In an uncertain world, it’s no surprise that people look backwards. With ancient empires crumbling, rabbles rousing and new powers rising, purveyors of bread and circuses are looking to the ancient Roman Empire for entertainment, if not enlightenment, in these troubled times.
After over five decades of flirtation with Rome, from serious series (I, Claudius and The Caesars) to populist pop-ins (Doctor Who), Western TV has Spartacus, a shameless celebration of strength, beauty and iron determination in a brutal world. Japan has also contributed to the sword-and-sandal genre. But instead of reflecting the modern age in the brutality of the arena, Thermae Romae reveals the empires of Rome and Japan through spa architecture. The brotherhood of the baths replaces the brotherhood of blood and sand.
Chicago-based mangaka Mari Yamazaki’s manga about a Roman bath-house architect who discovers a time tunnel into the modern world is a clever reflection of 21st-century Japan’s obsessions and fears in the mirror of pseudo-history. The manga started in 2008 and is still running. Its mix of history, nudity and toilet humour was a natural for animation. After a late-night TV run, director Azuma Tani’s six-episode anime series is now available on Blu-Ray from Asian online stores galore, and doubtless from a thieving pirate near you, complete with extra unaired episodes.
The logical next step was Hideki Takeuchi’s live-action movie, released last weekend. Leading man Hiroshi Abe, looking buff enough for a role in Spartacus, plays the straight man to a cast of shamelessly scene-stealing elders and clowns. With the Roman scenes filmed as close as Toho & co. could get to the real thing – on the fabulous open-air stages of Cinecitta, home to epics from Ben-Hur and Cleopatra to Gangs of New York – the historic sequences look good, and make a great contrast with modern Japan, viewed by Abe’s stuffed-shirt Roman as a land of “flat-faced slaves”.
Fun in ancient Rome doesn’t have to involve industrial quantities of stage blood. Check out the trailer.