'Thermae Romae II' ('Terumae Romae 2'): Film Review
Hiroshi Abe's time-traveling bathhouse architect from ancient Rome returns in the sequel to the 2012 adaptation of a Japanese manga.
Big is not necessarily beautiful, and repetition is nearly never revered. That's something even the casual follower of architecture knows, and it's perhaps ironic that a film about an inspiration-craving architect should overlook this particular axiom.
Two years after his first Thermae Romae film – the Japanese comedy about a time-traveling bathhouse builder that emerged a surprise box-office hit at home and then in Asian markets in 2012 – director Hideki Takeuchi offers a sequel, which simply repeats the zany premise and the jokes, albeit with bigger sets (in Bulgaria), more extras (allegedly amounting to thousands) and a grand pacifist gesture undermined by cringe-worthy gags.
With the novelty having very much worn off, Thermae Romae 2 – which premiered at the Far East Film Festival in Udine in April – has failed to repeat its predecessor's success, its two-month run having generated only slightly over $41 million, compared to the $74 million for the first film.
Having brought in no wow factor to spice up the proceedings - by, say, roping in another A-lister as a new antagonist, as other franchises have done in the past - Takeuchi's latest offering is perhaps bound for just limited exposure among audiences more receptive of Japanese commercial fare. (The film opened in Taiwan in May and Hong Kong earlier this month.)
But Thermae Romae 2 begins in an ominous tone, which seems to promise something more than just fuzzy humor. A cart of strongly-built slaves is seen being transported across harsh terrains to the Colosseum, where they are to take part in gory gladiator-like spectacles to entertain the masses. It's all a show used by mutinous senators to undermine the humanist emperor Hadrian (Masachika Imamura), whose power is consolidated, as the introductory voice-over claims, by the soothing spas built by Lucius (Hiroshi Abe, Still Walking).
Rather than opening the story up to newer waters, Takeuchi and his screenwriter Hiroshi Hashimoto (who took over from the first film's Shogo Muto) opted instead for convenience, as Lucius is again put through the time-traveling wringer as he is commissioned to build facilities that could sooth gladiators, entertain children, civilize barbarians and rejuvenate soldiers on the distant frontline. It's basically something along the lines of what happened in the first film, but repeated ad nauseam so as to milk the shocked-foreigner trope to death. Lucius finds inspiration in sumo wrestling, massage contraptions, aquatic amusement parks and - in a direct repetition of one of the first film's most memorable gags - the automatic toilet bowl.
It's more than halfway into the film that the narrative properly kicks into gear, as Lucius and his superior Antoninus (who would succeed Hadrian as emperor in real history, and here played by Kai Shishido) struggle to deflate a political plot involving Ceionius (Kazuki Kitamura), the womanizing warrior whose villainous veneer in the first film is somehow redeemed here. The awkward volte-face here mirrors the clumsily crafted conspiracy at the center of it all - but should one have asked for more anyway in a film where every conflict can be solved by dabbling into magical spring water?
Perhaps acknowledging how Thermae Romae's main target audience are women, Takeuchi zeroes in on Lucius' toned, toga-covered torso. While the 2012 outing is roughly a cross-cultural two-parter involving the Roman thinker and a ditzy manga writer Mami (Aya Ueto, A Tale of Samurai Cooking) - an on-screen proxy of Mari Yamazaki, who penned the original Thermae Romae comic-book series - the latter is basically relegated to the margins in this latest outing; the hunky, muscular Abe emerging naked out of the water has become somewhat of a running visual gag.
The absence of ambition and vision is unfortunate given the bigger budget Takeuchi was afforded for his sequel. Expanding on the international scope of the first film - which was partly shot at the Cinecitta studios in Rome - Thermae Romae 2 was filmed in Bulgaria with an army of local technicians and extras. Not that it shows - and when there's a marked difference, with the crowds of European faces hollering in the background and some of them talking to Lucius in (overdubbed) Japanese, the effect is more jarring than awe-inspiring.
In aqua sanitas? Thermae Romae 2 needs more of an injection of vino-fuelled veritas and adventure beyond its episodic dosages of lukewarm humor.
Opens: June 12, 2014 (Hong Kong); April 26, 2014 (Japan)
Production companies: Filmmakers in a Fuji Television, Toho Films, Dentsu, Kadokawa presentation
Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Aya Ueto, Kazuki Kitamura, Kai Shishido
Director: Hideki Takeuchi
Screenwriter: Hiroshi Hashimoto, based on the manga by Mari Yamazaki
Producer: Inaba Naoto, Kikuchi Miyoshi
Director of photography: Shoshi Ehara
Production designer: Harada Mitsuo
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto
Editors: Matsuo Hiroshi
Music: Norihito Sumitomo
Sales: Toho Films
No rating; 112 minutes