reviewed by Tom-Tom
Before Hot Tub Time Machine, there was Thermae Romae, a manga written by Yamazaki Mari, who is married to an Italian. Fun antics between her and her Italian in-laws are major themes in some of her manga series. Her most known work is Thermae Romae, a charming tale of a time traveling Roman named Lucius played by mostly naked gusto by the model turned actor Abe Hiroshi whom Japanese fondly call “Abe-chan.” In the first film, he was a lonely civil engineer in the Roman empire circa Emperor Hadrian’s rise. When asked to improve the life of Roman bathers, Lucius takes a long think in the bath and is frighteningly sucked into a whirlpool of time. His arrival in modern day Japan in a random hot spring or bath is prefaced by a humorously overlong aria by an Italian tenor dressed to the nines singing in some random nature filled location for no apparent reason other than it is goofy and random. Lucius observes the Japanese customs such as having a painting of Mt. Fuji in the hot springs, having washlets attached to the toilets, wearing wide brimmed shower caps to keep shampoo out of the eyes etc. His innocent observations of Japan from both a Roman and 2nd Century AD point of view are quite funny as well as his arrangements thereof with what he has at hand to work with in his own time. Unfortunately most of it makes use of slaves in lieu of electricity. Every time he travels to the present, he meets Ueto Aya’s character, a foil for the manga author herself. They have a cute if innocent relationship. She eventually joins him in his travels back to Rome. She teaches herself Latin (which thankfully for historical reasons, he speaks when around Japanese reverting to Japanese only when around other Roman for audience purposes) and uses it to speak with him and learn about his ways.
In Part II, his adventures continue as he is asked by his liege to find some respite for wounded gladiators, bath options for children, and appropriate eats for bathers. Each of these episodes once again are full of fun humor across times and cultures. I found the Roman innovation for the whack-a-mole game quite hilarious if sad. At the heart of the picture is once again, a love of bathing and hot spring cultures and how, despite glaring distances of geography and time, Japanese and Romans share this one thing together. There is an appearance of a famous hot springs masseuse whose giant thumbs have healed the worn bodies of a many a Japanese. His thumbs up statue is a not uncommon sight across Japan. It’s hilarious to see his likeness rubbing the back of a Roman Emperor. It’s also a laugh and a half to see ramen noodles being scarfed by Roman Soldiers in full armor. This time, the sporadically intervening tenor has his own little family drama which is completely unrelated to the rest of the action on screen. Keep watching to the end of the credits for some extra random hot spring footage of, um, natural usage. These two films are a love letter to a firmament of Japanese bath culture and as they strive with humor and storytelling to make a case for its universality.