Powerful and Timeless, MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE Unravels a Poetic Tale About the Absurdity of War5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
During WWII, a British colonel tries to bridge the cultural divides between a British POW and the Japanese camp commander in order to avoid bloodshed.
Director: Nagisa Ôshima
Cast: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryûichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson
Language: Japanese, English
Runtime: 123 minutes
While one of its pivotal moments does happen during the jolly holiday, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is not a Christmas film. Set in Java 1942 during Japanese Occupation, the film focuses on the uneasy relationship between four men in a Japanese POW camp. Having lived in Japan prior to the war, Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) acts as the translator and liaison between the prisoners and their Japanese camp commanders.
One of them is the brash and sadistic Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), which Lawrence forms an unlikely friendship with – that is, between the senseless beatings he inflicts on Lawrence. Leading the camp is the young Captain Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto), who is deeply conflicted by the atrocities committed by his country. His inner strife is only deepened with the arrival of the rebellious Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) into his camp, whom he spares after a kangaroo court trial which would have had him face the firing squad.
A central theme of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is the clash of ideals and culture. There is a heavy emphasis on this theme throughout the conversations shared by the film’s characters. There is hardly any abstractness in its dialogue; a constant rawness permeates the script, allowing the audience to fully digest the characters’ struggle against their own inner conflicts in wartime.
Through their friendship, Lawrence and Hara find out that both have completely different interpretations of honour and death based on their country’s ideological beliefs. Yet, it is exactly because of their duties as soldiers where they see each other as kindred spirits.
The relationship between Yonoi and Celliers is not as pleasant. The reason why Yonoi spares Celliers from death is unclear. While the film offers surface level explanations – even flirting with homosexual themes – the only thing conclusive about their relationship is there is admiration of Celliers’ unyielding spirit, boldly going against the Japanese edict of never-surrender. These interactions between characters keep the film’s daunting two hour long runtime engaging and compelling.
Fascinatingly, this clash of cultures continues beyond the narrative. In a meta sense, the film features pop behemoths Sakamoto and Bowie as its leads; the on-screen meeting of two cultural icons from the East and West. The differences between the regions’ acting styles are on full display as well, with the stoicism of the Western actors clashing with the dramatised theatre style of their Eastern counterparts.
On that note, the cast does a spectacular job in carrying the narrative. Bowie.. is Bowie – alluring in his swagger while allowing for a humanising depth for the audience to connect with his struggles. Similarly Sakamoto brilliantly captures his characters inner conflicts through nuanced facial expressions and measured delivery.
The performances of Conti and Kitano deserves special mentions for breaking beyond their depths. Conti is not a native Japanese speaker and had to memorise the phonetics of the language for the film, while Kitano was known more for his comedic work during the film’s initial release. Both challenged themselves to deliver memorable performances, especially with the film’s heartbreaking conclusion starring the two.
All these are framed by liberal use of closeups of its characters, doing a solid job with humanising them. The cinematography employed throughout the film is unobtrusive, with a clear focus on dialogue. Shots that do linger felt purposeful, such as when the film focuses on the Japanese practice of Harikiri. By painfully detailing every stab and slice, I felt that director Nagisa Ôshima wanted to dispel the supposed glory that came with the ritual and to critique his country’s often unremembered past.
One minor nitpick I did have of the film was its soundtrack. Sakamoto, a key member of prominent Japanese pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, doubles as both the lead and the film’s composer.
While I do love the music of YMO and the film’s score remains one of Asian cinema’s most memorable, I felt that it has become a victim of time. Sakamoto’s airy synthesisers and keyboards accompany the gritty world the film’s character’s inhibit. While it does succeed in creating an atmosphere of a foreign microcosm stuck between two clashing ideals, the soundtrack also dates the film in retrospect, reminding me of similar films of that decade which are far less grounded than this. But then again, it is difficult to separate this film from its iconic soundtrack.
Nonetheless, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a brilliant film that effortlessly captures humanity in brutal times. It is a film that challenges conventions – especially in Ôshima’s native Japan – while highlighting the absurdity that comes with war, all delivered by an all-star cast.
Catch the film’s trailer below: