalizes Aya Ueto for much of the film's first half, despite her being thoroughly charming and one of the best things about the first. She's still that, a charmingly upbeat balance to Lucius, and so excited when she goes back to ancient Rome again that it's actually a bit of a disconnect when the villains paint her as a doomsaying witch because she has read The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and knows some things. To be fair, these stories are really about Lucius, and Hiroshi Abe is once again a deadpan delight in the role, no longer quite the proud man trying to rein in his humiliation, but more working the contradiction between such a serious-minded man concentrating on getting people to relax. He's got a little more room to be witty here, and makes good use of it.

Aside from the fine stars, a lot of what worked about the first is brought over to the second, and director Hideki Takeuchi and his crew still execute them fairly well. The Romanization of Japanese bathing (and other) technology is almost always a visual kick, especially once the curtain is peeled back to reveal the poor slaves trying to make it work. It's a great-looking movie in other ways, shooting in Bulgaria and Rome as well as Japan. The CGI that makes some of the Roman scenes look fairly slick is made up for by some very low-budget bits later on, and there's still an impish tendency to break the fourth wall in amusing ways.

Those that liked previous installments of "Thermae Romae", whether in print or on screen, are likely to keep having fun with this new one; the folks involved know what they're doing. I must admit, though, that I'm glad the filmmakers have backed themselves into a position where they'll have to do something different with a third installment should they make one; the idea is good, but just about drained.

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originally posted: 08/05/14 16:42:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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