As mentioned in my earlier post, I have been looking forward to hopefully catching this film, albeit only once it got a DVD release outside of Japan. So finding ‘Thermae Romae’ on a flight on an American Airline between England and the Eastern coast of the USA was more than a shock. It probably started my vacation off on the best possible note (especially as I am terrified of flying). As to why I was so interested, we can but it down to three factors:
1) It is based on a smart and funny Manga. These are usually rather expertly done by the Japanese, and I have been in the mood for something funny AND Japanese for some time.
2) It stars Aya Ueto, who is not only usually beautiful and charming, but is criminally underused in terms of Cinema outings.
3) Hiroshi Abe. For me, the funniest of Japanese Actors. Not because of any particular comic timing or crazy antics, but because he has this amazing sense of gravitas – he can pull off a stoic acceptance of any crazy situation, with a the straightest of faces, but you also know he is slyly winking at the audience a the same time. His ever more surreal TV Series ‘Trick’ showcased this skill, and when you hear the synopsis of this film, you will realise it is going to be rather necessary.
So, that brings us to the synopsis. Rome, 135 A.D. and Architect of Roman Baths (Thermae) Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) is having a very hard time getting any of his designs commissioned as he is deemed rather old fashioned. Then one day he is mysteriously transported forward in time to modern Japan where he is exposed to all kinds of modern influences. Of course he doesn’t realise he has been the subject of time travel – he just thinks he has been transported to the location of some ‘flat faced slaves’. He returns an incorporates these experiences into his new designs, and becomes an instant hit. This brings him into contact with the current Emperor Hadrianus, and sends Lucius on an upwards curve. Simultaneously, he encounters Mami (Aya Ueto), a aspiring Manga Artist whom he starts to inspire as each accidental trip into the past brings him into contact with her. Success however is a double edged sword, and Lucius not only loses his wife to his best friend, but becomes troubled by the knowledge that his success is based on copying, not real inspiration. Not only that, but one of his trips results in Mami coming bak with him to his own time (and followed eventually by he Father and his friends). Mami realises that Lucius has an important role to play in history, and has to help him fix this (whilst not letting on quite why), and could it be love is in the air for our time crossed pair?
Elephant in the room time first. Yes, every Roman character is played by a Japanese person. Obviously this is not part of the original material, but it really does not present a problem. In fact, it adds a layer of humour to proceedings, when Lucius is differentiating himself from the Japanese. However, the scenes in ancient Rome were actually filmed in Italy, and it looks far more convincing that I was expecting. The general humour in the first half of the film is basically poking a bit of fun at modern Japanese bathing and toilet mores, which of course also have an added level of comedy for this Englishman (due to the extra level of culture shift). I’ll happily admit it gave me no end of pleasure to laugh not just at the Japanese and Roman bathing habits, but also Lucius’ smart ways of reproducing modern technology with what he has at hand (cue shot of a Jacuzzi being powered by not a motor, but a group of slaves in an adjacent chamber blowing into pipes).
And let us not forget the fact that the time travelling is accompanied by Operatic music replete with an overweight Tenor. Why? No idea, but it i amusing enough, an smartly NOT overplayed.
Obviously, if the film was just about these trips to the future, it would get dull pretty quickly. Luckily, the film is able to shake off the complete light hearted nature on occasion to deal with some more serious subjects. Some of these are Lucius’ own issues (such as his obsession with work driving his wife into the arms of his best friend, and his personal issues with the nature of his success); whilst others deal with Roman society itself – the unstable nature of politics, and most importantly the mental state of the Emperor. To be fair the second half of the film i maybe not quite a successful as the first, struggling to show the world outside of Rome (probably due to budgetary constraints), and not quite being able to really bring all the time travelling modern Japanese gang properly into the story as characters in their own right.
The film is carried by Hiroshi Abe. He carries of being a Roman superbly, and it is his performance that means the hilarious and the serious can sit together. Not only that, but he spends huge amounts of the film in a state of undress, and even as a Heterosexual male, I cannot help being impressed by the man’s physique! Aya Ueto is as gorgeous as I would have expected, and whilst it takes a little time for he character to get some proper screen time, she actually does become a character that you are interested in, plus the pair do have a certain chemistry, which is rather underplayed. I rather liked that the love aspect of the film was never really made into a big deal, even if it is declared ‘fate’ by Mami’s Father.
I adored this film. It ticked all my boxes, and in some cases exceeded them. I do worry that the humour is of the type that particularly tickled my funny bone, and maybe will not make the jump to many others. Then again, ThingsFallApart is about MY personal journey into Asian Cinema, so I am going to give this one ‘Highly Recommended’.