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Thermae Romae – Review

by Olivia Saperstein

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Based on the seinen manga series by the same title, this story follows Roman architect Lucius living in AD 135. Having lost his job, Lucius goes to the bathhouse, only once he falls into the water he is teleported to a contemporary Japanese bathhouse. It is there that he discovers new means for improving the Roman baths and salvages his career. Manami Yamakoshi, a young comic artist in Japan, is seeking a hero with impact. Could Manami be a portrayal of the manga’s writer, Mari Yamazaki? While Manami helped Lucius with the baths as well as effectively changing Rome’s history, Lucius, in return, was her story. Thus she becomes the link between past and present.

It is clear that a story like this one is aimed at men between the ages of 18 and 40. Lucius and the other Romans are incredibly hubristic, almost humorously so, and bathhouses, essentially a phallocentric social space. Lucius’ story of rising from failure and gaining the Emperor’s honor is an archetypical one; one that has penetrated theology, sociology, and capitalism for ages. The notion of “an innovative idea,” is one that young business-people alike are taught to seek.

It’s an ungraspable idea, though, isn’t it? A bath as a mode of time travel? The only other recollection I have of a similar phenomena is in Steve Pink’s absurdist bro-comedy Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), a genre it may be better suited for. And yet, Yamazaki’s story won the Manga Taisho award, among others. Adapting a story like this to the screen, however, is another ordeal.

Let’s take the recreation of ancient Rome: not an easy task. When a contemporary film can’t do a better job than say, 1960’s Spartacus (1960), we have a problem on our hands. Director Hideki Takeuchi uses an exaggerated style, and it’s no wonder he is most well known for his work in television, as the lighting he employs resembles that of a TV drama. His version of Rome includes giant cauldrons and pots dangling on street carriages that seem nothing but cheaply artifacts. Everything is extraordinarily large, and not just the architecture (which appeared plaster-like). The overall spectacle is like that of a musical: clearly color-coded, filled with browns and crimson reds, and thematically costumed—not a true-to-life representation. Good for a manga? Perhaps. But not a film that is trying to be taken seriously.

While it certainly isn’t meant to be a realistic story, the kitschy design, and puzzling writing kept us forever in a state of disbelief (unable to suspend it). While under water Lucius thinks to himself, “Gaudy bathhouses are currently the norm…If I can only come up with an innovative idea to smash that trend.” This dialogue sounds rather contemporary, and it doesn’t seem as though screenwriter Shogo Mutu gave much thought to this. It’s understandable to want to keep the flavor of manga in-tact on screen, but alas, story must always remain at the fore and believable on-screen dialogue is crucial to its thriving. Narrative is essential to a seinen piece of work after all.

It’s unfortunate that seinen often lacks sexual content, because it would have been the film’s saving grace. It was clear that Manami had a strong desire for Lucius, but he does nothing but cast her off. At one point, he even throws her across the room. Well, wait a second here. Manami serves as Lucius’ saving grace, and he does nothing but ignore and abuse her? It seems that if anything the story is creating a super-charged version of masculinity—one that men are supposed to drink up like whiskey. Meanwhile, despite the constant dismissal, Manami becomes more obsessed with and admirable of this man. I’m surprised the manga was female-written, as it perpetuates an old-fashioned, sadomasochistic version of patriarchy.

Best two aspects of the film? Opera and old men. While Lucius is time warping into the present, there are hilarious intercuts of an opera singer bellowing some canticle over a grassy meadow. A delight that created a somewhat less serious tone in contrast to Lucius’ grave expression; a statue frozen in agitation. Another point of comedy was the jolly old men (or what he called the “flat-faced tribe”) that Lucius found in the Japanese baths, and their drunken antics. When Lucius first emerges from the Japanese bath, a particular skinny red faced old man says, “You must have been under there for a long time.” Sometimes nothing better than watching a few Grandpas enjoy the simpler things in life to help us enjoy our own.

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Author: Olivia Saperstein

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