Trying to find seasonally-appropriate Japanese films can be difficult when the holiday in question isn’t celebrated in Japan, but I’m giving it a shot with Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983). Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, and Takeshi Kitano, this British-Japanese production is an unforgiving, oddly-paced, but fascinating take on a WW2 Japanese internment camp in Java.
Unsurprisingly, Christmas actually plays only a very small but important role in the film. Most of the runtime is devoted to showing daily life in the Javan prisoner of war camp. More surprisingly, Bowie is credited as the lead but most of the heavy-lifting is done by Tom Conti as the titular Lawrence (immediately recognisable, to me at least, as Emily’s bitter father in Friends). Lawrence is elevated to a strange position of power in the camp as the interpreter between the Japanese commanders and the British POWs. Extraordinarily, Conti apparently speaks no Japanese and learned his copious Japanese dialogue phonetically. As the only Japanese speaker, something the character picked up during time spent in Japan before the war which also gave him some understanding of Japanese culture, he enjoys a peculiar relationship with the guards – particularly Takeshi Kitano’s Hara. This relationship is the most interesting in the film. Hara shifts uncomfortably between grinning chumminess with Lawrence to sudden, brutal violence towards him and the other prisoners. This constant threat of abuse hangs over every one of their interactions, the potential for further torture or a sudden execution colouring every conversation.
It’s all the more fascinating because Oshima is a Japanese director, presenting Japanese cruelty from a Japanese perspective, and Japan has not dealt well with its imperial past or its world war-era war crimes. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence followed his politically-minded works of the ‘60s that frequently dealt with WW2 (The Catch) or racial tensions (Death by Hanging). This political perspective, that frequently skewers Imperial Japan’s treatment of prisoners of war (more than one character notes the Geneva Conventions do not apply, as Japan was not a signatory) is slightly clouded by the fact the film is based on a novel by South African author Laurens van der Post, The Seed and the Sower, so it’s less clear which attitudes Oshima brings to the film and what was in the original text.
“They’re a nation of anxious people. They could do nothing individually, so they went mad en masse.”
The other major thread of the film is, of course, that of David Bowie’s character Jack Celliers. A new arrival at the camp, he is spared from execution only by the sudden intervention of camp commander Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the fantastic soundtrack) during an otherwise meaningless trial in a kangaroo court. It initially seems that Yonoi wants Celliers to replace the current de facto leader of the POWs and for some reason believes he would be more amenable to Yonoi’s requests. However as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Yonoi is infatuated with Celliers, whether he understands that obsession or not. This builds off an early arc where Hara and Lawrence intervene in an incident where a Korean guard rapes a Dutch POW, with Hara and Lawrence haltingly discussing different attitudes to homosexual relationships between Japan and the West – Lawrence wants the Dutch POW in protective custody to keep him safe from other soldiers who now might believe he’s gay, where Hara seems dismissive of the whole thing, referring back to a bygone samurai era where homosexual relationships weren’t commented upon (the irony of course being that in the modern day, the West has become increasingly LGBT+ friendly, while Japan lags behind with imported prejudices). Nevertheless, I had trouble pulling meaning from the whole arc; a contemporary reviewer noted it was ‘as if the dead hand of Mishima’ were at the helm, though in context he seemed to be complaining about Oshima’s directorial style rather than noting the comparable themes of homosexuality and samurai-era honour. It may be that Celliers’ appearance is what destabilises the camp, but ultimately, it’s Lawrence and Hara’s bizarre friendship that hangs the film together.
If nothing else, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence must be seen for the performances by Conti, Bowie, and Kitano. Bowie in particular drifts effortlessly through every scene he’s in, languidly giving responses to his Japanese captors that never fail to baffle them. The scene, early in the film, where he prepares for his assumed execution by ‘shaving’ and ‘eating breakfast’ is a masterpiece of mimework. On the other hand, Sakamoto’s Yonoi is impossible to read, but Sakamoto’s score is incredible – particularly the main track, the vocal version of which carries the Mishima-inspired title Forbidden Colours.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence / 戦場のメリークリスマス
Director: Nagisa Oshima
Japanese Release Date: 28th May 1983
Version Watched: 124 min (Amazon Video)