Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 12th 2013
DVD - Complete Collection
Lucius Modestus, an architect in Ancient Rome, builds baths that most people think are stuffy and old-fashioned. This is the reign of cosmopolitan Emperor Hadrian, and Lucius's baths are sooo Emperor Trajan. Lucius needs to get on the cutting edge fast or he's going to be begging for denarii on the streets. Lucky for Lucius, he develops a helpful little tic: Whenever he has a water mishap (also known as "drowning") he time-travels to modern Japan. Bath-loving Japan is a goldmine of advanced bathing technology, which Lucius, despite his fundamental misunderstanding of what's happening, steals like a bandit. In no time he's the toast of Rome. He even catches Hadrian's eye. Which means the pressure's really on.
Curiously, before watching this comic oddity from the oddity-mongers at Eastern Star, I'd never really considered the subtle differences, in a reviewing context, between the words "stupid" and "dumb." Dumb implies a brute deficit in intelligence. A dumb show is a crude simpleton. It doesn't know it's dumb; it just is. Stupid implies deliberation. A stupid show chooses to be stupid. (Or at least, it can.) A stupid show is a clown, prancing around empty-headed because that's what it wants to do. Thermae Romae is not a dumb show. It is, however, a very stupid one.
That much should be obvious from any basic synopsis of the show. There's no way that a show about a time-slipping bath architect could be anything but silly and pointless. And Thermae is not a show to swim against the current. It embraces goofy frivolousness whole-heartedly, serving up two hours of po-faced gags, cross-millennia culture clashes, and bath-building adventures into which not one iota of gravity or intelligence sneaks. Despite its setting and its time-travel trappings, Thermae Romae is a lot less Ben-Hur or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and a lot more Cromartie High School.
It may seem a little odd to name-drop a forgotten comedy from a heedless time in American anime licensing, but honestly, it's the only anime whose sense of humor comes close to approximating Thermae's. They share a love of nonsense sight gags and visual non-sequiturs (Lucius's rival, the former head architect of the Imperial court, is a badly-drawn elderly blob who is forever frozen in a kind of Ultraman pose), a perpetually poised poker face, and an aptitude for turning primitive animation into self-aware yuks.
I say "the only anime" because outside of anime, there are actually quite a few comedies with quite a lot in common with Thermae. Indeed all it would need is a deadpan dub and it could slip unnoticed into pretty much any comedy block on Adult Swim. Especially once the series leaves its broadcast episodes behind and starts to delve into extra-crude penis humor.
As the series wears on—and even at a mere ten half-episodes, it does wear on—dud episodes become rather more common. The penis episode is pretty much a total loss, though it does have the series' only look inside Lucius's personal life, which naturally ends in a mean gag. We will not speak of the hot-springs murder episode. Okay, maybe we'll mention the Jack Bauer reference. But nothing else.
The freshness of the show's humor also starts to wear off as Thermae wears on. The series' comedic foundation is the clash between its scholarly rendition of Roman culture and its stupid-as-hell premise; between Lucius's grave classical demeanor and the goony situations he finds himself in. And there's only so far that that'll get you. Which is, by my calculation, about six half-episodes—AKA, the show's TV run. Thus the unfunny flailing of the post-TV penis and mystery-parody episodes.
Thermae is an incredibly cheap show. It's Flash-animated—by the same guys who Flash-animated Nyaruani—which means that characters are bendy cardboard cutouts who slide two-dimensionally across backgrounds with severely limited depth of field. The only part of anyone's face that moves is their mouth, and only as much as is necessary for a blah-blah-blah talking effect. The only times the series moves beyond front-on, squarely composed medium shots are the times when Lucius consumes a Japanese bath-time treat and lets off a Mister Ajikko reaction shot.
The series is, however, unusually adept at mining its own technical limitations for fun veins of humor. Lucius looks like a Roman painting trapped in a Flash anime, which I guess is kind of what he is and also pretty inherently hilarious. The deliberate shoddiness of pretty much everything means the show basically never stops mocking itself and that the weird intrusions of quality (there's a slick 3DCG penis talisman that recurs later on) are even more comically incongruous.
Still more incongruous is the show's score, which plunders Western classical music for musical gravitas to flagrantly waste on its stupid gags. Wagner is a favorite, for obvious reasons.
If you're looking for something far, far off of anime's many well-beaten paths, Thermae Romae is a good bet. It is certainly different, and if used right, pretty potently funny. By used right I mean watched with a couple of like-minded friends, preferably while your critical faculties are suitably impaired. Don't expect to emerge enriched by the experience though. Besides picking up the odd tidbit about Roman culture, that is. The show really is weirdly accurate with its history.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C-
Animation : F
Art : B-
Music : B
+ If you're in the right mood or the right company it can be damned fun; incongruously exacting period detail.
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