Director: Nagisa Ôshima
Screenplay: Nagisa Ôshima, Paul Mayersberg
Based on a Novel by: Laurens van der Post
Starring: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson
Country: UK, New Zealand, Japan
Running Time: 123 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
From early in his career, Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima was known for stirring things up a bit. Though his films were quite diverse in style and subject matter, more often than not he would hit on certain taboos and trouble the censors with graphic or controversial content and themes. His 1976 film In the Realm of the Senses (a.k.a. Ai no korîda), for instance, was famous for a shocking scene of sexual violence that raised the eyes of even the most desensitised audiences.
I must admit though, as well-known and highly regarded as Ôshima is, I’ve somehow managed to never watch any of his films. I’m slightly ashamed to admit it, given my love of Japanese cinema, but there are only so many hours in a day I guess. Arrow Academy have given me a chance to redeem myself though by offering a screener of his 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence to review. I must admit, I was a little hesitant at first though. I certainly wasn’t worried about any disturbing or controversial content I know the director was famous for. In fact, my apprehension was for quite the opposite reason. With a big star (David Bowie) leading the cast, largely English dialogue and a period war setting, I was always of the opinion that Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was Ôshima’s ‘sell-out’ Hollywood Oscar-bait movie and would lack the edge of his more daring Japanese work.
Thankfully, I was surprised by how unusual the film was, though I wasn’t completely sold on it. Before I divulge, let me describe the film’s narrative though.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence sees the titular character (played by Tom Conti) acting as a liaison officer in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Speaking excellent Japanese, he is the middle-man between the camp’s Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano, in his feature film debut) and his own Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson). It’s a privileged position and the Japanese respect him, though they disagree on certain levels about how one another should be treated and Hicksley often fights with Yonoi, much to the annoyance of Lawrence. The balance is nonetheless kept fairly steady, until Major Jack Celliers (Bowie) arrives, that is.
Celliers is a headstrong soldier that refuses to kowtow to his captors, but Yonoi is strangely captivated by him. Though not explicitly spelt out, he seems to harbour a sexual attraction to Celliers, on top of other fascinations. As some of the special feature interviews suggest, Yonoi might also be drawn to Celliers’ strange beauty that mirrors his own obsession with perfection and purity. Celliers does not share this attraction though and continues to clash with the Captain, taking advantage of the favoured position Yonoi’s interest places him in. This toying around can only be taken for so long though before Yonoi snaps and Lawrence also gets into trouble as the man caught between the pair.
The story was loosely based on the real-life experiences of Sir Laurens van der Post, whose novels ‘The Seed and the Sower’ (1963) and ‘The Night of the New Moon’ (1970) formed the basis of the Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence screenplay. With the actual Laurens being a multi-linguist who acted as a liaison in a prisoner of war camp, much like Lawrence in the story, the film maintains a wonderfully balanced account of the situation. Most prisoner-of-war movies paint the captors as evil villains, but this is more complex. The Japanese can be tough, but they’re very much human and we learn of cultural differences that make sense of many of their actions. We also see the flaws of the European/Australasian captives. Hicksley, for instance, is too set in his ‘stiff-upper-lip’ ways to make reasonable compromises with the Japanese, leading to him and his soldiers being put in grave danger.
Another key character in this even-handed approach is Hara. In the opening scene, we see him trying to force a Korean soldier to commit harakiri after raping a Dutch captive. It’s an intense and brutal sequence, with Hara coming across as cruel and heartless, but later when we hear him and Lawrence discuss his actions and point of view, we discover he’s actually just a regular guy acting as he feels appropriate. Surprisingly he becomes one of Lawrence’s closest friends and confidants in the camp, uttering the titular phrase partially in a key scene in the mid-latter portion of the film and then again fully in an incredibly poignant yet understated final scene.
There are many ways you can read into the film too, particularly with regards to the Yonoi character and his obsession with Calliers, as mentioned in the synopsis. So it’s an intellectually stimulating film, not a straight-up account of life as a prisoner-of-war. A simple approach would be to see it as a call to the importance of learning about another culture, before judging it, and coming to an understanding or compromise rather than clashing. This is still an important message today, of course.
The performances are largely decent, with Bowie perfectly cast as the curiously attractive Celliers and Kitano pulling off the difficult feat of being equally aggressive and sympathetic. Ryuichi Sakamoto (another rock star in the cast) gives a nuanced performance as Yonoi, though I found his over-the-top make-up off-putting. Conti is also excellent as the film’s anchor. He didn’t speak a word of Japanese in reality so had to learn those lines phonetically. Reportedly he did such a good job, most Japanese people he met after the release of the film presumed he was fluent.
The film is finely crafted too, with some often quite stylish cinematography and careful composition, particularly in scenes with Yonoi, reflecting his obsession with perfection.
There is a flashback sequence later on that is particularly stylised, but this segment was one of my sore-points with the film. On a superficial level, having Bowie play a late-teenage version of his character (after a young actor plays an early-teenage version) is a bit ridiculous, but I also found the sequence didn’t settle with the rest of the film at all. It’s a little overbaked and there’s a lot of singing which was overproduced, causing me to think it had turned into a full-blown musical at first, and the scene took me out of the film in general.
A few of the narrative turns and detours didn’t gel for me either. It’s hard to put my finger on what didn’t work and why, but the film felt disjointed and a little distancing, so I wasn’t particularly moved by it, other than the final scene with Lawrence and Hara, which is perfectly pitched.
Overall though, it’s an unusual and richly textured spin on the prisoner-of-war drama. It didn’t always hit the mark for me, feeling a little fragmented and disengaging, but overall I found it fascinating and beautifully made.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is out now on Blu-Ray, released by Arrow Academy on 15th June. The grain is quite heavy in a few exterior shots, but largely this looks nice, with a damage-free print and attractive colours. Audio is robust too, with both the original mono audio and a remastered 5.1 track available.
There are quite a few special features included on top of this:
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
– Original uncompressed stereo audio
– The Man Who Left His Soul on Film (1983), Paul Joyce’s 82-minute documentary profile of Nagisa Oshima
– The Oshima Gang (1983), a 30-minute documentary following the film’s cast and makers at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival
– Video interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas and actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto
– Exclusive newly filmed interview with critic Tony Rayns
– Original theatrical trailer
– Image gallery
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sam Hadley
– FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Jasper Sharp
The Man Who Left His Soul on Film is the big draw here. It’s a rather intellectual film, so can be a little frustrating if you’re after a straight-up history of the director’s work, but it is illuminating. The documentary spends a fair amount of time discussing Japan and Japanese culture and how they differ to the west in general, as well as how they changed through Oshima’s life. It’s largely made up of clips from his films that made me keen to dig deeper into his oeuvre.
The Oshima Gang is a more straight-forward piece on the making of the film, but none the worse for it. The archival interviews are all interesting too.
Tony Rayns’ interview was my highlight though. He provides a lengthy 45-minute overview of Oshima’s life and career that’s easier to digest than the aforementioned documentary on the director.
I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that.