Christmas – it’s the holiday season of giving that allows you to look back at the year behind you, reflect it, enjoy the little things in life, and all the people around you. Sometimes we take for granted just how lucky we are, despite the world of today being a scary place now and then.
Previous generations had a much harder life, especially those who became entangled in the First and Second World Wars. Yet even behind enemy lines, to quote Depeche Mode, ‘people are people.’ Rather peculiar, intimate, and complex bonds and relationships can develop under the strangest of circumstances, regardless of different cultures and ethnicities – and in places like a Japanese prison camp, as in Nagisa Ôshima’s drama Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
‘Lawrence, we’re going walkies.’
Java, 1942: The invasion of the island has just failed, and Allied forces have surrendered. One of them is Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie), or ‘Strafer Jack,’ as his comrades-in-arms call him because he’s a ‘soldier’s soldier.’ One day he is taken to a camp for prisoners of war run by the strict and brutal Captain Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto), who believes in discipline, honor, and glory, and his equally ruffian henchman Seargeant Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano). For the most part, the two sides – British and Japanese – don’t get along too well, mainly, because they fail to understand each other’s mentality.
The Japanese believe in the samurai ways of hara-kiri and consider the British dishonorable and weak because they surrendered. In turn, Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson), the commander of Her Majesty’s prisoners of war regards them as a bloodthirsty and cruel rather than the brave and loyal soldiers they believe themselves to be. Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) tries to convince him otherwise. He speaks Japanese fluently and is able to relate to their way of thinking after having lived in the country for several years, but Hicksley treats him as a traitor. Everything changes when the rebellious Celliers arrives.
‘Well, I’m the liaison officer, so I’m liaising.’
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence circles on the relationships of these men, especially on those intercultural ties between Yonoi and Celliers on the one hand and Lawrence and Hara on the other hand. The camp commandant, in particular, develops a strange fascination and fixation with the Major as soon as he arrives. He senses them to be kindred spirits and wants him to replace Group Captain Hicksley as spokesman for the prisoners. Both Yonoi and Celliers are eaten away by guilt, for entirely different reasons.
The Japanese soldier was part of a group of ‘Shining Young Officers’ who tried to pull off a military coup d’état in 1936. After the attempt failed, those promising servicemen were executed. Yonoi, however, was stationed in Manchuria at the time and therefore survived. He deeply regrets that he hasn’t been able to share their destiny and patriotic sacrifice. Celliers, on the other hand, suffers from having betrayed his younger brother when both were attending boarding school, and he confesses it to Lawrence while sitting in a cell.
‘You all fear homosexuality. A samurai doesn’t fear it.’
The drama touches on the rather controversial topic of gayness, at least as far as such a traditional and ultraconservative society as that of Japan at the time is concerned. It’s not just Yonoi’s fascination with ‘Strafer Jack’ and his constant interest in the Major, but there are more allusions of a similar kind. When Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence begins, a Korean soldier is caught having an ‘improper’ relationship with a Dutch inmate. Later on, he is sentenced to commit seppuku, a ritual form of suicide by cutting one’s stomach, and all the prisoners are forced to watch it. During the execution, the Dutch soldier bites his tongue and then dies of suffocation mere seconds after the Korean.
What movies can Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence be likened to? An apt comparison might be Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun based on the eponymous book by J.G. Ballard and starring John Malkovich and a young Christian Bale, simply because of their topic. Both films deal with British inmates in a Japanese prison camp in Asia in the early 1940s and use autobiographical novels as their source materials, The Seed and the Sower by Laurens van der Post in this instance. Yet Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is probably closest to David Lean’s classic The Bridge On The River Kwai in that each of the two movies narrates the story of British soldiers trying to survive and somehow get along with their Japanese overlords.
‘Why don’t you listen? He means spiritual laziness, and he believes that if he takes away the food and the water, then he also takes away the nourishment of laziness.’
The role of violence in Nagisa Ôshima’s feature can’t, in fact, be understated. We are exposed to a decent amount of it. The physical part of it should be obvious, as the modern samurai warriors from Nippon are bound to the ancient – but to contemporary eyes – utterly cruel bushido code of honor. We see them force alleged ‘offenders’ into stabbing themselves for their transgressions because it’s the only respectable way in their society. Likewise, the prisoners are whipped as soon as they dare contradict their momentary Japanese masters.
That being said, emotional violence has an even deeper impact than its physical counterpart on the characters as well as the viewers. It’s probably not so much the blows and the beatings handed out to the people on the silver screen, but the fact that they’re sometimes treated like the proverbial scum of the earth, as if they didn’t deserve to live. The chief Japanese officers are just as much of a culprit as their orderlies. Actually, they have rather cryptic personalities. Sometimes they oscillate between showing signs of humanity, as Yonoi does toward Celliers and Hara during his frequent conversations with Lawrence, only to revert back to their old and brutal ways in the blink of an eye.
‘Well I’ve tried the Manju, and I’ve tried the flowers, and I think the flowers taste better.’
To a certain degree, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence works well because of the actors involved. David Bowie, in particular, does a convincing job playing Major Jack Celliers in one of his earlier leading role after having portrayed a fairly bizarre alien in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. 1983 proved to be a big year for the English pop star anyway. Apart from Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, he also appeared in a starring role in the revisionist vampire film The Hunger alongside Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, had a cameo in the pirate comedy Yellowbeard created by Monty Python members, and saw his smash album Let’s Dance rise to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
His Jack Celliers is a defiant but at the same time tormented character. Yes, a great deal of his struggles with the Japanese authorities happens because he genuinely cares for his fellow soldiers. Yet you can’t help but feel as if the Major secretly desires to die when he acts up against Yonoi, Hara, and company. John Lawrence, on his part, wants to survive the camp. For him, his imprisonment there is ‘not the end,’ even though he is whipped, beaten down, and literally hung up to dry repeatedly, but he never gives up in his attempts to mediate between the conflicting parties. Noted Scottish theatrical actor Tom Conti delivers a commendable performance as the likable, humane titular Lieutenant Colonel.
‘It’s your gods. It’s your bloody, awful, stinking gods. They made you what you are. May they rot away in the filthy hell they came from!’
Even the good-natured Lawrence’s patience is tested several times, however, and at one point, he throws a temper and simply curses at the deities the Japanese worship. In a way, it’s his version of drawing a line and saying ‘enough is enough.’ Much of his issues are, of course, with the way Yonoi commands his camp. David Bowie is arguably the biggest international star and musician in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, but Ryûichi Sakamoto isn’t too far behind. In his onscreen debut, he shows that he possesses acting chops. His Captain is equally ferocious and driven as he is haunted by the ghosts from his past. Sakamoto, incidentally, is also responsible for the haunting and exotic soundtrack that proves to be one of the highlights of the drama and landed him a BAFTA Award for the Best Score shortly after the film’s release.
The chemistry between the two musicians in the film is remarkable. On the one hand, their characters couldn’t be more different – here the brutal Yonoi, there the ‘soldier’s soldier’ Celliers. On the other hand, both are tormented people who deeply regret the way they behaved in former days. It’s as if they were oscillating between being bipolar opposites and two peas in a pot. Ironically, Gengo Hara is probably the one person in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence who comes closest to uniting these two irreconcilable extremes. In his first ever English language role, famous Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano excels at providing all the different facets of the complex and mercurial Sergeant.
‘Why do you not fight me? If you defeat me, you will be free!’
Much of the movie’s brilliance, however, is owed to the impeccable direction by Nagisa Ôshima. In an interview, David Bowie once remarked that he found the production process rather peculiar initially. The man at the helm of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence first had a two- to three-acre camp built on a remote Polynesian island, although the majority of it was never used in the drama. Likewise, Nagisa Ôshima apparently went into the minutest detail when directing his Japanese actors, while basically telling Tom Conti and David Bowie to just behave naturally, the way Western people do.
Some may find this modus operandi strange or hard to stomach, but there’s no debate about the fantastic camerawork. On occasion, Nagisa Ôshima and his cinematographer Toichiro Narushima slowly track and zoom in on the prisoners and the watchdogs from afar as if they were peeping toms. We as the audience, in turn, also become voyeurs, because we willingly collaborate with them. Sometimes we just follow the events from a distance. In other moments, we’re in the middle of the action, right at the heart of the matter. Ôshima makes us a part of the inner circle, as if we belonged to the secluded area. That way, we become deeply involved with the characters, and it makes it hard for us to stay completely indifferent.
‘Today, I am Father Christmas.’
At the end, the two tormented souls find their peace in death. Yoini’s successor as camp commandant is less merciful and ‘not as sentimental’ when it comes to Celliers. Instead of granting him a proper execution, the British Major is more or less buried alive. Only his head is left above ground. With nobody around, Yonoi cuts a lock of his blond hair, pays his respects, and leaves. Four years later, we learn that the Captain was killed just before war is over. Lawrence, however, has managed to survive. So has Hara, who has since himself become an Allied prisoner of war. The titular hero intends to grant Yonoi his last wish and donate Celliers’s lock to a shrine in his hometown.
The Japanese Sergeant has learned in English in the meantime, and Lawrence as well as Hara reminisces about one Christmas Eve in the camp, when the soldier from Nippon was drunk and showed his mild and clement side by releasing Celliers and Lawrence from their cells. It’s an unwritten law for armed forces commanders that military actions shouldn’t take place during the holidays – basically a ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in warfare. Despite the fact that Hara is no Christian and doesn’t pay heed to the Geneva Convention at all, the scene still shows that he’s a human being, not a beast. So Lawrence, for all the horrors he has experienced at the hands of the Japanese, has no problem bidding him farewell. In fact, the two share a laugh as they recall that moment, and the Sergeant sends him his best wishes for the final time. ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.’