Hideki Takeuchi’s “Thermae Romae” — literally “Roman Bath” — was 2012′s surprise box office smash in Japan, earning nearly ¥6 billion, the second-highest that year.
Based on Mari Yamazaki’s hit manga, the film was about a bathhouse architect named Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) in ancient Rome who time-travels to modern-day Japan, where he is dumbstruck by “advanced” Japanese bath culture and borrows ideas that revive his flagging career in Rome. He also meets a cute neophyte manga artist, Mami (Aya Ueto), who is mad about all things Roman and accompanies him back to his own time, though the super-serious Lucius is barely aware of her existence.
This fish-out-of-water (or rather man-in-the-water) comedy, with its mixture of weighty political drama and light romance, was hardly high art, but it entertained in ways which were fresh and funny to Japanese audiences. At the same time, the film had a clever take on cultural superiority/inferiority, with Lucius contemptuously assuming that the elderly men he encounters in his first Japanese bathhouse are “flat-faced slaves,” while they comically regard him as another clueless foriegner. It also didn’t hurt ticket sales that Abe buffed up in the gym for the role of Lucius and spent much of the film in his birthday suit.
“Thermae Romae II” has all the elements present in the first film, which will please Japanese audiences, who tend to like more of what they liked before, ad infinitum. But I found myself zoning out from the repetitious running gags, carried over from the first film. Also, the cyclical structure of “Thermae Romae,” with Lucius traveling in time every 10 minutes or so, feels even more repetitious in the sequel.
Finally, the producers’ attempts to enliven the proceedings with cameos by popular sumo wrestlers (Japan’s nearest equivalent to Roman gladiators) and beauty shots of famous hot springs feels commercially calculated.
As the film begins, Lucius is commissioned to build a new bathhouse for gladiators at the Roman coliseum, who find little relief from their aches and pains in the dank, gloomy thermae their masters have provided them. Once again, he is stuck for ideas — until he time-travels to Japan, where he reconnects with Mami, now a writer, covering bath culture, though she still dreams of becoming a manga artist. He also finds much that inspires him, including a soothing massage chair (which he imagines being operated by hardworking slaves behind the cushions) and a non-fatal form of mano-a-mano combat the natives call “sumo.”
Once back in Rome, he incorporates these innovations into his new thermae, limited only by 2nd-century technology, and wins more plaudits from his superiors, including Emperor Hadrianus (Masachika Ichimura).
All is not well in the Empire, however. Hadrianus may be a peace-loving sort who prefers baths to battles, but senators with expansionary ambitions are plotting against him. One wild card is Ceionius (Kazuki Kitamura), a womanizing emperor-in-waiting, battling barbarians up north. Will he turn on Hadrianus? And what can Lucius, a Hadrianus loyalist, do to keep the peace? The land of the flat-faced slaves may provide answers.
Shot in Bulgaria on a huge open set and in some of the more picturesque parts of Japan, “Thermae Romae II” is both a throwback to Hollywood sand-and-sword spectacles and an eye-candy travelogue that will have you taking notes for your next onsen (hot springs) vacation.
But, dramatically it runs hot and cold, with Abe’s concept of Lucius as a straight-arrow workaholic still funny, though the treatment of poor Mami as a passing acquaintance is passing strange given their romance in the previous film. Kitamura tries to deepen his role as the ambitious sensualist Ceionius, but a plot twist out of old Hollywood B-movies turns the character toward self-parody.
Director Takeuchi, however, has not lost the knack for comedy he displayed in “Thermae Romae,” making even the cornier gags pop instead of fizzle. He also gets good value from his 5,000 extras and monumental sets, though some of the film’s best moments are its smaller ones, as when Lucius tries a water slide wearing only a towel — and comes up for air at the bottom without a stitch on him, gasping in terror and delight.
It’s a funny scene, though I suspect many viewers will be focusing on the flexing of his thoroughly worked-out glutes. Whatever sells tickets, folks.