Japanese bath culture, from humble home tubs to luxury hot springs resorts, is the most highly developed in the world, as many Japanese will be happy to tell you.
To Lucius, a time-traveling bath house architect from Rome at its ancient height, Japanese baths are an endless fount of wonder, inspiration — and frustration. He is the hero of the Yamazaki Mari comic Thermae Romae (Roman Baths), which has sold more than five million copies in four paperback editions, as well as the new Takeuchi Hideki’s film based on it.
But Lucius, as played by a perfectly cast Abe Hiroshi, 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, he sees a world and a people utterly unlike his own. Though thinking the old men in the bath are “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.
Fired from an architectural practice not long before for being staid and conservative, Lucius incorporates his Japan-inspired innovations into a new bath house — and soon has a hit on his hands. He also comes to the attention of the elderly emperor Hadrian (Ichimura Masachika), who requests his services. Lucius would appear to have it made.
But he is a perfectionist, stiff-necked sort, who clashes with a woman-chasing Emperor-to-be (Kitamura Kazuki) and feels guilty about ripping off the “slaves.” Still, when he is hurled through a watery time tunnel again and again to the slaves’ country of marvelous baths, he sees more ideas he can use, while becoming better acquainted with the natives, including a pretty manga artist (Ueto Aya) 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 it wisely stay 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 traditional communal local bath culture that may strike younger Japanese, used to bathing in lonely antiseptic splendor, as hopelessly fusty, but in Lucius’ fresh eyes regain in their original brilliance.
Also, rather than follow musty Hollywood precedent and cast tony-sounding Brits in the Roman roles, the producers cleverly used Japanese actors with Nihonjinbanare (“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 cartoon Romans, while their presence underlines the film’s 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 perking along, without bringing the plot to a melodramatic boil. Also, the miracles of CGI, as well as the Roman-era open sets at the Cinecittà studio in Rome, populated by as a many as 2,000 extras, bring the world of Lucius and his contemporaries to vivid life. Cecil B. DeMille, the king of Hollywood sword and sand spectacles with their casts of thousands, would have approved.