Those nice folks at Criterion have released the latest in their Blu-ray collection on 28th September in the US. Nagisa Oshima’s endlessly fascinating and quirky ”Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is the film chosen for the treatment this time, and as is common with the rest of the collection the disc is locked to Region A.
The film tells the tale of Major Jack “Strafer” Celliers, a British Soldier who has surrendered behind enemy lines and finds himself under the capture of the notoriously brutal Japanese. When at trial, he is judged by three men including Camp Commander Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), a man who has a very high (almost a twisted) sense of honour and discipline. Celliers eventually finds himself transferred to Yonoi’s camp where it quickly becomes clear that the Captain intends to promote him above Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson) once he is fit. Although Hicksley is to all intents and purposes the bridge between Japanese and prisoners, in reality he has very little empathy for the race – and this role is actually played by Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti). But the introduction of Celliers into the camp is going to have far reaching consequences for all the key characters in the movie, until the ultimate price has to be paid by more than one of them.
One of the reasons why the film is so absolutely fascinating is that it takes a determinedly un-typical view of the conflict and the key players in it. Based on the novel “The Seed and the Sower” by Sir Laurens Van Der Post, the film is concerned about the relationship between two nations – almost a study of the differences that separate both the people. The Japanese, as the film opens, are shown to be brutal and violent. They are enacting a brutal punishment on a Korean Guard and a Dutch prisoner for a sexual act which has occurred between the two. Not only is the punishment brutal, it is also held in the open – in front of the unflinching eyes of the Japanese guards, and the more reluctant gaze of Lawrence. But as the film develops it becomes clear that the Japanese do not act out of some sense of blood lust. It may be unspeakably cruel to our eyes but this is merely a matter of honour to them, and they are forcing the guard to commit Hari Kiri as a favour to him. There are many fascinating discussions about the Japanese attitude to war – at one stage Hicksley complains about the prisoner’s rations, only to be told that “You eat what we eat!” by Yonoi
But this is a multi-layered film and in addition to its concerns of nation it also has far more personal ones to. Although never made explicit it is clear that Yonoi struggles with his feelings towards the enigmatic Celliers. The latter’s indomitable spirit is a fascination to the inscrutable Yonoi who cannot comprehend what drives him. Yet in addition to that there is clearly a baser attraction between the men, a sexual tension between them that Yonoi simply cannot acknowledge as it is so against his whole being and culture. As these feelings come further to the surface, so the man unravels in front of our very eyes – and his punishments and actions towards the prisoners become more and more extreme.
The performances in the film are uniformly excellent. The two main characters are both played by rock stars – Sakamoto is a well-known musician in his native country. Both have the stereotypical looks of the best of their race. Celliers is blonde haired, blue eyed, trim and fit whereas Sakamoto is lean, with angular cheek bones and a well-defined if slightly cruel face. Both of them put in fantastic performances – really selling their characters. The scenes where they are actually together are rare – but when they are the screen crackles with tension. The early trial scene, where the two first meet is quite understated. The odd gaze which lingers too long and the distress when the beatings on Cellier’s body are revealed are the only indicators of what is to come. But as their relationship develops the subtle shifts as Celliers slowly but surely gains the upper hand through knowledge is fantastically performed. At all times, Bowie is completely understated – never feeling the need to over emote what he is going through. Just a flick of the eyes, a tremble of the jaw and he can clearly convey what the character is going through. It really is a tremendous performance.
But alongside these two rock stars, every other performance is just wonderfully judged. Conti, in particular, gives one of the best performances of his career. He is a man who understands their captors – who grants them a lot of licence. At one stage he declares that he is determined not to hate the Japanese – but he comes across as a man who is determined not to hate anyone. Always playing the diplomat and striding the path of steady resistance he is never weak, and is always the one who is most likely to come out of events with most credit. Australian actor Jack Thompson plays Hicksley – a minor role but crucial to the plot. Despite being Australian he does a great impersonation of your typical upper class British officer – all bluff mannerisms and bushy moustache, but it is all a disguise for a man who is there through class rather than ability. But one of the most amazing performances of all is an actor I have not even mentioned yet – Takeshi Kitano as Sgt Hara, Yonoi’s right hand man. He is the Japanese counterpart to Lawrence – the one who perhaps makes most effort to understand the allies and what they stand for. He is genuinely keen to learn and understand.
Surely much of the credit for these performances must go to the director Oshima. I cannot pretend to be much of a scholar of world cinema, to my detriment, but I have heard of the director before – although I cannot say I have ever seen one of his films before this. He just shows a remarkable sense of assurance in his material. The film is the closest thing to a book I have ever seen on a screen. When I say this, what I mean is that Oshima is prepared to allow your imagination to do a lot of the work. The film is not explicit in any way – not gory, not violent, nor sexual yet it still got an R rating in America. This is because the psychological suggestion of the horrors of war is always present and always subtly gnawing away at the viewer’s consciousness.
Oshima is also not afraid to luxuriate in the story, relishing the opportunity to allow character development to triumph over action when necessary. The film is wondrously languid, in a way the films today often don’t have the confidence to emulate. Oshima moves his camera slowly and deliberately, drinking in the harsh Japanese environment and concentrating on the subtle character beats that so define the film.
No critique of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence can conclude without a mention of the wondrous soundtrack that does so much to add to the atmosphere of the film. The soundtrack is written by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who plays Yonoi, and fuses Japanese instrumentation with Western synth tracks to sometimes harmonious, sometimes contradictory effects. He has a fantastic flair for melody and the main theme in particular is still popular today, having been remixed by the likes of Paul Oakenfeld to name but one. The soundtrack is as much a work of art as the film, and the two complement each other perfectly.
To sum up Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence in a few thousand words is a virtual impossibility. I have seen the film on many occasions over the years, and every time I see it reveals more to me. It is a fiendishly complex dissection of a nation’s attitude towards the individual, nation, conflict and love. At times nostalgic, and at times forward thinking it is a film populated by believable characters who always act true to themselves. It is a film that draws you in slowly and educates you whilst making you empathise with people you wouldn’t normally expect to. It is not a film that offers solutions, it deals with complex issues and provides no easy answers. To my mind, the film is a much misunderstood classic and it is fantastic that Criterion have deemed it fit to be part of their collection on Blu-ray. Anyone with the slightest interest in great cinema should really be clearing space of their shelf for this unique Japanese / British co-production.
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