in Rome, do as the Japanese do. Time-travelling
Roman Architect Lucius Quintus Modestus unwittingly adopts this strategy. Sure, you might think he looks more Japanese
than Roman, but there is no need for pedantry when Hideki Takeuchi’s Thermae Romae (trailer here) screens tonight
as a co-presentation of this year’s Japan Cuts and the New York Asian Film Festival.
his wounded pride at a Roman civic bath, the recently fired Modestus is
inexplicably pulled through the drainage system into modern day Japan. Initially contemptuous of the old-timers
soaking in the neighborhood bath, the man has to admit their facilities beat
anything Rome has to offer. It all
rather overwhelms his Roman pride, while his chiseled looks overwhelm aspiring
manga artist Mami Yamakoshi. After causing
a great deal of naked commotion, Modestus quickly returns to his era, just as
mysteriously as he left. Soon, he is the
toast of Rome, applying the innovations he observed in Japan.
new found fame earns Modestus the ear of the stern but wise Emperor Hadrian and
his thoughtful counselor Antoninus. Of
course, the Emperor’s hedonistic adopted son Ceionius is a different story. Each time Modestus needs inspiration for a
major commission, he somehow finds his way back to Japan and Yamakoshi, whether
it be the upscale bathroom showroom where she works part-time or her mother’s
rustic mountain spa. Eventually, she
will pulled back to classical Rome with him, just in time for a major imperial power
on a popular manga series that also spawned a short-lived anime incarnation, Thermae Romae has plenty of pratfalls
and fish-out-of-water humor, but the cast plays it surprisingly straight. In
fact, Masachika Ichimura and Kai Shishido play Hadrian and Antoninus as if they
thought Sir Derek Jacobi might be popping round the set in his I, Claudius costume.
stone-faced Kore-eda regular Hiroshi Abe does not really have that option,
given how much time Modestus must run about in his altogether. Still, he conveys a sense of the architect’s principled
rectitude, even when embroiled in truly outrageous situations. In a role original to the film, Aya Ueto is
likable enough as Yamakoshi, but she is saddled with a problematically passive
character. There are plenty of Euro-looking
Romans as well, dubbed into perfect Japanese to keep the madness chugging along
at full steam.
Partly filmed in Italy’s celebrated Cinecitta
studio, Thermae’s period production scenes
frankly look better than they needed to.
It also observes the conventions of time travel movies, without getting
bogged down in them. Lightweight but
entertaining, it is a goofy romp that avoids all the cheap excesses of recent “Blank
Movie” spoofs. Recommended for fans of
time travel and manga-inspired films, Therma
Romae screens tonight (7/14) at the Japan Society, as a co-programmed
selection of Japan Cuts and the New York Asian Film Festival.
Labels: Japan Cuts '13, Japanese Cinema, NYAFF '13, Time Travel Films