Synopsis: In this captivating, exhilaratingly skewed World War II drama from Nagisa Oshima (In The Realm Of The Senses, Empire Of Passion), David Bowie (The Man Who Fell To Earth, Basquiat) regally embodies the character Celliers, a high-ranking British officer interned by the Japanese as a POW. Music star Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also composed this film’s score) plays the camp commander, who becomes obsessed with the mysterious blond major, while Tom Conti (The Duellists; Reuben, Reuben) is British lieutenant colonel Mr. Lawrence, who tries to bridge the emotional and language divides between his captors and fellow prisoners. Also featuring actor-director Takeshi Kitano (Sonatine, Fireworks) in his first dramatic role, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a multilayered, brutal, at times erotic tale of culture clash that was one of Oshima’s greatest successes.
eyelights: David Bowie. Tom Conti. its observations on honour and the morality of wartime.
eyesores: Ryuichi Sakamoto’s performance. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score. the thick Japanese accents.
“You are the victim of men who think they are right… Just as one day you and captain Yonoi believed absolutely that you were right. And the truth is of course that nobody is right…”
Is there glory in war? Doubtful. What could possibly be glorious about the slaughter of countless people in the resolution of conflict? But there can be heroism. And there can be honour, too. There was a time when wars were waged by codes of honour: soldiers strove to fight their opponents based on rules of conduct designed to elevate them above the savagery of armed combat and to protect their enemy’s human dignity.
The British had such codes. The Japanese did as well.
The two are at odds in ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’, Nagisa Ôshima’s award-nominated 1983 motion picture. Starring Tom Conti, David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Takeshi Kitano, it explores the dynamics between British prisoners of war and their Japanese jailors during the Second World War. Though for the most part civil, tensions grow when Major Cellier joins them and has a mesmerizing effect on Captain Yonoi.
You see, Captain Yonoi lives by the samurai code of honour, and the samurai had strict views about homosexuality: adult males were never to be on the receiving end of same-sex encounters; this role was reserved exclusively to boys, who would have a lifelong relationship with their adult mentors. So Yonoi’s attraction to Cellier disturbs him greatly, shifting the camp’s balance of power and, in turn, worrying his subordinates.
I’m a pretty big fan of Nagisa Ôshima. While I don’t like all of his works, I find them all interesting and his ‘Ai no korīda‘ is one of my all-time favourite films. Similarly, I’m a pretty big fan of David Bowie, who plays Cellier here. While I don’t like all of works, he’s a unique artist that never fails to intrigue, if not fascinate. I even like Ryuichi Sakamoto, who plays Yonoi and contributes the score. I have some of his music in my collection.
And I love the themes of that the picture, which is inspired by Sir Laurens van der Post’s novel ‘The Seed and the Sower’ (based on his own experiences), tackles. I love seeing the conflict that two widely different -but honour-bound- codes of conduct creates and I like that it explores Captain Yonoi’s self-loathing and sexual repression (though Ôshima explored that theme more in-depth in his multiple award-winning ‘Gohatto’).
So why am I not taken with ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’?
For one, it’s an awkward journey: The picture partially revolves around Ryuichi Sakamoto, who made his screen debut here. He isn’t so much wooden as plastic, all glossy and airbrushed, like a New Wave outcast in khaki; he’s incapable of emoting or delivering a line naturally. One could easily cast the blame on his character, Captain Yonoi, an utterly repressed personage, but Sakamoto is merely posing instead of properly acting.
He’s also impossible to comprehend. The picture was shot in Japanese and in English, and Oshima asked his Japanese actors to speak in English when addressing English prisoners – instead of having them overdubbed. That is contextually appropriate, as the jailors would likely have done this, but their accent is so thick that the words can’t squeeze their way into your ear. Sakamoto is probably the worst of a Novocained bunch.
Sakamoto’s unusual score also didn’t help. Though the picture is set in 1942, Sakamoto chose to back it with an entirely electronic score, which is not only contextually inappropriate, it’s completely anachronistic – synthesizers of this sort didn’t even exist then. To make matters worse, they’re New Wave compositions that are firmly rooted in the early ’80s; it sounds extremely dated now. The result is jarring and completely out of whack.
Throw in the discreet homophobia underlying the tension and it’s not a comfortable watch.
There are also offbeat moments in the third act which affect the picture’s tone. For instance, at one point Lawrence and Cellier are jailed together and they chat, exchange anecdotes, with the latter reminiscing at length about his childhood and his relationship with his deformed younger brother. Though it informed the character, it felt out of place and the age discrepancy between Bowie and the younger actor was quite jarring.
This is followed by their release, which is prompted when a tipsy Sergeant Hara discovers that someone else was to blame for smuggling a radio into the barracks, not them. Because it’s Christmas eve, Hara sees himself as Santa Claus and wishes Lawrence a Merry Christmas. This moment connects to the film’s final scene, in which Hara is about to be executed and, beside himself with laughter, wishes Lawrence a Merry Christmas repeatedly.
It’s as though Oshima had no idea how to complete his film and just gave up: “Ah, !@#$ it. Let’s just stop here. Cue the end credits”. Perhaps he intended for it to put a sharp focus on the contrast between the way Hara released Lawrence and the way he’s treated by the Allied forces. Or maybe he wanted us to feel for him, though his final moments make him seem demented. Hard to say, but it’s a very poor closing piece to the film.
Still, there are oases in which the film rests, such as the realism of the camp (Oshima had a full-scale camp built to establish the proper atmosphere), the themes of the picture and the remarkable presence of Tom Conti and David Bowie: Conti is absolutely genial as the titular Lawrence, while Bowie is pristine, perfectly bronzed and lit; he isn’t always stellar (though he has unforgettable moments like his mime), but he’s incredibly enigmatic.
The pair have a dynamic that’s quite interesting to watch: Lawrence is the POWs’ unofficial ambassador, defying his own Captain by building bridges with the enemy, to everyone’s benefit. Meanwhile, Cellier has been given the role of POW camp leader by Yonoi and is defiant against the Japanese at every turn, starting with his trial. Seeing the power that he holds over Yonoi, he challenges him to the point of putting his own life at risk.
There are also some enlightening dialogues between some of the characters, leading to observations on the Japanese code of honour and rituals in contrast with British stoicism and values. In particular, there an exchange between Lawrence and Hara in which they discuss (in Japanese, because Lawrence was fluent) their respective philosophies of war, courage, …etc. It was rather interesting to see them discuss differences amicably like that.
If one takes anything out of ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ is that beyond the politics, carnage and hostilities there is a sort of brotherhood between warriors, a commonality that transcends their differences. It also serves to remind us that all the rules that we entrench to provide our lives with structure and definition can also be the root of chaos and pain; some things cannot and should not be directed or constrained.
Though the film is tonally uneven and is hampered by some unusual casting and directorial choices, the picture can still resonate. And it’s worth seeing if only for David Bowie’s mesmerizing -if uneven- performance; I dare anyone to look away while he’s on screen. It may not serve as a Christmas-themed picture much, despite its title’s explicit promise, but in it the dignity of the human spirit rises above all the horrors lain before it.
And that’s sort of fitting, wouldn’t you say…?
Date of viewing: November 25, 2016