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TORONTO — The Japanese obsession with all things hygienic is taken to truly epic proportions in Thermae Romae, an over-the-top time-traveling comedy that milks some early laughs out of its outré concept before drowning in a bathtub of sentiment. Based on Mari Yamazaki’s popular manga series, the film raked in over $75 million for its local release last spring, and should see steady Asian distribution and additional festival slots following its North American premiere in Toronto.
Hot Tub Time Machine meets The Fall of the Roman Empire is perhaps the best way to explain the premise of Thermae Romae (which translates to Roman Baths): The year is 128 A.D., and Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe, Still Walking) is one of Rome’s premiere bathhouse architects, although he’s recently been having a tough time finding a new design to impress ruling emperor, Hadrianus (Masachika Ichimura).
For reasons explained later on, he is sucked into an aqua vortex that propels him to present-day Tokyo, where he finds himself mesmerized by the way in which the Japanese (who he refers to as “slaves” and “flat-faces”) have refined their national bath culture. Taking inspiration from top-of-the-line Jacuzzis, showers, saunas and hot springs, he travels backs to Ancient Rome and develops a whole new line of public and private baths, rising in prominence under a regime plagued by foreign wars and incompetent successors.
The screenplay by Shôgo Mutô (Takashi Miike’s Crows Zero) takes things to amusingly fetishistic levels in these early moments, both celebrating and poking fun at Japan’s ridiculously sophisticated bathing techniques. One particularly silly scene has Lucius landing in an upscale kitchen & bath store, where he mistakes a roll of toilet paper for a papyrus scroll and boggles over an automated toilet bowl.
But once those gags lose their steam—and they do so very quickly—a tedious, time-hopping melodrama takes over, cutting back and forth between Lucius’ growing relationship with aspiring manga artist, Mami (Aya Ueto, Azumi), and his attempts to bolster a depressive emperor and fledging army. At this point, the jokes really hit rock bottom (one literally involves a monkey and a banana peel), while the characters’ endless regime worship is becomes both questionable and cringe-worthy, perhaps revealing more about Japan’s own empire nostalgia than anything else.
Directed by Hideki Takeuchi (Nodame Cantabile: The Movie) in a flashy mélange of CGI and sepia-toned set pieces (filmed at Rome’s Cinecitta studios), and featuring a monotonous jukebox selection of opera’s greatest hits, Thermae Romae finds some amusement in its inspired origins before flushing it all away for a tacky toga fairy tale.
Production companies: Fuji Television Network, Toho, Dentsu, Enterbrain
Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Aya Ueto, Masachika Ichimura, Kazuki Kitamura
Director: Hideki Takeuchi
Screenwriter: Shôgo Mutô, based on the manga by Mari Yamazaki
Producers: Naoto Inaba, Miyoshi Kikuchi, Kaoru Matsuzaki
Executive producers: Chihiro Kameyama, Minami Ichikawa, Atsushi Terada, Hirokazy Hamamura
Director of photography: Kazunari Kawagoe
Production designer: Mistsuo Harada
Music: Norihito Sumitomo
Costume designer: Haruki Kouketsu
Editor: Hiroshi Matsuo
Sales: Pony Canyon
No rating, 108 minutes
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