DVD Review: THERMÆ ROMÆ, The Animæ.
(Are time-travelling hot-tubs a new general topic for comedies?)
Before Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo broke records a few weeks back, the most successful Japanese film was Thermæ Romæ, a ribald and silly live-action comedy about bathing habits which Jason Gorber reviewed here (link).
The film was produced by Fuji Television who had licensed the award-winning manga. But they used that license for something else as well: an anime to fill a January slot in their famed noitaminA evening. As with many of the noitaminA series, it's Australian-based distributor Siren Visual who is the first one out of the gate with an English-friendly version. So what's it about? And did I like it? Read on!
In Rome, about 130 AD, constructor Lucius Modestus is having a hard time keeping up with the changes happening in the empire during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. Lucius' designs for bathhouses are considered outdated and ridiculed.
But when he almost drowns in a bath, he resurfaces in another time, another place, another culture obsessed with bathing: modern-day Japan!
Thinking himself to be visiting an unknown tribe of flat-faced slaves, Lucius is whisked back to Rome after only a few minutes. But he is inspired by the advanced bathing technologies he encountered, and Lucius becomes famous as he implements his new ideas in radically modern bathhouses.
But this brings him to the attention of Emperor Hadrian, who gives him a few impossible tasks to achieve. Luckily, whenever Lucius is very stressed he is more likely to travel back and forth to the flat-faced tribe, who seem to have ingenious solutions for even the most inconceivable bathing problems...
The premise for Thermæ Romæ is one of the weirdest I've ever seen in an anime. Time-travelling back and forth between the Roman Empire and modern Japan just to explore the similarities and differences in bathing practices is odd indeed. Furthermore, what happens to Lucius is never properly explained. Wormhole? Parallel universe? Dreams of a future reincarnation? Don't expect an answer: it all just happens, and the series is about the culture-clashes Lucius' visits cause, not about presenting a valid reason for the time-jumps.
And it has to be said, the series is often laugh-out-loud funny. The stilted animation (more on that later), the unmoving leaden serious face of Lucius, and the ridiculously mundane adventures he gets into once in Japan, it all makes for an hilarious combination. Thankfully the jokes do not depend much on potty-humor. For Japanese audiences, most of the gags involve the fact that an ancient Roman engineer is so surprised by Japanese bathing implements, yet for myself the opposite was also true. Here in The Netherlands we do not really have much of a bathing culture, and most of the things which startle Lucius startle me as well. A shampoo hat? Doesn't that, like, completely negate the whole reason for taking a shower? Covers to keep the heat in a bath? Why? Do Japanese run a bath 30 minutes in advance or something? I mean you fill a bathtub, take a bath, and flush the thing so the next person refills it, right? What the hell do you need a cover for then?
Things like these put me staunchly on the side of Lucius, and the series is all the funnier for it.
As for animation, I'm not sure this actually counts as one. When I started on this review I thought to make a snarky comment about it resembling Flash animations rather than anime, until I did my research and discovered that the whole series actually DOES consist of Flash animations!
So what you get here looks like a PC-adventure game of twenty years ago, or a bunch of irregularly drawn paper bits moved around on a page to simulate movement.
Thing is... it works! It looks like a consistent choice of abstract styles, and a funny one too. Combined with the nonsensical use of classical music for the Roman parts (the score used is only about fifteen centuries off...) it creates a totally daft atmosphere which I enjoyed immensely.
Thermæ Romæ consists of ten half-episodes of about eight minutes each, so the gag doesn't get time to run out of steam (haha) or outlast its welcome. It's an oddity indeed, but based on Jason's review of the movie I get the impression that the anime is a good deal more enjoyable than the live-action version is.
Surely one of the most daft anime I've ever seen, Thermæ Romæ is thoroughly enjoyable if very shallow. Don't expect grand animation or a compelling storyline, but if you're open to its weird atmosphere it is definitely good for a laugh. And I learned a thing or two about Roman and Japanese baths as well...
About The Disc:
Siren Visual has released Thermæ Romæ as a single disc, PAL encoded for region 4 (Australia and New Zealand). There are no extras and the only soundtrack is a Japanese 2.0, but the subtitles are very good and often have to explain things from all over the screen as well. Visually it is a good DVD, but knowing how the series was made I cannot quite shake the feeling that it would probably look even better as an actual Flash animation.
All in all it is a good representation of the series, if incredibly barebones. Come on Siren Visual, throw some trailers for other noitaminA series on there! I mean if people buy this, who knows what else they'd buy?