The catalyst for blogging while I’m on holiday appears to be in-flight movies. My only other post over this break of mine was when the only option of movie to watch was some awful Eddie Murphy comedy, so I busied myself with writing about Space Bros instead. On my flight back to Ireland though, thankfully each seat had their own TV screen and wide selection of movies. After first gorging myself on the Hunger Games (verdict: while the survivalist part holds that same base appeal that zombie apocalypse stories do, I struggled to take the story as seriously as it took itself), I was rather shocked to discover that one of the other movies was the live action Thermae Romae. I was quite taken with the flash shorts that aired earlier this year, so I figured it was worth a shot.
It was refreshing after the “this is serious fookin’ business” of Hunger Games to watch Thermae Romae go about things with its air of self-aware seriousness. It’s such silly little things that I enjoyed about its tone. For example, whenever Lucius would transfer from Rome to Japan, it would be intertwined with a fat Italian opera singer standing in a field, bellowing some Pavarotti song. One of the times Lucius disappeared down a plughole, the opera singer was enjoying a cup of tea in the field before the music started, so quickly had to put on his jacket and stand in place before he could start singing. It doesn’t feel forced or irritating because the show always has this tone of seriousness with Lucius as the main character that meant it was easy to be swept up in his fascination through the silliness of his actions.
This movie made me realise how great a character Lucius truly is. He has all these same qualities he had in the flash shorts too. This constant internal struggle with his pride and his desire for culture and creativity. There’s points in both the movie and the flash shorts where his awe at the flat-faced slave’s bathing technology is so overwhelming that he starts to break down at the failure of his own culture that he had previously considered to be its crowning triumph. It’s rather remarkable how such a silly and overused concept brought about highly original character motivations and arcs. He goes in too far by stealing their innovations that he is incapable of backing out, especially once he gets the Emperor’s backing, but is racked by the guilt of doing this and his own failures of coming up with ideas that match those of the ones he steals.
One thing the live-action loses from the flash shorts is the hyper exaggerated facial expressions of Lucius, along with some of the more extravagant visual metaphors that comes much easier with animation. That said, it is still flash shorts, so the animation is pretty limited anyway and hardly a plus point. I much prefer live action Lucius because the actor absolutely fucking nails the role. In a movie where nearly every other actor suffers from the usual Japanese issue of terrible overacting, Lucius is this vision of calm and poise. The inspiration for his character seems to be in classic roman marble statues, and more than once he adopts a pose that I’d recognise from famous roman art. You know, stuff like him down on one knee, head bent and fist under his chin. Also completely naked, and my god is he ever attractive. The actor was apparently a model before he became an actor. His body certainly looks like it was chiselled from marble.
Asides from Lucius and his incredibly sexy body, one key area where the movie differs from the flash shorts is it has a story, with beginning, middle and end. The flash shorts played it fairly safe. It stuck with the concept and played up repetition, which worked surprisingly well, even if it did leave me with a strong desire for more episodes and some sort of conclusion. Thermae Romae, being a fairly large budget movie (by Japanese film standards anyway), it needed to feel more like a movie plot. This means it comes with the inevitable love interest and cheesy monologues and the other requirements that are about as eyeroll inducing as they sound. They might be in the original manga, I wouldn’t know, but it sure felt like movie original material. To be fair to the movie, I thought they did a good job integrating the love interest into the story thematically. She’s a failing manga artist who draws inspiration from her next manga in the same way Lucius draws inspiration from his trips to Japan. The actor is kinda bad though, and she’s weirdly accepting when she gets transported to Rome and fitting in perfectly with the locals. Also I don’t care how good your crash course was, nobody learns Latin that quickly.
There are a handful of other flaws too. For one, it’s rather ageist. All the old dudes in the bathhouses are portrayed as doddering old idiots. They’re all kind, but it’s presented in a bit of a patronising way. I suppose the flash shorts were ageist too, but the cartoony nature meant I guess it didn’t bother me. There’s also the other fact that the movie kicks off with Lucius attending a hot steamy roman bath with hundreds of naked men engaging in slapping each other on the back and wrestling, which gives the uncomfortable feeling that I’m watching a gay porno. A feeling only intensified by the fact I was on a plane where people could see what I was watching. Actually the movie has a lot of male nudity, but it’s mostly just Lucius, which I didn’t mind because he’s so handsome and charming and beautiful and toned and *drools*
*cough* umm thematic depth yes. While I may be critical of the love interest part, it does play into the overall theme perfectly. Thermae Romae is an exploration and celebration of culture, using bathhouses as the area to zero in on. One running thread through the movie is how the Emperor is trying to bring peace to the Roman Empire by spreading their culture rather than using their military force, which the movie presents as being the ultimate ideal. The movie ends on a very positive note that stems from Lucius and the modern girl both learning from each other’s cultures to gain happiness and success in life. It’s got interesting things to say about culture, considerably more than the flash shorts had to say, which I think make up for some of the mistakes it makes. It’s well worth checking out if you liked the flash shorts.
Also it has this man.