It was the second highest-grossing Japanese film of 2012. It's a live-action adaptation of an award-winning manga about which I've heard nothing but praise and indeed I'll soon be buying it. (It's only six volumes, so reading it shouldn't take too long.) There's also an anime series, although I hear that that's only six ten-minute episodes and barely animated anyway.
I didn't like it. I want to read the manga partly to compare it with the film's mistakes.
Imagine a Roman/Japanese version of Hot Tub Time Machine, but with less plot. Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) is an architect in ancient Rome who's just been sacked for being too strait-laced and traditional. He can't keep up with the times. However he's about to find that he appears to have a time tunnel connecting 21st century Japan with his bath. Any bath. If he gets in the bath, he might find himself in Japan. What he sees will astound him, and that's without cuddle cafes, ganguro or octopus flavour ice cream.
Back home, he's about to acquire a reputation as a wild and crazy inventor.
The film's first half has no plot. Hiroshi Abe goes back and forth in time. He doesn't connect with anyone in Japan (although there's a girl who becomes interested in him.) He sees stuff. He's surprised. He goes back home. That's the loop. You could see it as another kind of "what foreigners think when they visit Japan" story, which has always been popular over there. They know their country has a reputation. Lucius sees a Japanese Penis Festival, for instance. However there's also the twist of an ancient Roman worldview. He reveres baths even more than Japanese people do (which is a lot) and he assumes everything's slave-powered.
The only thing carrying the film's first half is Hiroshi Abe, really. It's effectively a one-man show. Not only does he have no meaningful conversations with anyone in his Japanese scenes, but that wasn't even that an option. He only understands Latin. (The manga and live-action film get around this in slightly different ways. In the manga, one of the characters already understands Latin due to being a Roman Empire nerd. In the movie, Aya Ueto's character becomes fluent by reading 'Latin For Dummies'. I leave it up to you to decide which is more implausible.)
Furthermore, Lucius is a pretty stiff person. He's narrow-minded, unimaginative and insensitive. He's also very very very serious. He's fiercely proud of his work and has enormous integrity, but it's unsurprising when his wife leaves him. Lucius being surprised by Japan is a decent enough joke, but I'm not convinced that I'd call its repeated iterations a story. The real backbone of this movie is Lucius's professional pride and how he struggles with the work he's given and the lies he thinks he's telling everyone. I can respect that. The film believes in it.
However the result is that the Japanese characters feel tacked-on, including Aya Ueto. They're nice people (except Riki Takeuchi) and they fit well enough in Japan, but they don't connect with Lucius or with the Roman storyline and I didn't really care about any of them. I also didn't think Ueto was particularly good.
The director deserves a few brickbats, I think. He was nominated here for Best Art Direction at the Japanese Academy Awards, mind you. Tomoko thought the film looked great. It's certainly true that it looks far more expensive than most Japanese movies, with lots of location shooting in Italy and a solid period reconstruction. Furthermore the Roman characters are all either Italians dubbed with Japanese voice actors (which works very well) or Japanese accents who've been chosen for their intense, un-Japanese facial features. (That includes Hiroshi Abe himself.) There's a brooding brow in this film that's a wonder in itself. However in storytelling terms, I don't see this as a completed work. The Japanese characters range from "wasted" to "kind of annoying".
Hiroshi Abe does strong work within the slightly unsympathetic constraints of his role, though. (He won the Best Actor Award here from the Japanese Academy.) It's effectively a silent movie performance at times, with magnificent intensity. Oh, and I was fascinated by the contrast between the Italian actress playing his wife (with fiery Latin body language) and her dubbed Japanese voice. It's like seeing a translation of the untranslatable.
To the film's credit, despite being all about public baths it avoids female nudity. Naked men all over the shop, mind you, albeit with no sausage shots. I also like the way it doesn't cheat with the language barrier.
Plot objection: you can't grow banana trees from a banana. It is a fruit and it does contain seeds, but they're tiny, sterile specks. That's with modern, commercially grown bananas, anyway.
Apparently there's a less-successful sequel film, which goes on past the manga and invents a new story. I don't plan to watch it. However I should admit that I was watching this is Japanese without subtitles, so I imagine I'd have enjoyed it more had I understood 100% of all the dialogue. (I followed the story, but I can't pretend I picked up everything in the discussions of architecture in ancient Rome.) Maybe I'll rewatch it after reading the manga? I still don't think it's good, but it's not without modest charm. Tomoko enjoyed it and it's always worth watching Hiroshi Abe.