Film #64: Thermae Romae (2012)

20120903-174159.jpgaka: テルマエ・ロマエ
Director: Takeuchi Hideki
Language: Japanese and some Latin
Length: 108 minutes split between two flights
Watched on: 13th and 17th of August

I watched this film on my short flight from Japan to Korea last month. It’s relatively new, and I’ve seen a lot of posters around Tokyo advertising it, so I was mildly surprised to discover that the version they were showing on the plane had English subtitles already. But of course, this was in-flight entertainment, so for one thing, you could hardly see the subtitles on the screen – and for another, every time the cabin crew made an announcement (which they would inevitably repeat in Japanese, English and Korean), the film stopped. So somehow, on a 2:30 hour flight, I wasn’t able to complete a 1:40 film – surely they can’t have had FIFTY MINUTES worth of announcments?! In fact, I still had a full half an hour left of the film by the time we landed (I was able to finish the film on the way back), and I don’t know how they managed to pause my film so much, unless it’s actually because they managed to run ahead of schedule. Korea was nice, and cheap, incidentally, although I wouldn’t want to stay there over Japan. But this isn’t my travel blog. I should really get me one of those.

So this film, which literally translates in Latin to “Roman Baths”, is apparently based on a manga. It involves a time-travelling Roman called Lucius, who gets magically transported to modern Japan. It just so happens that he’s an influential architect of bathing facilities in his own time, and when he travels to Japan, he picks up various ideas for things that one can do with plumbing. Hilarity ensues, essentially. He also meets an attractive young Japanese woman – they seem to be fated to be together or something, because wherever he shows up in Japan she’s somewhere around. And later in the film she gets transported back to Rome. And then somehow because he’s taken ideas back with him from the future, he’s going to change the past.

Overall, the plot was quite simple to follow, and the film is meant to be a comedy, so probably shouldn’t be taken so seriously, but I have a few issues with it, primarily nitpicky historical things, perhaps, but issues nonetheless. I should start by clarifying a few things about the film and the way it’s structured: basically, all the major Roman characters are played by Japanese actors – Hiroshi Abe plays the main character, for instance – although racewise they tend to look at least ambiguous compared to the Japanese characters, and the main character’s inner monologue calls the Japanese “the Flat-Faced clan” and assumes that they must be slaves because they don’t look Roman. A lot of the extras seem to be European, though. Everyone in the Roman age speaks Japanese, in some kind of translation convention – but when Lucius is transported to Japan, although his inner monologue is still in Japanese, he can’t understand anyone else, and the few lines that he actually speaks are in Latin. Later, the girl learns Latin and they have a short conversation. But when the Japanese characters are transported to Ancient Rome, there’s no language barrier, suddenly. Got that? No, I didn’t think so.

Anyway, because there are only about 15 lines of Latin in the film, presumably to be less of a tax on the brains of the actors, you essentially end up with an almost mute character of the main character – his inner monologue keeps going, describing all the things around him, but he’s surprisingly calm for someone who’s suddenly found himself in a strange foreign country with no warning. This kind of bothered me. If it happened to me, I’d be shouting all over the place and incredibly confused. But he somehow takes it all in his stride.

As for the Latin itself, I was reasonably impressed. I’ve never had training in spoken Latin, so I don’t know how it’s supposed to sound, but it seemed reasonably accurate. They did have quite a strong Japanese accent when they did speak it, though, and there were a couple of pronunciation issues in my mind, at least with the question of whether they were using Classical pronunciations or not – the character’s name, Lucius, in particular, would be /lukius/ rather than /lusius/.

In terms of other nitpicky problems I had with the film, these included the fact that Lucius somehow knows that the AD date is 135 – and yet the AD system wasn’t invented for another two or three hundred years after that, and the fact that they use carbon dating with a time-travelling object to verify that it was made in the second century. Carbon dating works by measuring the passage of time by radioactivity, so an object that skips two thousand years would lose out on that. The third inaccuracy I’m not so sure about, but I couldn’t help thinking that black Roman citizens (seen as extras in the background of some larger crowd scenes) weren’t actually a thing, and that if you had black people in Ancient Rome, they’d have probably been slaves. But feel free to prove me wrong on that point. I genuinely don’t know. Anyway, I’m willing to bet that anyone who’s studied more Classics than me could easily pick out a slew of other anachronisms, perhaps in the way people dressed or in the architecture.

The other thing is, the plot later in the film becomes one of Changing History, and the essential thrust is that if they pull together and build a big bathhouse in the right place, then war will be averted? Or something? The plot point was quite contrived, and depended on the minutiae of the relationships between the bigwig characters like Emperor Hadrian. It felt like something that was potentially quite well researched, but to me was just something to leave me confused.

Overall, the film was OK, anyway; basically what I expected from a film about time-travelling Japanese actors pretending to be Romans. The comedy was sometimes subtle and sometimes quite overt (jokes about Japanese toilets, especially), and sometimes quite slapstick – for instance, there was a leitmotif involving an opera singer whenever time travel happened, but by the end of the film he can’t be bothered getting out of his chair anymore. It wasn’t quite laugh-out-loud hilarious at any point, but overall I enjoyed it. And I like the fact that for once I can actually see a modern Japanese movie and keep up with the times – it’s something I rarely get to do, what with expensive cinema tickets to films that would have no subtitles, so I’m quite thankful for the fact that I get the chance to watch movies like this on planes sometimes. It doesn’t come with a shining recommendation from me, but it was enjoyable.

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One Response to Film #64: Thermae Romae (2012)

  1. Torco says:

    Actually blacks weren’t all slaves in ancient Rome: sure, some of ’em were, but as far as I know race wasn’t an issue for the Romans in the sense that it is for western civilization nowadays: you’re a civilized roman or you’re a half-human beast, and that’s that. of course, blacks ‘happened’ to be not so civilized, but that’s because they were *nubians* [shudder], not because of colour.

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