Two years after Hideki Takeuchi surprised unsuspecting film fans with his rather faithful live action adaptation of Thermae Romae, he is back with a sequel. Double the fun, double the baths, double the bare butts. Don't expect a major twist or entirely new direction, Thermae Romae II [Terumae Romae II] is a near-replica of the original film, once again remaining close to the source material. And as it turns out, that's not such a bad place to be.
The source material might not have been that easy to adapt to a live action feature format, but Thermae Romae's concept is pure comedy gold, so when the first film turned out alright a sequel was bound to happen. Takeuchi didn't tinker much with the original formula, reserving the first hour for more fragmented gags and the second one for a simple but passable storyline. A smart choice since Thermae Romae is first and foremost a comedy.
Once again Thermae Romae starts off in ancient Rome. Lucius (the thermae architect) is tasked with designing a soothing bath for the gladiators, not much later he's travelling "back" to modern-day Japan to learn some tricks from what he calls "the flat-faced clan". The first hour is spent traveling back and forth, with Lucius visiting a sumo bath house, a water park, an onsen village and a Japanese toilet. Inspiring trips that are translated to slave-powered labor back in Rome.
Half-way through a story starts to form around the successor of the Roman emperor. Lucius ends up in the middle of a vicious coupe and will need all his wits and bath smarts to unearth the truth. It's nothing too serious and the plot never runs very deep, always keeping the comedy front and center, but for a 2 hour film you need something to hold everything together and that it does well. If all of this sounds familiar, that's because it plays out exactly like the first film.
Visually everything looks a little slicker, a little more polished than the first one. Takeuchi does a pretty great job bringing old Rome to life (on a small scale of course, this is no Gladiator) and while the CG is still a bit too obvious in places, overall the film looks good. Not only that, Takeuchi also mixes in some fun and quirky visual gags. Add some smartly framed shots, beautiful lighting and detailed settings and what you get is a pretty attractive package.
The soundtrack too is a carbon copy of the first film. Most of it is pretty forgettable, light-hearted background music, but once Lucius starts traveling through time the opera/classical music bits return. I'm still not entirely sure I understand the point of these scenes, but they add a lot of character to the soundtrack and they're an overall fun addition to the film, so you don't hear me complaining.
Much of the film's appeal rests on the shoulders of Hiroshi Abe, who reprises his role of Lucius. This time around, Abe's looks are even sterner, his puzzlement even more thorough and his stature even more God-like. He's still a perfect match for his character and probably one of the only Japanese actors who could've pulled it off. The secondary cast is fun too, in particular one or two ancient-looking Japanese men (the recluse and the master) who are simply beyond adorable.
Thermae Romae II feels like coming home. If you've seen (and liked) the first film, this feels like rewatching one of your old favorites, only with different gags, a different plot and looking a bit more polished altogether, more in line with your slightly exaggerated memories of the first one. Seeing both films back to back would probably ruin that experience, so it's really best to leave some time in between watching both films.
While it's probably best Takeuchi stops the series here, this second film was anything but redundant. It's a nice reprise of the original film, only slightly better, slightly funnier and slightly more well-rounded. What it wins there, it loses in originality of course, but if you're fine with watching an alternate version of the first Thermae Romae, that shouldn't be much of a problem. I'm already looking forward to see what Takeuchi is worth when he moves on to his next project.