‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’ reviewed

❉ Daniel Marner on the pioneering Japanese-British co-production. 

 “Nothing that is expressed is obscene: what is obscene is what is hidden” -Nagisa Oshima

Coda, the starkly touching 2018 documentary about the working life of Ryuichi Sakamoto opens with him visiting the post-nuclear-meltdown ruins of Fukushima to play a chamber concert in an abandoned junior high school, which served as an evacuation shelter in the aftermath of the disaster. For the first ten minutes or so this film about a musician has been eerily devoid of music, save a few warped notes played on the keys of a flood-damaged piano. As Sakamoto and his fellow musicians take the stage the first coherent melody of the film emerges tentatively from his keyboard: a simple, plaintive lullaby that sounds like something ancient and modern all at once, alien and familiar, sad and hopeful. A love song, perhaps, but not for people whose story ends happily.

The theme tune to Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence has been lurking around the world’s airwaves like a small, timid cat for almost 40 years now: memorably it became one of a handful of sanctioned sad instrumentals that Radio One was allowed to play in the febrile few weeks following the death of Diana Spencer in 1997. David Sylvian gave it lyrics in the wake of the film’s release and turned it into the minor hit Forbidden Colours. It’s become a sort of sonic shorthand for sophisticated Orientalism in our culture, bespeaking the mysterious allure of Japan to the western dilletante.

The film which spawned it seems almost like an afterthought nowadays, a curio wherein the still-vital, always surprising face of Japanese Cinema’s New Wave assembled a ragtag bunch of respected character actors, androgynous rock stars and one stocky, explosive stand-up comedian to tell a seemingly slight and obscure story of repressed longing and sudden violence in a Japanese internment camp at the height of the Pacific War. Here in the UK a slightly sneery tone seems to cling to discussions of it, with its star David Bowie damned with faint praise for being decent in a film for once.

With the benefit of hindsight however, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence holds its ground admirably, defiantly as a work whose value seems to have been somewhat obscured by the circus surrounding its inception. A pioneering Japanese-British co-production conceived by fearlessly maverick producer Jeremy Thomas, co-scripted by occasional Nicolas Roeg collaborator Paul Mayersberg  (whose words helped Bowie to what is arguably his greatest on-screen acting role in The Man Who Fell To Earth a few years previously) and helmed by Oshima at the height of his western recognition (the one-two punch of his shocking but dreamlike erotic fables In The Realm of The Senses and Empire of Passion were still fresh in the minds of arthouse afficionado and raincoat perv alike) the film now stands apart from the initial bemusement of its original reception. It’s easier for us to see now what its creators were up to, and the film’s standing as an odd but compelling exploration of cultural and sexual tensions has only increased in the intervening decades.

Bowie’s presence dominates the film of course: as the haunted, charismatic ‘Strafer Jack’ Celliers, whose bleach-blond good looks and stoical demeanour pierce the very heart of rigid, humourless Camp Commandant Yonoi (Sakamoto), he delivers a subtle, unshowy performance that had it been assayed by the likes of, say, Malcolm McDowell or John Hurt would be looked on slightly more kindly than it is. Celliers’ instinctive acts of defiance, both small (feeding the men of the camp during an enforced fasting period) and large (attempting to rescue and escape with Tom Conti’s titular Mr Lawrence) are done with a curious detachment and lack of hysteria. The Japanese soldiers are at a loss to understand the mentality of their Commonwealth captives, and the interactions between Celliers and Yonoi are unsettlingly reminiscent of animals observing one another from opposite sides of the cage in a zoo. Yonoi’s straight-backed adherence to the Bushido code is threatened and eventually upended by the pull he feels toward Celliers: Celliers spots and exploits Yonoi’s barely-concealed infatuation to ultimately disastrous ends for both of them.

This chaste story of lust and manipulation is only part of the film however: arguably the heart of the film (and its genuine ‘love story’) is constituted by the curious friendship that has already blossomed between Conti’s bookish, bi-lingual man of reason Lawrence and Takeshi Kitano’s squat, brutal camp enforcer Sergeant Hara. Their relationship smacks of an almost sado-masochistic mutual need. Hara enjoys taunting (and occasionally torturing) Lawrence: Lawrence has a very middle-class notion that life in the camp could be, if not civilised, then at least civil and Hara is his conduit to seeking a more harmonious power dynamic between captors and prisoners. Meanwhile Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson, deliberately playing an Australian officer with a cut-glass English accent to reinforce his loyalties and aspirations) can’t stand to see one of his men dance around the enemy as if it were all just a matter of diplomacy.

Oshima positions his characters like chess pieces, and patiently allows their individual natures to bring conflict to the boil. One striking thing about the film is its cold, almost observational style in the camp scenes. Toichiro Narushima’s camera tends to keep its distance from the action, letting scenes play out, largely uninterrupted, in long shot. When the film veers into more poetic, painterly or colourful imagery it makes an impact: Celliers’ kid brother singing angelically in a heavenly childhood garden that seems to be made out of the very stuff of memories: a dying butterfly fluttering its last on Celliers’ sun-scorched eyebrow: a disturbing, skeletal procession of injured and dying soldiers being forced to assemble, like a grotesque tableau from a Bosch painting, or a Jodorowsky film.

Basing the screenplay on The Seed and The Sower, Laurens van der Post’s florid, philosophical account of his wartime experiences as a POW, Paul Mayersberg has spoken of the dichotomy between sensuality and spirituality in the film: Bowie’s casting, according to Oshima, was a shorthand way of suggesting Celliers’ ‘angelic’ nature, and Jeremy Thomas has mentioned his belief that ‘Jack Celliers’ is a secular analogue for Jesus Christ. The stoic fashion in which he accepts an obscenely cruel martyrdom certainly bears this reading out. The real showstopping acting in the film is happening elsewhere, in Tom Conti’s sleepy-eyed articulacy and verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown humanity, and in Takeshi Kitano’s unpredictable balance of whipchord rage and jovial good humour, and in Jack Thompson’s fragile pomposity, wilting suddenly in the face of death.

But Bowie stands for more than just a symbol of classical beauty or western unflappability. When used well in a film he could supersede the superficially decorative surface and suggest an ocean of turmoil behind those blue and brown eyes of his. Despite a somewhat unconvincing sequence where he portrays Celliers as a schoolboy (which can be charitably and poetically read as the adult man placing himself into his own memories at a pivotal point in his moral development, and at the very moment of his worst moral failure) Bowie doesn’t put a foot wrong. Whether mockingly chomping on a bright red flower to taunt his captors, or miming a shave, a meal, a cup of tea and a cigarette before he believes he is to be taken out and shot, he never seems like a neophyte, never seems out of his depth. Bowie was compelling in a handful of films playing vampires and aliens, but he always thought of this as his most triumphant acting role because he was dialling his oddness and starriness down, finding a charisma based on stillness and concealment.

The film’s other rock star, Ryuichi Sakamoto, fares slightly less well in his first acting role where he’s forced to emote and declaim in a second language.  Nevertheless he still manages to convey Yonoi’s torment and self-disgust, punishing the men in his custody for a ‘moral laziness’ that he clearly feels is his own. There is a conscious echo in his characterisation of Yukio Mishima, the Japanese writer and intellectual whose slide into far-right politics, and unhealthy obsession with returning Japan to a hazy golden age of samurai morality resulted in his destruction. Yonoi’s tragedy is that he feels guilt for surviving an attempted 1936 coup d’état that led to the mass suicide of his friends and colleagues, and has been rewarded with a wartime role that he feels is beneath him. Celliers is a diamond shot into his forehead (to paraphrase another classic war film from the same era) and the revelation invigorates, infuriates and immolates him.

Sakamoto was told by Oshima to compose the film’s score as though the music were emerging from the head of Yonoi himself, and so the score completes Yonoi’s characterisation and Sakamoto’s performance. Apart from the plaintive main theme, the music has a quietly playful intensity to it, often recalling Philip Glass or Toru Takemitsu in the little snatches of pizzicato and ostinato that pepper the film like a quickening pulse. For a war film it’s an unusually hushed experience, and the violence inherent in a prison situation occurs suddenly and fleetingly, bleeding out into the air around it until the characters appear to be breathing violence at every moment.

The film finishes with a poignant scene between Lawrence and Hara, their roles as captive and captor reversed, and with sparse, halting snatches of dialogue and the resigned body language of the defeated the film finally becomes Kitano’s, his grinning bruiser’s face now betraying twitches of fear and regret. A Japanese-western co-production about the futility of conflict and the tenderness that can exist between men of violence seems like a film that was made for now. Its message of mutual understanding and respect in the face of insane conflict is one you’d hope we’d have outlived by now. But the end of history didn’t happen (thanks a lot, Francis Fukuyama) and no one, it seems, has learned a thing. For that reason alone, films like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence will never feel dated, will never not speak to us.

Special Features:

❉ FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Jasper Sharp
❉ 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, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, actor Tom Conti, and actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto
❉ Hasten Slowly (1996), a 60-minute documentary about the author of the film’s autobiographical source novel
❉ Exclusive newly filmed interview with critic Tony Rayns
❉ Original theatrical trailer
❉ Image gallery
❉ Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sam Hadley

❉ ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ Blu-ray is out now from Arrow Academy. Certificate 15. Running time: 123 mins. Price £24.99. Region B. Cat No (BR)FCD2013. Language: Japanese, English. Subtitles: English, English SDH. Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1. Colour. Discs: 1.

❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

Become a patron at Patreon!