Once again we find ourselves in ancient Rome at the time of Emperor Hadrian’s rule. The now famous bathhouse architect Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) is commissioned to rebuild/redesign the bath facilities in the colosseum, which now provide ample relief from the aches and pains the gladiators face. While observing the dank and gloomy thermae, Lucius realizes that he is without innovative ideas as to bring about his own bathhouse philosophy. While thinking hard, he suddenly slips again through time and resurfaces in a sumo wrestlers bathhouse in Modern Japan. Mami (Aya Ueto), who is now a writer covering bathing culture – even though she has not given up on her dream of becoming a manga artist, quickly reconnects with Lucius in his quest for innovative ideas. Back in ancient Rome a political confrontation is brewing. Some senators, who favour a strict expansionist policy, want Emperor Hadrian (Masachika Ichimura) and his pacifist position gone. Hadrianus asks Lucius to build a thermae than will ensure peace in the Roman empire. Are the senators able to stop Lucius in his quest of building a peace ensuring bathing paradise?
The narrative of the second movie is, in contrary to its predecessor, not really based on the source material provided by Mari Yamazaki’s bestselling manga. The choice for a brand-new storyline, while staying (somewhat) true to the manga chapter style of the first movie and true to some of the jokes present in the manga, ultimately delivers a more natural flowing narrative. As a result the chapter-like approach feels less disjointed in reference to the main storyline. A second reason why the narrative has a better flow is because there’s no need to introduce characters or explicitate relations between them anymore. The first movie serves as a foundation, which gives the second movie a freedom to produce a new narrative, within the boundaries (e.g. characters and relations between them) sketched out by the manga. Thermae Romae II remains thus faithful to the main axis, that structures the manga and the first cinematographical product : for every problem, a bath will provide the solution.
Like in the first movie, the humour and how it becomes effective depends on the position one has in relation to the narrative (See our review of Thermae Romae and note 1). For western viewers, who’re not as knowledgeable in Japanese bathing culture, this anachronistic narrative proves once again to be a very fun introduction – we could call it a follow-up course – to the specificity of Japanese bathing culture.
Thermae Romae II boasts a more broader approach to humour, which ultimately makes it a better comedy narrative. Whereas in Thermae Romae Lucius’ interpreting of Japanese bathing culture was almost the sole source of comedy, the second movie infuses this interpretative humour, which is as funny as it was in the first movie, with more slapstick styled humour. And instead on relying almost solely on the staging of Lucius’ thinking, a shift is made to the aspect of explicit miscommunication (i.e. Lucius speaks Roman, the Japanese don’t understand him) – we say explicit as one could say that the premise of the entire manga and the movies is based on an implicit but fundamental misunderstanding, one that gives rise to Lucius’ activity of interpreting. The quite funny miscommunications show for instance that respect is only ever a function of language, structured by the symbolic. In other words: different languages, different symbolic Orders cause the miscommunication concerning the level of respect. Furthermore, Lucius recreations of Japanese baths with Roman technology, as it was in the first movie, are a delight to discover. This time we even get to see an Japanese influenced Roman bath paradise, with a serious wink to the Hokusai’s dream of the fishermen’s wife. Thermae Romae II, like its predecessor, doesn’t boast an extraordinary cinematography. But once again the cinematography successfully supports the staging of comedy, by way of the effective framing of Lucius’ facial expressions while he explores Japanese culture – yeah, Thermae Romae II ventures in other cultural aspects too. It’s not that the expression aren’t funny in themselves, but their funniness is enforced by the way in which they are focused on, given a particular scene. The supportive cinematography together with the more broader approach concerning humour makes thermae romae II a for more effective comedy than its predecessor. To conclude this section it’s interesting to point out that Thermae Romae II has better special effects than the first movie (which featured some awkward rendered masses of people); the rendering of the Roman skyline, and the overview of palaces, colosseum and other buildings are a tad more believable.
Thermae Romae II is not only a worthy successor to the very successful Terumae Romae, it’s an improvement in every aspect; every aspect (story, humour) fits more tightly, ultimately leading to a more natural flowing narrative and more effective comedy. Because this narrative is not based on the actual storyline presented in the manga, one could argue that the movie takes too much liberties in respect to the source material, but the coordinates set out by the first movie ensure that Terumae Romae II stays true to the spirit of the manga narrative. For people who’re not really acquainting with Japanese bathing culture, Thermae Romae II provides once again a funny and absurd introduction into Japanese bathing culture. It gives, just like the previous movie, the viewer a look into the wonders of the very specific Japanese bathing culture. And, in the end, thermae Romae II could very well serve as an advertisement for the Kusatsu Onsen ( http://www.kusatsuonsen-international.jp/en/ ) – see what I did here. Notes: Note 1: Concerning this hypothesis, we should add the following. A Japanese viewer could also follow Lucius’ exploration from his Roman perspective. A Japanese viewer has thus the choice in finding absurdity in the way Lucius interprets the Japanese bathing culture (like we posited in the review of Thermae Romae) or in finding absurdity in the Japanese bathing culture itself, by way of Lucius’ exploration. Nevertheless, because western viewers and Japanese viewers have a different set of symbolic coordinates, an apparent difference in the way they experiences the narrative remains. In fact, no subject experience a movie in the same way, even if they share the ‘same’ cultural symbolic coordinates.