Profound moments in inter-cultural exchange …

I watched this movie on the plane returning from Germany, a situation so desperate that even watched two thirds of Battleship. Needless to say, Thermae Romae was much better. Thermae Romae is a Japanese comedy about an ancient Roman public bath (thermae) designer, Lucius Modestus, who somehow slips through time into a modern Japanese bathhouse (onsen), probably in Itami, near Tokyo. Suffering creative block and horrified at the way his fellow ancient Romans treat the baths that they are supposed to love, he gains new insights into bathing culture from his brief time-slips into modern Japan, and after each slip he introduces new ideas to ancient Rome.

For some reason Lucius’s time slips always take him to a bath near or occupied by a young woman called Mami, who is perhaps his love interest. She is an aspiring manga writer suffering similar creative problems to Lucius, and so they inspire and aid each other in achieving success in their own goals. In the process Lucius is also helped by all the old men of Mami’s village, a hilarious bunch of cheerful old lazybones who cheerfully accept every weirdness that comes their way.

The movie incorporates an interesting mix of time-travel gimmicks, under-stated love story, and cultural confusion. Its central conceit is that modern Japanese bathing culture shaped the bathing culture of ancient Rome, which is a hilarious idea done very well. It also gently pokes fun at Japanese notions of cultural superiority: Lucius, obviously played by a Japanese actor, thinks that the Japanese people he meets are slaves (who he refers to as “the Flat-faced Clan”) and is ashamed that slaves from some provincial province have more sophisticated technology and bathing culture than the “unique” Romans. He’s also embarrassed to be copying their ideas, and keeps his sources secret (though the Japanese have never really been embarrassed to admit when they steal ideas). This is also a common misconception about Japan held by foreigners – that they can never invent anything for themselves, but only copy. So it’s a cute turnaround on that idea to see Japanese bath culture being stolen by the Romans. Incidentally, having just returned from the spas in Germany (in Baden-Baden) I can safely say that Japanese bath culture is in every way superior: as Lucius realizes when he surfaces in the bathhouse in Itami, grandiosity is trumped by tranquility when one is intent on bathing.

The love story is gently understated and left open for interpretation by the viewer, and although at times Mami seems to be ignored by all around her, she is ultimately a key part of the plot, helping Lucius to achieve his goals and playing a crucial role in the Roman empire. Both Mami and Lucius seem to be misfits in their own time, and perfectly suited to each other. They also have problems with authority, and both seem to learn from each other’s culture as they seek ways to overcome the problems they have with their own. This development from cultural confusion to shared learning is also a very nice microcosm of the interaction of Japan and the West (though I think the relationship in the movie is perhaps more equal than it has often been in the real world).

This movie is funny and sweet in equal measure, and the first half, particularly, is hilarious. Although I can’t comment on the sets and camerawork, having watched it on a 2″ screen on the back of a seat, the character development and pace are excellent, and the ending is surprisingly good for a romantic comedy. It’s a richly multi-layered movie, being entertaining at the level of simple slapstick, but interesting as an exemplar of a very important part of Japanese culture (onsen), and as a meditation on Japan’s interactions with the West. Plus it has a cute sci-fi element incorporating time travel, usually a recipe for disaster but handled well in this case. The version I watched had Japanese subtitles, and I strongly recommend watching it if you are able!