I really enjoyed the first “Thermae Romae” movie, so much so it got onto my Top Ten of 2012, even though I know a lot of Western viewers just filed it under “weird curiosity”. Personally I thought it was an amusing concept, and I found the jokes, as repetitive as they are, to be somewhat amusing. Plus I got Hiroshi Abe and Aya Ueto in the same movie. Which is never a terrible thing. So once again my flight to the far east enabled me to get an advance viewing of a film I know is going to take ages to get onto a English Subtitled release. Does it live up to the standards of the first? Or will it be a weak retread? Or could it be that rare thing… a superior sequel?
‘Thermae Romae II’ picks up a few years after the events of the first film. Thermae designer Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) is a much more respected member of society, although he is still vexed by the fact he knows his designs are really just re-treads from his trips to the future. Peace continues in Rome, with the peaceful policies of Emperor Hadrianus (Masachika Ichimura) that Lucius helped to foster in the last film continuing to hold. However all is not well in the Senate, where there is a political struggle to make Rome once again a more aggressive power. This underlying feeling is made flesh in the Gladiator battles that have become popular, and it is with a heavy heart that Lucius is commissioned to create a bath for the warriors. Cue a return to the time travelling antics of the first film, with Japanese culture being retrofitted to Roman ties. Also he reconnects with Mami (Aya Ueto), and unsurprisingly she once again travels back with him. Together they fight the machinations of the senate who wish to once again put Ceionus (Kazuki Kitamura) in charge. Or do they? Something seems rather amiss with our playboy soldier that was a minor thorn in the side of our pair last time.
To be honest? This sequel adds very little to the original. To be really frank, it is just more of the same. In fact it even revisits some of the jokes from before. A lot more money has been spent on the film (big sets were built in Europe), but at the core we simply have Lucius going forward in time and space, seeing something uniquely Japanese, and then coming back and recreating it with Roman (lack of) technologies. Oh, and once again there are some political subplots going on, building on some elements from the first film.
Hiroshi Abe is as good as ever, even if it does seem that this time there has been a decision to somewhat objectify him physically, every chance to get him naked and show off his body is taken (as an about-face on the objectification of the female image you could say this was refreshing). Aya Ueto is less well used, and it seems a shame that the connection the two had at the end of the last film seems to have been forgotten about. One thing that is a bit clearer here is that her character is meant to be an analogue for Mari Yamazaki, the creator of the source manga.
Kazuki Kitamura has a bit more to do this time, some of this is to do with a spoiler that I won’t mention (but it is freaking obvious), and to be fair, he is great, poking fun at his own perceived personality (the dude is a handsome devil, and he knows it, and doesn’t mind letting you know that he knows).
Tellingly, this film doesn’t actually derive the story from the original manga. This means that some of the jokes don’t quite work, or feel a little forced. But on the whole, there is a huge amount of fun to be found here. Even something like Lucius discovering the joys of a Water Slide (in itself a rip off from “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) is fairly amusing, even if it lacks the pure imagination of the first film. And unlike some other reviewers, I quite liked the callback to the electric bidet from the original movie. Other jokes like the introduction of Ramen fall flatter, and the attempt to match up Gladiators and Sumo don’t work simply because the plot doesn’t allow it.
The film does lose its way a little in the final act. The resolution of the various storylines are almost resolved off-screen, and the oddness of the motivations of Ceionus simply don’t stack up when you apply even the slightest thought. Foolishly, it allows the concerns of the Time Traveller who knows the future to actually imbue the finale with a real feeling of sadness, which totally undercuts any joy one might get from the actual plot being resolved.
I really enjoyed this, but it seriously is more of the same – it won’t convert you. The film is bigger, if not better. It doesn’t clearly have the originality of the original, but is wise enough to realise what is a winning formula. The curiously downbeat ending actually left me feeling a bit down, even with the rather meta coda attempting to fix everything. Doing this pretty much during the final credits seems more afterthought than planning. However, I really enjoyed it, and so despite it’s lack of development, I am going to give it a Recommend.