Details: 108 mins, Japan,
Synopsis: When Roman architect Lucius’ (Hiroshi Abe) bathhouse plans are rejected because they’re not modern enough, he faces a crisis of confidence. But with his discovery of a time-travel portal between ancient Rome and present-day Japan, it seems that Lucius’ luck might just turn around.
A man out of time in a film out of its depth.
JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL: That the biggest film in Japan this year is adapted from a bestselling manga should come as no surprise. For the past few years, the country’s comic industry has spawned a host of film and television adaptations, from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2009 drama Air Doll’, to the Death Note and 20th Century Boys series. Its literary novelists, meanwhile—writers like Haruki Murakami, or Kenzaburo Oe—have had to be content with relatively low-key arthouse adaptations, if anything at all.
That it should be set, at least in part, in Ancient Rome (128 A.D., to be precise) presents a slightly more unlikely proposition. And, as we shall see, an unusually tricky one.
Our hero is Lucius, a disgruntled architect. Now out of work (his designs are considered insufficiently “modern”), he’s reduced to soaking moodily in the very bathhouses he once designed, watching his countrymen splash about, guzzle pastries and have their backs waxed—all of which inspires his rather too-prescient conclusion that “at this rate, the great Roman Empire will fall sooner rather than later.”
Disdaining bread and circuses (and pastries), Lucius is clearly a man out of time—quite literally so, when, submerging himself at the local Thermae for a moment’s peace and quiet, he discovers a portal beneath the water’s surface which transports him to the present-day—and a Japanese sento in the middle of Tokyo, filled with aged ojiisan, frozen in such cartoonish postures of alarm, you can almost see the action-lines onscreen.
Which brings us to the major problem, here. There’s already been an obvious visual dissonance in the Imperial Roman scenes, in having a handful of patently Japanese men—Lucius, his former employer, a colleague—walking around surrounded by white Europeans, with no one seeming to notice the difference. But now there’s a further hurdle to clear, when the modern-day Japanese speak to him (“Hey, where’s your clothes?”) and the “Roman” affects not to understand them, even though he’s clearly of the same race, and is speaking exactly the same language in his voiceover.
(To muddy the waters still further, Lucius later speaks Italian—though none too convincingly—when he meets a Japanese girl with a phrasebook. So . . . what? He thinks in Japanese, but talks in Italian? By this stage, one might be forgiven for suspecting the director is simply making it up as he goes.)
All this could have been avoided, of course, by casting a European—perhaps even a genuine Italian—as Lucius. But then we would forfeit the scenery-chewing performance of star Hiroshi Abe. Who, with his blade-sharp cheekbones and bulging eyes, looks rather like an anime creation himself. And the Japanese film industry, still one of the most insular on the planet, might have to acknowledge an outside world it would, given the choice, much rather ignore altogether.
Initially, some fun is had with his befuddlement. (Wow, there are faucets in the future! And digitally-controlled toilets!) And there’s something amusing about Lucius’s very patrician presumption that everyone he encounters is some variety of slave. But this mild comedy soon palls, not least because most of the film takes place within his own head, with much of the action set to a voiceover that plays tediously on the same, tired joke.
The playing is broad, and the action frequently at odds with common sense. (A group of modern-day women respond to the naked Lucius, emerging from a bathhouse, as if he were Jack the Ripper, rather than simply a handsome, under-dressed young man they’d be more likely to giggle at, or ogle.) And the score is bombastic, in that sub-“Carmina Burana” mode meant to denote the Ancient and Epic. At least, until the climactic scene, on the steps of the Roman Capitol, set to the strains of—I am not joking—Puccini’s 'Nessun Dorma'.
Ultimately, however, any criticism is meaningless. This is a movie made solely for its own domestic audience, a national cinema at its most unambitious and unguarded. It has no business being shown to gaijin; nor, beyond its status as a bizarre and misconceived curio, will it hold any conceivable interest for them.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
A month of movies with an edge. Saturday nights in April.