Andrew reviews the Japanese WWII drama with David Bowie, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence
Still controversial yet celebrated Japanese writer-director Nagisa Oshima was probably the most un-Japanese filmmaker to ever emerge out of Asia. From the provocations behind his 1960 nouvelle vague Cruel Story of Youth to his still ragingly scandalous 1976 pornographic erotic drama In the Realm of the Senses, the outspoken critic of contemporary Japan and notable Akira Kurosawa detractor is that rare Japanese artist to deliberately turn his back on his own country time and time again through his films. Most telling of the daring visionary's sensibilities remains a scene within In the Realm of the Senses of the Japanese army marching towards battle as the film's hero Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji) defiantly walks in the opposite direction home to his lover for more sadomasochistic sex, "make love not war" as it were. Continuing the director's ongoing critique of Japanese society is his first bilingual effort, the British-Japanese WWII prisoner-of-war drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Starring David Bowie in one of his greatest roles as British POW Major Jack Ceilliers, future The Revenant composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also scored Mr. Lawrence) as a ruthless Japanese captain and Battle Royale lead Takeshi Kitano in his first starring role, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is that rare takedown of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps as seen through the eyes of Japan's most acerbic critic.
Co-written by Oshima and The Man Who Fell to Earth screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, the film is loosely based on Sir Laurens van der Post's autobiographical account of his own ordeal in a Japanese POW camp. Told during and eventually after the war with shifting roles of power, the film concerns the three aforementioned men and Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti) whose ability to speak Japanese makes him both the outside observer and omniscient narrator of sorts, seeing the conflict between these three men in microcosm. Entirely from the point of view of imprisonment where a samurai katana can strike down on the neck of a prisoner at any given moment, it's a drama of high tension yet tinged with an odd kinship which develops between Lawrence and Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano). David Bowie's performance as the conflicted POW with a checkered past is startlingly nuanced and effective, confident with a hint of subdued inner turmoil. Equally strong is Takeshi Kitano who imbues the Sergeant with sympathy and warmth, a trait missing from the young and proud Ryuichi Sakamoto. Primarily, the story of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence displays friendship and love can and often does arise in the unlikeliest of places despite the cultural and wartime gap separating Hara from Lawrence, and thus provides a sense of hope for the future of Japanese society.
Upon release, reactions were of course mixed, with American viewers decrying conflicting acting styles between the theatrical Japanese and the subdued British performances. It's also, despite being a POW period drama, been unfairly criticized for being melodramatic and improbable. As it stands today, it's an affecting look at the Second World War through the eyes of a Japanese man determined to enact radical change in his country. With it's evocative electronic score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and handsome cinematography by Toichiro Narushima, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence for all it's war torn atrocities might in fact be the sweetest and most compassionate film Mr. Oshima has ever made. A tale of poetic justice, sin and redemption through one's sacrifices in the war, it's living proof that human kindness can indeed be found in the darkest and most forsaken places and times of our planet. Even after the tides have turned and the roles of power have reversed themselves, Hara and Lawrence can't help but share a kindred smile as they wish one another a Merry Christmas.
- Andrew Kotwicki