Reading manga can teach you a lot, be the subject wine (“Kami no Shizuku [Drops of God]”), gourmet food (“Oishinbo”) or the arcane world of feudal-era concubines (“Sakuran”). But the Japanese bath? Isn’t that a subject Japanese are immersed in almost from Day One? Why would they need to read about it in a manga?
But to Lucius, a fictional bathhouse architect from Rome at its ancient height, Japanese baths are an endless font of wonder, inspiration — and frustration. He is the hero of Mari Yamazaki’s hit comic “Thermae Romae” (literal translation: “Roman Baths”), which has sold more than 5 million copies in four paperback editions, as well as spawning a new film directed by Hideki Takeuchi.
The foreigner who is stupendously impressed by things Japanese is a staple figure here in everything from films to tourist videos, one I usually find tiresome. The real learning about Japan, I’ve found, starts only after the fairy dust falls off. Also, those who natter on dubiously about Japanese “uniqueness” (“Only Japan has four seasons!” “Japanese have longer intestines!”) find this figure convenient to their misbegotten arguments.
But as played by the perfectly cast Hiroshi Abe, Lucius is right to be amazed. Emerging from a time tunnel into an old-fashioned Japanese public bath, like a naked god rising from the waves, this Roman finds a world and a people utterly unlike his own. Though calling the old men in the bath “flat-faced slaves,” he marvels at the wonders their culture has produced, from fruit-flavored milk (so refreshing after a long soak!) to wicker clothes baskets (so light and handy!). Then he wakes up back in his own time, but with an empty milk bottle proving that his brief visit to present-day Japan was no dream.
Recently fired from an architectural practice for being too staid and conservative, Lucius incorporates his Japan-inspired innovations into a new bathhouse — and he soon has a hit on his hands. He also comes to the attention of elderly Emperor Hadrian (Masachika Ichimura), who requests his services. Lucius would appear to have it made.
But he is a stiff-necked, perfectionist sort — think a majime (deadly earnest) salaryman in a toga, who clashes with a dissolute emperor-to-be (Kazuki Kitamura) and feels guilty about ripping off the modern-Japanese “slaves.” Still, when he is hurled time and time again to the slaves’ country of marvelous baths, he sees more ideas he can use, while making friends with the natives, including a pretty manga artist (Aya Ueto) who loves to sketch his classically sculpted form. Lucius, though, is more interested in the baths and toilets she sells as a side job.
“Thermae Romae” takes occasional dips into the murky waters of Roman political intrigue and war, but wisely stays close to its comic beginnings, while avoiding the jingoistic urge to trumpet the contrast between “advanced” Japan and “backward” Rome. Instead, it highlights aspects of the Japanese Way of Bathing that may strike younger Japanese, used to privately soaking in antiseptic splendor, as hopelessly uncool, but which in the fresh eyes of a man from the 2nd Century regain their original brilliance.
Also, rather than hire the usual gaijin (foreigner) no-names and amateurs for the Roman roles, the producers cleverly used established Japanese actors with “un-Japanese” features, beginning with Abe, who spends much of the film partly or totally unclothed — and looks as though he has just stepped out of the Roman statuary section of the Louvre, albeit with all his limbs intact. This sharpens the film’s comic slant (though Abe and company do not play the Romans as cartoons), as well underlining its we-are-all-brothers-in-the-bath message.
Finally, just as the joke of Lucius-as-underwater-time-traveler begins to wear thin, new complications, from the serious to the silly, appear to keep things bubbling along, without bringing the plot to a melodramatic boil. Also, the Roman-era open sets at the Cinecitta studio in Rome, populated by as a many as 2,000 extras, help bring the world of Lucius and his contemporaries to vivid life. Cecil B. DeMille, the one-time king of Hollywood swords ‘n’ sandals spectacles, would have approved.
It’s far from perfect, however: At times, the film sinks into the ponderousness of those spectacles, while the clumsily staged battle scenes look as though they were deleted from “Gladiator.” By the end, though, all the patchy parts are forgotten, just as the day fades away soaking in an open-air bath under the stars. Relax and enjoy — but keep your toga on.