He stands in the courtroom, fully inhabiting his allotted space behind the bar, clad in fatigues and a rakish scarf, radiating a self-possession that goes beyond mere military bearing.
Ladies and gentlemen, playing the part of Maj. Jack Celliers, David Bowie!
The year is 1942, and Celliers stands accused by a Japanese military tribunal of illegal conduct in his guerrilla fight against that country’s sweep of the island of Java. He faces Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, himself a Japanese rock star and composer of Merry Christmas‘s score).
Stiff, arrogant and sporting exaggerated eye make-up - a detail that seems absurd at first viewing, but which supplementary documentaries insist is historically accurate - Yonoi haughtily bullies Celliers in court and, once the Englishman has been assigned to his POW camp, terrorizes him with a mock execution.
It soon becomes clear that, although Yonoi conforms to the Japanese wartime codes of honor with the zeal of a man with something to hide, at the core of his attempts to crush Celliers’ spirit is an undeniable attraction.
Contrasted with this duo is the relationship of the title prisoner - another Englishman, this one played by Tom Conti - and Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano, in his very charming screen debut). Though prone to his own outbursts of cruelty, Hara shares with Lawrence something almost like a friendship; Lawrence, who speaks Japanese and spent some prewar time in Tokyo, certainly relates to his captor better than he does to his swaggering John Bull of a ranking officer, Capt. Hicksley (Jack Thompson).
While their situation is structured by their acknowledged military and political rivalry - Hara does not hesitate to give Lawrence the occasional taste of a bamboo switch - there is room for a respectful curiosity and, on the part of the jailer, a moment of spontaneous mercy.
The interactions of these four characters form the spine of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence; favoring thematic parallels over narrative forward motion, the film shifts dramatic focus among them in a way that makes the rather straightforward plot deceptively difficult to summarize.
Celliers continues to resist the brutalities of camp life, dragging the rather more accommodating Lawrence along with him in the process. Yonoi, frustrated by his nagging fascination with his defiant prisoner, ratchets up the cruelty and arbitrariness of his command in response. It takes a desperate, spontaneous act by Celliers to shatter both Yonoi’s authority and his capacity for sadism; the moving final scene also finds Hara rediscovering his humanity, albeit in a much less dramatic but still memorable fashion.
Merry Christmas’ social criticism is of a piece with Oshima’s earlier work; its harsh portrayal of the rigidities of military life as a means to this is characteristic of Japanese postwar cinema in general. Less typical is the film’s faith in cross-cultural communication as an antidote to Japanese chauvinism. And not just the Japanese variety - the cruelties of English society are anatomized here as well, most memorably in a flashback to Celliers’ days in an English public school. Merry Christmas is not the story of the west’s civilizing influence on the east, but rather of individuals reaching past the flotsam of repression common to all societies and daring to touch the human being buried beneath.
Criterion’s edition of Merry Christmas is, as usual, top-notch. The image on the standard-definition DVD brings admirable sharpness and definition to the nearly 30-year-old film. I noticed some graininess in the outdoor scenes, particularly in patches that were particularly green or brown, but I didn’t find this bothersome. The soundtrack is equally fine; if anything, it’s occasionally too clear, sometimes inadvertently highlighting the post-recorded nature of some of the dialogue. As with most Criterion releases, this version of Merry Christmas will remain the best way to see the film outside of a reparatory screening.
A second disc of extras includes The Oshima Gang, a contemporary documentary about the production of the film, as well as informative new interviews with Sakamoto, Conti, co-screenwriter Paul Mayersberg (a veteran of the venerable U.K. journal Screen) and producer Jeremy Thomas. A television featurette about the incredible life of Laurens van der Post, author of the source novel The Seed and the Sower, is particularly recommended.
© Dan Erdman
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983). Director: Nagisa Oshima. Screenplay: Nagisa Oshima, Paul Mayersberg; from Laurens Van der Post’s novel The Seed and the Sower. Cast: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuishi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson, Johnny Okura.