2012, TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System), 146 min, Japan, Dir: Shinji Higuchi, Isshin Inudo

In 1590, powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Masachika Ichimura) seeks to unify all of Japan under his rule. One of the last holdouts is Oshi Castle - often referred to as the Floating Castle – which is surrounded by an enormous lake. Hideyoshi sends his right-hand man, General Ishida (Yusuke Kamiji), and 20,000 soldiers to take the castle, which is defended by only 500 men. The death of his father leaves control of the castle with Narita Nagachika (a bravura Mansai Nomura), but the clumsy child king fails to gather the support of any of the other samurai except childhood friend Tanba (Koichi Sato). But Nagachika refuses to acquiesce to Hideyoshi’s army, and through a mix of self-deprecating humor and unconventional tactics, he is slowly able to connect with the people and fight alongside the hardened samurai who once doubted him. Half David-and-Goliath, against-all-odds jidaigeki and half broad slapstick comedy, FLOATING CASTLE pays tribute to films like Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (or even 300) while also being cheeky enough in its homage to have fun with its character archetypes. While the film packs in the action and laughs (especially from Nomura’s wild antics), there is also a rather stunning flood sequence that was the cause of an 18-month delay to the theatrical release. When viewed in light of the tragedy of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, it makes for one of the most somber and powerful scenes in Japanese cinema this year. In Japanese with English subtitles.

2012, Pony Canyon, 108 min, Japan, Dir: Hideki Takeuchi

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were its baths. Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) is a bathhouse architect in 2nd-century Rome. Having difficulty coming up with a design that will please Emperor Hadrianus (Masachika Ichimura), he comes across a time-travel portal while unwinding in one of his bathhouses. Lucius is promptly whisked away to a bathhouse in present-day Tokyo, where he marvels at the modern bath culture of the Japanese. Taking ideas and inspiration from the showers, saunas, hot springs, Jacuzzis and fruity milk bottles of contemporary Japan, he goes back to ancient Rome and revolutionizes bathhouse design, gaining the favor of the emperor and citizenry in the process. But as Lucius goes back and forth between Rome and Japan, he gets caught up in the lives of suffering manga artist Mami (Aya Ueto), as well as his own emperor, who has become the victim of a widespread conspiracy to overthrow him. Filmed in part at Rome’s Cinecitta Studio and based on Mari Yamazaki’s popular manga series, THERMAE ROMAE is a fun and funny dedication to the Japanese obsession with cleanliness, bolstered by a pitch-perfect comedic performance by Abe as the wet and naked Roman architect. In Japanese with English subtitles.

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