Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence comes to Blu ray with a brand new transfer. It is presented in 1080p and the original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This is a new digital transfer which was created from the original 35mm source and scanned in 2K resolution. The print has been colour corrected, and transferred to digital tape. Criterion say that they have removed thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker. The result is quite simply stunning.
From the very opening scene, it is completely obvious just what an improvement this transfer is. The level of depth is simply a revelation. Behind the characters that are placed in the foreground, the scenery is rendered to a great sense of depth. All the way back in the distance is a gorgeous blue sea, and you can see each individual wave crashing onto the white shore. On the DVD none of this detail is visible.
Black levels are deep and dense, and the contrast levels are consistently impressive. One of the most revelatory aspects of the transfer is the stunning level of detail in the faces, uniforms, and surroundings. The camp itself is barren, and every stone is visible, really bringing home the environment the POWs find themselves in.
In the accompanying booklet, Criterion do mention that DNR has been used, but I have to say that at no point did the transfer seem to suffer from this. It would appear to have been done very sensitively and I could find no sign of edge enhancement.
It should be mentioned that I am rating this picture based on previous versions that have been released in the home. If you compare it against the latest digitally shot blockbuster then of course it is not likely to come out favourably. But this is a low budget film shot in 1983 and the love and care that has been lavished on this restoration is way beyond what I was ever expecting. Stunning.
Thankfully, Criterion have seen fit to retain the original stereo mix and have not produced an ersatz 5.1 mix. They have restored the soundtrack with the same attention to detail that they have placed on the picture. The soundtrack has been remastered at 24 bit and is presented in stereo DTS-HD Master audio.
I have already mentioned how beautiful the music is, and from the very opening credits when the title song kicks in, it is clear that Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has never been heard with this clarity since it was released in the cinema. Dialogue is so much cleared than it ever was before, and is perfectly anchored to the centre. The front separation is clear and wide, enhancing the sound field and drawing the audience in like the DVD never achieved.
Dynamic range is wide, and high frequencies are never too shrill or piercing. The whole mix is a complete revelation and perhaps the perfect example is the scene where the POWs are having a conversation and in the background the sound of Yonoi training in the Dojo is thudding away. In the DVD release, the background sounds are muted – but here they resonate with an innate power that adds a staccato punctuation to the conversation. Again, when compared with a modern film the sound may be lacking to some – but make no mistake on how much care and attention has gone in to producing this mix. It is so much better than the film has ever sounded in the home before.
We kick off a stellar collection of extras with the fascinating 1983 documentary The Oshima Gang. This includes interviews with all the major participants, who all talk with intelligence and depth about the film and the characters they play. Perhaps the only regret here is the lack of Takeshi anywhere, and Oshima only speaking in press conferences – but this is full of insight and interest.
The quality continues with a series of 20-40 mini docs which feature interviews with key participants. These are all newly shot for this release, and therefore allow a viewpoint tinged with nostalgia and remembrance that really allows a rounded opinion on what was achieved with the film. On the Screenplay features screenwriter Paul Mayesberg, On Location features Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Jeremy Thomas, and On the Music features Ryuichi Sakamoto on his own. Each documentary is in depth, fascinating, well researched – and all the people who participate share a genuine passion and love for the work.
But the delights don’t end here. We are also presented with a feature length documentary on the author Laurens Van Der Post called Hasten Slowly. Covering his life story in depth this gives so much insight into an amazing man who was an early opposer of Apartheid. This makes you admire the man so much, and gives so much fascinating background – it is a riveting documentary. The package is rounded out with a theatrical trailer, and a booklet. The booklet contains a chapter list, cast list, and an article entitled “Lawrence of Shinjuku” which studies the film. The booklet also reproduces a 1983 print interview with Oshima entitled “Oshima : Sex, Militarism, and Empire” and finally a new 2010 print interview with Takeshi Kitano in which he talks about Oshima.
Folks this is a stunning disc and I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it to any fan of cinema. The film itself is endlessly fascinating, and will reveal more to you every time you watch it. It is nearly unique in how it looks at the Japanese race and how they behaved during the war from the view of a Japanese director, and also how it deals with forbidden, unspoken love of a kind which was very taboo at the time.
A great film is served with a fantastic video and audio restoration that blows away any previous home incarnation ever released, and a set of extras that serve to enhance understanding of the film whilst looking at various aspects of the production in great depth.
I am always wary of hyperbole, and have never done this before – but I am going to give this Criterion disc a full ten across the board. It is rare that a disc lands that shows such care and attention in every aspect. When I saw the disc was being released I was just pleased that the film was coming, and had no particularly high expectation of how it would be served. Therefore, my expectations were blown away. Fans of the film should already have ordered this, but any fan of the cinema should consider ordering this. For once, a genuine classic gets the treatment it deserves. A triumph for Criterion.
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