What do the old Romans and the modern-day Japanese people have in common? What is it that binds these two cultures together so much that it can spawn an entire film? This question may stump you at first, but Terumae Romae goes all-out to answer exactly that. Hideki Takeuchi delivers a comedy that embraces its outrageous premise and moulds it into a pretty coherent story about time travel and public baths.
The answer to the question is pretty simple really: both cultures love their baths. The Romans are still known for their thermae while the Japanese are one of the few cultures left today where (mostly elderly) people still go to public baths, while the rest of the country is driving off into the country to enjoy a good onsen (Japanese for a natural hot spring spas). It's a perfect excuse to bring both cultures together, the problem is that they live about 2000 years apart from each other.
While Takeuchi takes director's credits, the film owes a lot to the source material drawn and written by Mari Yamazaki. A lauded manga that quickly spawned an anime series and this live-action equivalent. The film remains pretty faithful to its source throughout, with many of the jokes and plot points taken directly from the manga. Takeuchi's own input may be a bit meager for those who read the manga already, but all in all he does a good job translating Yamazaki's vision to the screen.
Terumae Romae follows Lucius, a passionate thermae architect born in the wrong era. Lucius' designs are old-fashioned and while he favors peace and quiet the other Romans want more animation and services added to their thermae experience. Lucius' world is turned upside down when he is warped to modern-day Japan where he learns about Japan's bath culture. Lucius is pretty unaware of what exactly is happening to him, but he recognizes the potential of what he sees and whenever he travels back to his time he revolutionizes the Roman thermae, turning him into an overnight sensation.
Visually Terumae Romae is a pretty accomplished film. Takeuchi clearly had a decent budget to work with as he did he pretty fine job brining old Rome to life. Not in a very epic way mind, but the scenes in Rome still carry a level of realness I didn't immediately expect from a film like this. There's a clear difference in the visual approach between the two time periods (the scenes in Rome are a lot warmer dominated by reds and oranges while the scenes in modern-day Japan look cooler, characterized by blues). The camera work is decent and while the CG can be a little flaky at times, it's hardly in the way.
The soundtrack is pretty pompous, but used to great comic effect. Takeuchi chose a pretty classical selection of tracks, drawing a lot from (famous) opera music. Bits from the ever popular "Madame Butterfly" opera (Magnetic Rose - Memories) are featured throughout and some pretty funny opera inserts are used whenever Lucius travels through time. A pretty good (and fun) soundtrack, though not too original.
Crucial to the film's success is Hiroshi Abe who plays the perfect Lucius. He is one of the few Japanese men who can pass for a Westerner and his stern face fits that of a Roman thermae architect perfectly (not that I'm an authority on the subject). I'm usually pretty indifferent when watching Abe, but he really shines here, aptly translating the wonders of Lucius' experience through just a few facial expressions. Aya Ueto isn't half bad either and fans of Takashi Miike will definitely appreciate the Riki Takeuchi cameo.
The first half of the film is pretty episodic, somewhat betraying the film's source material. It isn't until the second half of the film that a story starts developing and while still pretty fun, I definitely preferred the funnier, less coherent first half of Terumae Romae. While the drama in the second part isn't bad and there are still enough funny bits to pass the time, some of the plot points feel a little too obligatory and the film definitely could've done without them.
Terumae Romae is a film that survives on the comic whims of Hiroshi Abe and the excellent premise cooked up by Yamazaki. It's an entertaining film that doesn't outstay its welcome, spreads its funny bits rather tactically and tacks on a decent second half. It's a bit hard to tell how much of the film's success can be attributed to Takeuchi's work, but looking beyond the input of the director this film is guaranteed fun.