Unless you’re Japanese, it’s difficult to really understand what makes the onsen, or public bath, so popular. To even begin, you need to have been to Japan and gone to one, and even then you’ll probably never really grasp the significance the bath holds for the Japanese. After you get past the fact that you’re naked (except for a tiny towel) with a bunch of people you don’t know, sure, it’s an unbelievably wonderful experience. Think a bath tub the size of your average back-yard pool. You sit, you soak until you prune, you contemplate life. If you’re outdoors, you look at the sky, or the trees, or the stars. If you’re inside, you soak up the steam and discover pores you never knew you had.
It feels like an indulgence, and for the outsider it is. But to the Japanese it’s more than that; it’s a way of life, it’s a facet of their collective identity. And who could relate to that better than the people who arguably invented baths – the ancient Romans. Lucius (Hiroshi Abe, Still Walking) is a bath house architect suffering from mediocrity. No one is interested in his traditional designs anymore and the bathing culture is turning, in his opinion, into a rowdy, meaningless activity that is losing all dignity. With this loss of dignity, Lucius believes, will also come the downfall of Rome. It’s an upsetting idea, and he’s determined to do something about it. He’s soaking in the waters of the main bathhouse in Rome, ignoring the riff-raff and contemplating this problem, when he is suddenly sucked through an underwater drain and into a time vortex, where he surfaces in a suburban onsen in modern day Japan.
Yep. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Or, well, maybe if you watch Kyou Kara Maou you did, but the rest of you are probably a little surprised. Thermae Romae might have a slightly ludicrous premise but the truly surprising thing about this film is that it’s executed with such charm, wit and aplomb that despite that it is in fact entirely enjoyable. The very handsome, very tall, very not traditionally Japanese looking Abe as the stern, serious Lucius is a perfect straight-man for the film’s comical elements. His character views our familiar environment with completely foreign eyes. To him, these things (flexible shower hoses, taps, internally heated floors, maneki-neko soap dispensers, and of course the Japanese toilet) are remarkable and wondrous inventions that he believes embody the ideal spirit of the Roman custom of bathing. When he is transported back to his own time, he takes these ideas with him.
Suddenly his not so traditional designs are garnering him the attention of none other than Emperor Hadrian. There is of course a lot of back and forthing as Lucius faces and solves (via the underwater vortex) one challenge after another, all the while fearing that he is in fact a fake and that all of his ideas are stolen. The film doesn’t even try to address the time paradox (if Lucius travels forward in time to discover plumbing, then goes back in time to invent it, isn’t he just stealing his own ideas in the first place?), but keeps things light and entertaining as events start to take on a predictable, but not necessarily uninteresting pattern. The support cast in modern Japan are delightful, providing ninety percent of the charm and proving far more engaging than the cast of Ancient Rome, although veteran voice and TV actor Masachika Ichimura (13 Assassins) gives a reasonably compelling performance as Hadrian while Kazuki Kitamura (Space Battleship Yamato) as Ceilonius is suitably skeevy given he doesn’t really get much plot to chew on.
The romantic interest is a little weak – not that Aya Ueto’s (Azumi) performance as Mimi, a young disheartened aspiring manga artist, isn’t good but the character doesn’t really provide any real emotional focus until at least the last twenty minutes, and the film could have arguably done without her and probably not been any worse off. Of course, that could be said about half the trips the Lucius takes forward in time. On one hand, in 148 minutes, screenwriter Shougo Mutou manages to make each trip Lucius takes seem like it’s all going somewhere (plot-wise), which is more than can be said for other, more serious films I’ve seen. At no point do you find yourself going “Oh, but what about [insert plot hook here]? Did they forget about that?”. On the other hand, the Trip of the Week structure clearly betrays its episodic manga origins and perhaps could have served with a bit more trimming just to really tighten the narrative up.
That’s a minor complaint though, in a film that really doesn’t put a foot wrong. The ancient Roman setting (filmed on location in Italy, if the credits are to be believed) is astonishingly realistic looking, and once you get past the predominantly European cast here and the voice dubs (some European actors look to be able to speak Japanese but perhaps not well enough to warrant their own voices), these segments are worth being quietly impressed by. You’ll also appreciate the little details, like Abe speaking passable Latin when trying to communicate with someone in modern Japan, and the fact that director Hideki Takeuchi (Nodame Cantabille the Movie) made a feature out of potentially dodgy special effects that actually made them better as opposed to worse.
But the real star of this film is still the comical comparisons between now and then, and the way in which Lucius interprets their function. It’s not so much tongue in cheek as an affectionate dig. It also happens to be part sonnet for the love affair that the Japanese have with their baths, and when the credits finally roll you may not feel like you’ve been watching something life changing but you will feel like you understand that love just a little bit more than before.
Thermae Romae is screening as part of the 17th Japanese Film Festival until December 8. Please check the website for screening times in your city.