A Nipponese time-travel fantasy in which sumo wrestling, electronic toilets and other cool Japanese inventions find their way into ancient Roman spas, “Thermae Romae II” nonetheless proves a less wacky follow-up to its similar-themed predecessor. Hideki Takeuchi, who helmed the 2012 screen adaption of Mari Yamazaki’s bestselling six-volume manga of the same title, has ditched his source material for a brand-new storyline. Yet, it’s as if he’s thrown out the baby and kept the bathwater, as everything from the jokes to the gaudy visuals feels secondhand. Locally, the pic scooped up $37.3 million in five weeks, but beyond Taiwan and Italy, overseas biz might amount to a mere trickle.
Set in Rome, 128 A.D., “Thermae Romae” (which means “Roman Bath”) depicts the adventures of architect Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe), who accidentally travels to contempo Japan and brings back new ideas for his bathhouse designs. So successful is he that he wins accolades from Emperor Hadrianus (Masachika Ichimura) and helps Rome emerge victorious in war. The sequel begins years later, when Hadrianus’ pursuit of peaceful foreign policy and cultivation of spa culture ushers in a relaxed climate. However, senators bent on world domination think a soak in the tub will drain men of their warlike instincts, and they perceive Lucius as a threat.
Reluctantly tasked with building a spa for gladiators, Lucius oozes contempt for their bloodsport, which turns into pity when he sees the pain and exertions they must endure. As in the first installment, while having a dunk himself, Lucius is sucked into a mysterious portal and re-emerges in the locker room of a sumo wrestling team. Upon his return to Rome, he implements new technology at the Colosseum, such as massage chairs and bath salt therapy. But most important of all, he passes on the sumo principle of exciting spectators without bloodshed.
The clash between Lucius’ compassionate nature and dirty Roman politics lends a humanist dimension to the pic’s frivolous cultural in-jokes. But this theme is watered down by sillier episodes, like Lucius’ first ride down a pool slide; his first experience of konyoku (unisex baths); and a bidet gag that proves less side-splitting than a similar one in the first film.
At least these gimmicks achieve some quirky parallels between ancient Roman and contempo Nipponese washing facilities. Other yuks, such as Lucius’ awestruck discovery of ramen (“yellow strings in broth!”) and gyoza (“little burnt buns!”), are hardly relevant, exposing the limits of Takeuchi’s imagination in contrast with the manga’s witty and erudite setpieces. Comical gestures that spiced up the first movie — like the whimsical switches between Latin and Japanese dialogue, or the operatic arias sung by fat Italians — amuse less the second time around.
Lucius’ love interest Mami (Aya Ueto) also returns, and just like before, he bumps into her pretty much anyplace with a faucet. Sadly, their romantic arc never takes off; Ueto breezes through her scenes with ditzy charm, but her raison d’etre is often limited to being Lucius’ guide to history and modernity. Abe carries himself with a noble air, but given the number of times he bares his marble-like glutes and pecs, it’s clear he’s been cast for mere eye-candy purposes. The supporting characters who enriched the historical background in the first film leave almost no mark here, with the exception of Ceionus, the dastardly heir to the empire. Rambunctiously played by Kazuki Kitamura, he gains greater prominence with his portrayal of titillating sexual ambiguity.
With Cinecitta Studio again enlisted for the Roman sets, Kazunari Kawagoe’s lensing captures classical architecture with painterly majesty. Scenes set in contempo Japan have the budget-conscious look of TV productions, though location shots of Kusatsu Onsen, a regional hot spring with retro Showa decor, will have exotic appeal for foreign auds. Other tech credits are ok.