Who would have thought that there could be an entire movie based around bathing culture? Not me. And who would have thought that its hijinks and hilarity would transcend culture and time? Definitely, not I. “Thermae Romae,” based on the manga of the same name by Mari Yamazaki, released in 2012 and screened as part of the Cinemanga series presented by the Center for Japanese Studies at the State Theatre this semester, may lack character development and an actual plot but the movie is just a whole lot of fun. It’s quite unlike anything else out there and so weird that you can’t seem to look away.
The film starts in ancient Rome where Lucius, played by Hiroshi Abe (“Still Walking”), is an architect struggling to come up with innovative ideas for the empire. While bathing in a thermae (a public bath in ancient Rome), he sits underwater to contemplate on architectural ideas. Suddenly, he is sucked through a hole in the bottom of the pool. And here, the absolute peculiarity of this film ensues.
Intercutting between a large male opera singer belting and Lucius swirling through water, he travels through space and time to modern Japan. He pops up into a Japanese bathhouse filled with elderly Japanese men. Having never seen the Japanese before, the protagonist mistakes them as a group from another part of the Roman Empire. He addresses them as “slaves” and “flat-faced.” The fact that Hiroshi Abe himself appears Japanese only adds to this comic time-space transplantation. Absolutely amazed by the technology of this people, Lucius takes mental notes on their bathing technology. He drinks a Japanese fruity milk in a jar and enters into a state of total awe about how delicious the substance is. After shedding tears over the beauty of this beverage, he is transported back to ancient Rome.
The initial sequence is absorbing, hilarious and completely absurd. Having essentially no knowledge of bathing culture, whether it be Japanese, Roman or whatever other culture, does not impede the enjoyment of this movie. Lucius is transported into this foreign world in the same way the viewer is thrown into the unknown realm of public baths. While learning about Japanese bathing culture, the viewer is engrossed by Lucius’s struggles in modern Japan and can’t help but laugh at the film’s oddities, whether they be a grown man crying over fruit-flavored milk or how an opera singer accompanies his travel through the worm hole.
Lucius travels back and forth between current Japan, where he gathers bathing ideas, and the Rome of antiquity, where he implements them to the emperor’s approval for the majority of the film.
However, the movie starts at about 100 miles per hour and just can’t keep up the pace. By midway through, the bathing culture jokes quickly lose the firepower they once had and the loose plot keeps an ever-waning interest. A large conflict introduced two thirds of the way through the movie only serves to create a vague climax in which Lucius architectural prowess is tested.
“Thermae Romae” is worthy of a watch if only to experience a rare and totally authentic weirdness, which it doesn’t try to be but rather just is.