Big Man Japan (大日本人, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007)

big man Japan posterBeing a superhero is not all it’s cracked up to be. After all, with great power comes great responsibility and responsibility, well, it’s kind of a drag. The debut feature from comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, Big Man Japan (大日本人, Dai Nipponjin) is the story of a modern day gladiator – a slave and a prisoner, forced into an arena to fight “monsters” intent on causing widespread destruction, but usually being the cause of that destruction himself. Poor old Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto) is not much of anything at all, but bears all of his respective burdens with stoic resignation.

Shot in mock-documentary style, the film keys us in to Daisato’s predicament slowly as he lovingly looks at an umbrella or a packet of dried seaweed before adding that he likes them because they “only get big when you want them to”. The fact is, Daisato is the sixth in a line of superheroes known as Big Man Japan. Every time disaster strikes and there’s a scary looking monster about to pound Tokyo, Daisato has to hightail it to the nearest power station, undergo a lengthy, bizarre, and completely pointless ritual before jumping into a giant pair of purple pants and being pumped full of electricity which eventually causes him to grow to colossal size.

Yet unlike Batman, or even the obvious point of inspiration, Ultraman, Daisato is not particularly public minded and submits himself to this unpleasant treatment out of a sense of duty and tradition. Daisato’s grandfather, the Fourth, was the kind of superhero everybody loves – strong, clever, dependable, but more than that he was a fun guy to be around. Under the Fourth, superheroing was a laugh and a mini industry all at once. Asked why they bother with the strange ritual before Daisato transforms (given that they’re pushed for time), the old timer looks wistful and remarks that everything was much better when Four ran the show.

These days Four (Taichi Yazaki) is a doddery old man with dementia whom Daisato leaves in an old people’s home whilst feeling guilty about not being able to look after him. Occasionally Four goes rogue and causes havoc by beating up innocent buildings and generally destroying things that don’t need to be destroyed. Daisato maybe a monster fighting superhero but he’s no match for Japan’s ageing population and the increasing demands of elderly care.

Daisato bears his responsibilities with resignation rather enthusiasm. His father, unlike Four, had a lust for fame, repeatedly zapping himself to try and be bigger and stronger but eventually just zapping himself to death. Yet even whilst unhappy about being forced into his life of mercenary monster hunting, Daisato still wanted his kid to take over the Big Man Japan name – only his kid’s a girl who doesn’t actually like her dad very much and gets picked on at school for being the daughter of Japan’s most rubbish reality TV star. Daisato’s superpowers have led to the breakdown of his marriage as his wife has left him, unwilling to allow her child to be zapped with electricity and sucked into Daisato’s abnormal world. She’s moving on, going with the mainstream and looking to hook up with a decent, reliable sort of guy.

Even the documentary maker occasionally seems exasperated at Daisato’s passivity and general malaise. The monster hunting battles are not just in service of protecting the people of Japan but also a major TV event, though it has to be said that Daisato is not very popular and the few people who like him do so precisely because of his perseverance in the face of constant failure. Daisato has a manager of sorts, who drives expensive looking cars, has two expensive looking dogs named “simplicity” and “delicacy”, and is intent on selling each and every spot in Daisato’s giant torso to advertising sponsors landing him with tattoos advertising fresh goods right on his chest and back. Eventually Daisato ends up angering the public still further when he kills an incredibly cute, apparently harmless monster in a moment of panic.

Daisato is, in many ways, a victim of his culture as he feels compelled to put up with constant mistreatment in service of duty and tradition, seeing himself as the last in a long chain of ancestors he’s never been able to live up to and whose powers he will probably not be able to pass down to a successor of his own. In one particularly worrying episode, the mysterious forces which control Daisato do not even bother to contact him but break into his house for a spot of non-consensual zapping which destroys Daisato’s entire home leaving him with nothing. Being big in Japan is actually being very, very small. Poor old Daisato can’t seem to catch a break, but maybe there is one just waiting to catch him.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dead or Alive: Final (Takashi Miike, 2002)

dead_or_alive_final_jap_chirashiThe Dead or Alive Trilogy began in a furious, drug fuelled hymn to violence in which a petty vendetta between the opposing forces of good and evil (mingled and bloody) eventually destroyed the entire world. Dead or Alive 2: Birds was an altogether more contemplative affair in which two orphaned boys rediscover each other as jaded hitmen and decide to put their talents to “good” use by donating the hit money to pay for medicinal drugs for impoverished children around the world. Strange and surreal, Birds moved beyond the first film’s absurd ending for an altogether more abstract approach to universe building but Final pushes the idea to its limit in a cyberpunk infused far future tale of rogue robots and sexual dictatorship.

Yokohama, 2346. A new society is being forged, a new social order has been created. All powerful Mayor Wu (Richard Chen) has decreed that the only true love is gay love and made heterosexuality taboo. Births are strictly controlled to maintain population numbers with contraception ruled mandatory. The heterosexual resistance has gone into hiding in a ruined part of the city, living in a free love commune in which the birth of children is a primary goal. Lead by Fong and his first lady Jun, the resistance aims to liberate the people from the yoke of the crazed dictator and create a better, freer world for the as yet unborn children of the future. Teaming up with a rogue “Replicant”, Ryo, (Sho Aikawa) the gang attempt to further their cause by kidnapping the young son of Wu’s chief of police, Honda (Riki Takeuchi), who later discovers some uncomfortable truths about his own existence.

The use of the world “Replicant” is a pointed one and an overt reference to Final’s key text – Blade Runner, though its intentions amount much more to a pastiche than an examination of the existential questions so central to the seminal cyberpunk classic. Online captions state the action is taking place in Yokohama – an industrial harbour town close to Tokyo, but is in reality a thinly disguised Hong Kong with a green tint. Nevertheless, Miike makes the most of rundown industrial complexes now overrun by nature and the symbols of historical hubris. Aside from the flying cars and other CGI touches, the dystopianism is all too real in its sense of economic and social failures which have allowed a man like Wu to run a strange fascist police state even in the absence of the necessary infrastructure.

In keeping with the Hong Kong setting the Yokohama of 2346 is largely Chinese with broad mix of intermingled languages. Once again the nature of family is called into question but this time more through a large scale change in the social order which sees birth strictly controlled through medical and cultural enforcement. The largely Cantonese speaking resistance movement want to create a world where children can be born and then grow up freely, neatly echoing the previous films’ preoccupation with the fates of children as considered by orphans. Aside from their idealism, the Resistance turns out not to be so far removed from the petty gangsters of the previous instalments as they ultimately turn on each other with deadly consequences.

Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi face off once again with Aikawa playing a Rutger Hauer-esque android who proves his “humanity” through his affiliation with children. A “Replicant” from a long forgotten war, Ryo has superpowers which allow him to stop bullets in mid-air or send out sparks of energy but is also at home playing the clown as he brushes his teeth nonchalantly in the middle a fist fight or plays dead to entertain a little boy. Takeuchi’s Honda, by contrast, is the stereotypical gestapo inspired secret police chief whose family life is a hollow one devoid of genuine feeling and maintained solely for professional expectation.

If Miike has been playing Blade Runner all along, his finale jumps ship for Tetsuo: The Iron Man as the trilogy’s leading men relive the totality of their experiences across three different plains of existence before merging into one as a kind of angel of destruction. The cycle of violence has reached its apotheosis as the twin angels are sent to wreak revenge on those who have misused their authority. Shot on high grade video, Final makes the most of its more modest production values but can’t help suffering in comparison to its predecessors. The B-movie opening is a helpful clue to Miike’s intentions as he creates his own kind of sci-fi dystopia inspired by pop culture memories, but even if the overarching themes lack integrity, Final provides the perfect ending for this often frustratingly absurd series, defying rational explanations until the end of time.


Available now in UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Takashi Miike, 2000)

dead-or-alive-2-birds

How do you make a sequel to a film which ended with the apocalypse? Takashi Miike is no stranger to strange logic, but he gets around this obvious problem by neatly sidestepping it. Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Dead or Alive 2: Tobosha) is, in many ways, entirely unconnected with its predecessor, sharing only its title and lead actors yet there’s something in its sensibility which ties it in very strongly with the overarching universe of the trilogy. If Dead or Alive was the story of humanity gradually eroded by internecine vendetta, Dead or Alive 2 is one of humanity restored through a return to childhood innocence though its prognosis for its pair of altruistic hitmen is just as bleak as it was for the policeman who’d crossed the line and the petty Triad who came to meet him.

Signalling the continuous notions of unreality, we’re introduced to this strange world by a magician (Shinya Tsukamoto) who uses packets of cigarettes to explain the true purpose of a hit ordered on a local gangster which just happens to be not so different from the plot of the first film. Because the gangster world has its own kind of proportional representation, neither the yakuza nor the Triads can rule the roost alone – they need to enter a “coalition” with a smaller outfit no doubt desperate to carve out a little more power for themselves. The free agents, however, have decided on a way to even the power share – hire a hitman to knock off a high ranking Chinese gangster and engineer a turf war in which a proportion of either side will die, leaving the third gang a much more credible player.

Mizuki (Sho Aikawa), bleach blond and fond of Hawaiian shirts, is an odd choice for a secret mission but his sniper rifle is rendered redundant when a man in a dark suit does the job for him – loudly and publicly. So much the better, thinks Mizuki, but the memory of the strangely familiar figure haunts him. Finding himself needing to get out of town, Mizuki has a sudden urge to go home where he encounters the suited man again and confirms that he is indeed who he thinks he is – childhood friend, Shuichi (Riki Takeuchi).

Revisiting an old theme, Mizuki and Shuichi are orphans but rather than being taken directly into the yakuza world they each spent a part of their childhood in a village orphanage on an idyllic island. Miike frequently cuts back between the violent, nihilistic lives of the grown men and the innocent boyhood of long hot summers spent at the beach. The island almost represents childhood in its perpetual safety, bathed in a warm and golden light at once unchanging and eternal. Reconnecting with fellow orphan Kohei (Kenichi Endo) who has married another childhood friend, Chi (Noriko Aota), the three men regress to their pre-adolescent states playing on the climbing bars and kicking a football around just like old times.

Returning to this more innocent age, Mizuki hatches on an ingenious idea – reclaim their dark trade by knocking off those the world would be better off without and use their ill gotten gains to buy vaccines for the impoverished children of the world. In their innocent naivety, neither Mizuki nor Shuichi has considered the effect of their decision on local gangland politics (not to mention Big Pharma) and their desire to kill two “birds” with one stone will ultimately boomerang right back at them.

Innocence is the film’s biggest casualty as Miike juxtaposes a children’s play in which Mizuki and Shuichi have ended up playing a prominent role, with violent rape and murder going on in the city. Whether suggesting that the posturing of a gang war is another kind of playacting, though one with far more destructive consequences, or merely contrasting the island’s pure hearted fantasy with the cold, hard, gangland reality, Miike indulges in a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of childhood with its straightforward goodness filled with friendship and brotherhood rather than the constant betrayals and changing alliances of the criminal fraternity.

The question “Where are you going?” appears several times throughout the film and perhaps occurred to Mizuki and Shuichi at several points during their journeys from abandoned children to outcast men. Neither had much choice in their eventual destination and if they asked themselves that same question the answer was probably that they did not know or chose not to think about it. All of these hopes and ruined dreams linger somewhere around the island’s shore. Kohei is about to become a father but the birth of a child now takes on a melancholy air, the shadow of despair already hanging over him. There is no way out, no path back to a time before the compromises of adulthood but for two angelic hitmen, the road ends with meeting themselves again and, in a sense, regaining lost innocence in shedding their city-based skins.


Out now in the UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dead or Alive (DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者, Takashi Miike, 1999)

dead or alive
Prolific as always, Takashi Miike released four feature length films in 1999, in addition to working in TV and video. Dead or Alive (DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者, Dead or Alive: Hanzaisha) came out within the same year as Miike’s seminal Audition and though it is the latter which has gone on to define his reputation, the Dead or Alive Trilogy is equally responsible for the director’s ongoing popularity. Following the Black Society Trilogy the finale of which, Ley Lines, was also released in 1999, Dead or Alive returns to the world of orphaned exiles and Chinese gangsters, men looking for family in all the wrong places and finding only loneliness, rage, and disappointment. Criminal or cop, everyone is looking for the same old thing but for one reason or another it continually evades their grasp.

Late ‘90s, Shinjuku night life. Miike captures all of its sordid glory in a wordlessly frenetic opening sequence which begins with a naked woman falling off a building and ends with the exploding belly of a noodle loving Triad. The Shinjuku gang scene is a large and complex one but this tiny corner is about to be torn apart by the opposing forces of petty Chinese gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi) and veteran policeman Jojima (Sho Aikawa).

A little later, the major antagonist – yakuza boss Aoki (Renji Ishibashi), asks a drugged up woman he’s immersed in a pool of her own excrement he himself extricated by means of a series of enemas if she’s high or if she’s come down. Drugs are always on the periphery from the bag in the hands of the falling woman to the deluded hopes and dreams of everyone who’s had the misfortune to find themselves here but Miike takes things one step further and structures his film like the inverted bell curve of a strange trip. The relentless pace of the opening sequence with its constant noodle refills, cocaine excess, and eventual bathroom sex and murder combo gradually winds down giving way to the comfortably numb central section in which Jojima and Ryuichi mirror and circle each other in the murky Shinjuku streets but, as he often does, Miike refuels for an angry, increasingly bizarre final sequence as two men whose quests have cost them everything they were fighting to protect prepare to burn the world rather than see the other live another day.

Ryuichi, like many a gangster hero, is an orphan. His major motivation is a desire to protect his delicate younger brother whom he has sent abroad to study in the hope that he will be catapulted into a successful middle class life while Ryuichi takes over the criminal underworld. Toji (Michisuke Kashiwaya) has returned, but such close proximity to his brother’s darkness may have destabilising consequences for both of them. Ryuichi’s “family” is a constructed one made of other similarly lost or discarded kids of Chinese descent, all looking for a home when neither of the two which present themselves is willing to offer them full acceptance but there is no unconditional love here, betrayal is an easily applied judgement met with a harsh and irreversible punishment.

Even if Ryuichi’s world is cold, Jojima’s may be colder. Despite his wife’s pleas he sleeps on the sofa and seems to have a difficult, strained relationship with the family his life is founded on protecting. Jojima’s reasons for continuing to avoid his marital bed are unclear whether from simple consideration of his strange policeman’s hours or the hushed phone call his wife receives which suggests she may be seeking comfort outside the home, but the one thing which is clear is that this is a family already deeply fractured. Adding to the strain, Jojima’s daughter is seriously ill and his wife has worked out that they will need an enormous amount of money for her treatment. Jojima continues to proclaim that he is “working on it” and will find the money somewhere, reacting angrily to his wife’s desperate suggestion of asking her family for a loan. Wanting to save his daughter himself, he ventures ever deeper into the criminal underworld, crossing the line from law enforcer to law breaker.

Miike operates a tightly controlled approach to pacing after the frenetic opening, slowing right down before exploding in a flurry of gun fire for the climactic shootout (flying chicken feathers and all) and then taking a break until the bonkers finale with its self amputations, mysterious bazookas and strange power orbs. Dead or alive, these are men living in a furious purgatory each denied the very thing they’ve been searching for, but in the end they mirror each other, locked in a vicious cycle of rage and violence which threatens to engulf us all.


Out now in the UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1988)

discarnatesNobuhiko Obayashi is no stranger to a ghost story whether literal or figural but never has his pre-occupation with being pre-occupied about the past been more delicately expressed than in his 1988 horror-tinged supernatural adventure, The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Ijintachi to no Natsu). Nostalgia is a central pillar of Obayashi’s world, as drenched in melancholy as it often is, but it can also be pernicious – an anchor which pins a person in a certain spot and forever impedes their progress.

Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama) is a successful TV scriptwriter whose career is on the slide. He’s just gotten a divorce and seems to be conflicted about the nature of his new found bachelordom. As if he didn’t have enough despair in his life, the closest thing he has to a friend – his boss at the TV station, tells him he thinks it’s better if they end their professional relationship because he plans to start dating Harada’s ex-wife and it would all get very awkward.

Feeling unloved, Harada takes a trip to his hometown on a location scout for another project and takes in a few familiar sights along the way. It’s here that he runs into a youngish man who looks just like Harada’s father did when he was a boy. Not only that, accompanying his new found friend home, the man’s wife looks just like his mother, but Harada’s parents died when he was just twelve years old. The mysterious couple are glad to have him in their house and treat him with the warmth and kindness that seemed to have been missing in his life, leaving him the happiest and most cheerful he’s been in years.

Now in a much better mood, Harada feels guilty about rudely dismissing the woman from upstairs who’d come to visit him the day before. Apologising, Harada strikes up a friendship and then a romance with the equally damaged Kei (Yuko Natori) but even if his mental health is improving, his physical strength begins to deteriorate. Looking pale and old, Harada’s teeth rot and fall out while his hair loses its color. Even so, Harada cannot bear to pull himself away from the warmth and security that was so cruelly taken away from him when he was just a child.

Harada doesn’t start off believing that the mysterious couple really are his late parents, but if even if they weren’t these two people who are actually younger than him take him in as a son, feeding and entertaining him. When Harada returns a little while later confused by what exactly has happened, his mother immediately treats him as a mother would – physically taking off his polo shirt and urging him to remove his trousers lest they get wrinkled from sitting on the floor. Having lost his parents at such a young age, Harada has been a adrift all his life, unable to form true, lasting emotional bonds with other people. Lamenting his failure as a husband and a father, this very ordinary kindness provides the kind of warmth that he’s been craving.

However, there is always a price to be paid. Harada’s visits become increasing tiring, taking a physical toll on his ageing body. Each hour spent in the past is an hour lost to the dead. His parents are both dead and alive, existing in a strange, golden hued bubble filled with the comforting innocence of childhood free from the concerns of the adult world. Yet each time Harada succumbs to his weakness and goes to visit them, he is doing so as a way of avoiding all of his real world problems. According to one of Harada’s scripts, the past becomes a part of you and is never lost, but memory can be an overly seductive drug and an overdose can prove fatal.

Contrasted with the warm glow of the post-war world of Harada’s childhood home, his life in bubble era Tokyo is one filled with blues and a constant sense of the sinister. Harada believes himself to mostly be alone in the apartment block save for a mysterious third floor light that hints at another resident who also favours late nights over early mornings. The light turns out to belong to a lonely middle-aged woman, Kei, who is also a fan of Harada’s work. Kei has her own set of problems including a wound on her chest that she is too ashamed to let anyone see. Ultimately, Harada’s self-centred inability to lay the past to rest and fully take other people’s feelings into account will deal Kei a cruel blow.

Harada sees everything with a writer’s eye. His childhood world is a dream, but his life is a film noir filled with shadows and misery. His environments appear too perfectly composed, like a TV stage set and, as if to underline the fact, at the end of each “scene” the colour drains from the screen to leave a blue tinted black and white image shrinking into a rectangle and disappearing like the dot going out in the days when television really did close down overnight. Whether any of this happened outside of Harada’s mind or reflects a constructed reality he wrote for himself in the midst of a mental breakdown, his dilemma is an existential one – return to childhood and the side of his parents by accepting the death of his present self, or say goodbye to remnants of the abandoned child inside him and start living an adult, fully “fleshed” life by killing off this unattainable dream of a long forgotten past which never took place.

Filled with melancholy, longing and regret, The Discarnates is the story of a hollow man made whole by coming to terms with his traumatic past and all of the ways it’s influenced the way in which he’s lived his life. Harada’s parents treat him as their twelve year old son, barely acknowledging that he’s a middle aged man with a teenage son of his own. They feel regret for all of the thousand things they were never able to teach him though they are unable to see the full depths of his inability to escape his interior bubble for the wider world. Unsettling, though not as obviously surreal as some of Obayashi’s other efforts, The Discarnates is one of his most melancholic works speaking of the danger of nostalgia and all of its false promises whilst also acknowledging its seductive appeal.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

His Motorbike, Her Island (彼のオートバイ彼女の島, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)

His Motorcycle Her IslandLike many directors during the 1980s, Nobuhiko Obayashi was unable to resist the lure of a Kadokawa teen movie but His Motorbike, Her Island (彼のオートバイ彼女の島, Kare no Ootobai, Kanojo no Shima) is a typically strange 1950s throwback with its tale of motorcycle loving youngsters and their ennui filled days. Switching between black and white and colour, Obayashi paints a picture of a young man trapped in an eternal summer from which he has no desire to escape.

Ko (Riki Takeuchi) tells us that he’s an unusual guy because most people dream in colour but all of his dreams are in monochrome. He’s a student and dispatch rider overly attached to his admittedly very handsome Kawasaki motorbike. After getting beaten up by his boss due to deflowering the guy’s sister and then breaking her heart, Ko skips town for the open road, just him and his bike. However, he repeatedly runs into the same mysterious girl who lives on an equally mysterious island and develops a deep seated need for her, secondary only to that for his bike. Miyo (Kiwako Harada) has also taken a liking to the Kawasaki and is intent on getting her full motorcycle license. Her growing obsession with the bike threatens to become an all consuming need driving a wedge between the two young lovers.

Obayashi begins in a black and white sequence window boxed in the centre of the screen before expanding to 4:3 when Ko has his fight with his boss and only hits 16:9 for the first colour scene which sees Ko taking off on his beloved bike. He told us that his dreams are in black and white but the film seems to disagree with him, segueing into various gradated colour schemes as Ko narrates his melancholy tale of tragic lost love. Ko is not necessarily a very reliable narrator in any case, but in each instance the on screen action is always coloured by the recollections of the older man who offers his voice over commentary.

Like many Obayashi films, the overriding feeling is one of melancholy mixed with a youthful apathy.  This is a story about modern young people, but refracted through rebellious ‘50s movies from Rebel Without a Cause to The Wild One and a hundred others inbetween. Ko is a university student (of what we don’t know) but seems to have no great ambitions. He takes things as he finds them and his only passion is the bike itself. When he first meets Miyo and she asks him where he’s going, he simply replies that he’s “looking for the wind” – a motif which recurs throughout the film.

Later on when he arrives at Miyo’s island, it takes on an opposing symbolism to his bike. Just as Miyo can’t get enough of the Kawasaki, Ko is originally attracted to the island much more than to the girl. It’s not quite a coincidence that each time he visits there it’s the Bon festival where the dead are temporarily allowed to return to the world of the living. Later he says that Miyo wasn’t just a girl but an island, and he wan’t just a boy but a bike, and together the two of them became the wind. They became one entity, inseparable one from the other. Finally the esoteric colour scheme begins to make sense, we’ve been watching a ghost story all along. This island is an unreal place, existing only inside Ko’s memory where Miyo waits for him with a full tank of gas.

Once again youth is seen as a brief yet unforgettable period filled with longing and regret. The older man is forever trapped by this one glorious summer, a place to which he can never return but neither can he escape. The nihilistic tone and voice over narration have an edge of the French New Wave but ‘50s American cinema of alienation seems closer to Obayashi’s intentions. An elliptical and strange tale of tragic love retold as a ghost story, filled with phantoms of memory and landscapes coloured by dream and emotion, His Motorbike, Her Island is another characteristically offbeat effort from Obayashi which once again embraces the aimlessness of youth and age’s regret.


Unsubtitled trailer – goes through to a video of Kiwako Harada singing the title song, in case you were in any doubt what this movie is for.

Or, here is the film’s opening (which also features the title song)

Thermae Romae

THERMAE ROMAE-T

Lucius ambulat in Tokyo? Review of improbable time travel comedy Thermae Romae up at UK-anime.net.


Pop quiz – what do modern day Japan and Ancient Rome have in common? Fish sauce? Emperor worship? Sandals? More than you thought, wasn’t it? Well, the correct answer is public bath houses and sure enough the people of modern day Tokyo still love going to the public bath even though they enjoy the luxury of being able to bathe at home! Of course, bath house culture with all its social and political uses and divisions was one of the things the Roman Empire took with it wherever it went. However, there must have been a time when some Romans began to feel their baths were getting a bit stale and in need of a new ‘modern’ twist, but what to do? What if they could leap forward in time and learn from the 21st century bath culture of modern Japan! Enter down on his luck architect Lucius who suddenly finds himself in a strange land full of strange looking people who seem to have taken bath technology to its very zenith.

Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe) is a once successful bath architect with a case of serious designer’s block. Replaced on a prime project because he’s been unable to come up with any ideas he decides to go for a soak at the local bath house but whilst clearing his head underwater he finds himself sucked through a passage way only to reappear in a very strange looking place – it’s a bath house alright, but not as we know it! As they’re speaking a strange language he doesn’t understand, Lucius assumes the elderly men bathing here must be slaves and he’s been sucked into the “slaves only” part of the baths. Some of this stuff is kind of cool though – what are these funny spigot like things for, and these handy little buckets? Wait – they have baskets for their clothes?! We could do with some these in our bit! And so Lucius experiences the wonder of public bathing in Japan to the extent that it makes him cry with joy at which point he returns to Ancient Rome and begins to put some of these techniques to use in his designs. Travelling back and fore, Lucius always seems to run into the same Japanese girl who wants to make him the star of a manga and group of kindly old men. Can Lucius finally build the bath house of his dreams and stop a conspiracy against his beloved Emperor Hadrian at the same time?

Based on Mari Yamazaki’s manga of the same name (which also received an anime treatment from DLE), Thermae Romae sticks fairly closely to a fish out of water format for the the first half of the film as Lucius becomes by turns confused and then entranced by the various pieces of modern bathing technology he encounters on his travels. As a Roman encountering other people who are obviously not Roman, he of course adopts a superior attitude and assumes these people are either slaves or ought to be and so is extremely bewildered that their advancements seem to have eclipsed those of his own beloved Rome. These situations obviously provide a lot of room for humour as Lucius encounters various things that seem perfectly normal to us but strange and alien to him – his pure joy at discovering the wonder of the multifunctional Japanese toilet being particularly notable. It does though become fairly repetitive as Lucius finds himself in different situations which are essentially the same joke in different colours but then when the plot element begins to kick in later in the film it too fails to take off and feels a little too serious when taken with the wacky time travelling antics we began with.

Aided in his quest Lucius meets several amusing supporting characters including the group of elderly men from the baths who didn’t really need the help of an improbable ancient Roman to get themselves in trouble and Mami who functions as a kind of love interest who’s cast Lucius as the hero in her next manga. Mami begins learning about the Roman Empire and takes a course in Latin which helps a lot when she too finds herself in Ancient Rome and facilitates a kind of cross cultural exchange as she steals ideas from Rome for her manga as Lucius stole for the baths. However, the romantic comedy element never really comes together and even as Mami continues to pine over her noble Roman, Lucius remains aloof in the universal belief that all non-Romans are inferior. Though he does come to grudgingly acknowledge that the ‘flat faced people’ as he calls them have particular strengths such as their willingness to work as a team and put collective success ahead of personal gain, he never quite sheds his Roman arrogance.

It’s all very silly but undeniably quite funny if often absurd. We hear everyone in Rome speaking in Japanese and Lucius continues to think in Japanese wherever he actually is but obviously once he gets to Japan he can’t understand what anyone’s saying and attempts to communicate with them in Latin (whilst still giving his interior monologue in Japanese). Likewise, when Mami learns Latin she uses it to communicate with Lucius in Japan but once they get to Rome, all their ‘Latin’ is Japanese too which causes problems when the old men arrive because they’re speaking the same language as everyone else yet can’t understand anyone or be understood – which might be why they don’t get to say very much other than to Mami. It’s all quite strange and disorientating but kind of works as does the largely Puccini based score which screams 19th century Italy much more than Ancient Rome but helps to give the film the air of classical pomposity it’s aiming for. Big, ridiculous, silly fun – no one could accuse Thermae Romae of having any kind of serious message but it does provide genuinely entertaining silliness for the majority of its running time.