Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

Director: Nagisa Oshima
Screenplay: Nagisa Oshima & Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel The Seed and the Sower by Laurens Van der Post)
Stars: David Bowie (Major Jack “Strafer” Celliers), Tom Conti (Col. John Lawrence), Ryûichi Sakamoto (Capt. Yonoi), Takeshi Kitano (Sgt. Gengo Hara), Jack Thompson (Group Capt. Hicksley), Johnny Okura (Kanemoto), Alistair Browning (De Jong), James Malcolm (Celliers’ Brother), Chris Broun (Celliers aged 12), Yûya Uchida (Commandant of Military Prison), Ryunosuke Kaneda (President of the Court), Takashi Naitô (Lt. Iwata), Tamio Ishikura (Prosecutor)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1983
Country: U.K. / Japan
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Merry Christmas Mr. LawrenceMerry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a curio of early-’80s international cinema: A story about a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Java set in the early years of World War II, it was produced by internationally minded British producer Jeremy Thomas (who has frequently collaborated with Bernardo Bertolucci), directed by the Japanese iconoclast Nagisa Oshima, who cowrote the script with British film critic and scribe Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) from a semi-autobiograpical novel by the South African Laurens Van der Post, and starring a mixed cast of Japanese and British actors. Its logical comparison (and counterpoint) is David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), a film that Oshima appears to be actively reacting against with a deliberately modernist take on wartime tensions, a genuine emphasis on culture clash and desire to see the situation from both sides, and a denouement that suggests no one is ever truly right--quite the opposite of Lean’s heroics.

The questionable nature of this conclusion is certainly disturbing if you look at it from a macro historical perspective (Are we really to believe it doesn’t matter who won World War II?), but it makes perfect sense within the film’s focused dramatic world, where the world at war disappears in favor of a direct depiction of how opposite sides of the world deal with issues of imprisonment, honor, loyalty, and nationalism. Set in 1942, the story’s structuring tension is between the rigid camp commander Captain Yonoi (Ryûichi Sakamoto) and a recently captured British guerilla leader Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie). This tension is mediated with both success and failure by Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti), a British prisoner who has spent many years living in Japan and speaks Japanese fluently. This means that, not only can he translate the language of his captors to his fellow British and Australian prisoners, but he also understands the culture that produced them, something of which the gruff Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson) remains insistently unaware. Thus, when Yonoi punishes the prisoners by denying them food and water for two days, Lawrence understands it as a Japanese rite of purification, rather than simple physical torment.

The film’s split view between the British and the Japanese (both in front of and behind the camera) lends it a defiant humanism that flies in the face of the typical war film, virtually all of which ultimately take a side even if they attempt to understand something about the “enemy.” Oshima, a rebel of a director who at the time was still best known for his daring erotic epic In the Realm of the Senses (1976), had made his name in the 1960s and ’70s with a series of films that took an often scathing looking at his own country’s history and culture. Thus, has no qualms about dealing with the film’s more difficult material, especially the depiction of the violent results of uncompromising Japanese militancy (against both the prisoners and Japanese soldiers who fail in their honor) and the latent eroticism that drives Yonoi’s focus on Celliers, who refuses to play the role of the good prisoner. The film’s attention is split fairly evenly across the major characters, and their interactions are consistently fascinating in the way they illustrate both the cultural divide and the halting attempts to somehow bridge it.

It is interesting to note that both Celliers and Yonoi, the principal signifiers of West and East, are both played by pop superstars (Bowie had been acting in films for nearly a decade at that point, but Sakamoto, who also composed the film’s heavily synthesized score, was making his film debut). Bowie is certainly limited in his range, but he makes for an achingly beautiful and resolute Christ figure, albeit one who is unfortunately saddled by a backstory whose explication in gaudy flashback is the film’s chief liability. Sakamoto, on the other hand, has a natural screen presence that makes his character’s sharp edges more tragic than frightening. As the go-between, Conti is more of a plot figure than a character, although his Japanese double, the alternately brutal and humorous Sergeant Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano, who would go on to become one of Japan’s leading filmmakers), proves to be the film’s true scene-stealer. Takeshi invests his character with the kind of contradictory tendencies that force us to sit up and pay attention, and the ending of the film on his round, joyous face just before likely death creates a strong, unforgettable statement about what should be the incompatible nature of humanity and war.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is also available from The Criterion Collection in a two-disc DVD set (SRP $29.95).
Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • Japanese/English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • “The Oshima Gang,” a 1983 making-of featurette
  • New video interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, actor Tom Conti, and actor-composer Ryuichi Sakamoto
  • Hasten Slowly, an hour-long 1996 documentary about author Laurens van der Post, whose autobiographical novel was the basis for the film
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens and reprinted interviews with director Nagisa Oshima and actor Takeshi Kitano
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 28, 2010

    Criterion’s new 2K high-definition transfer of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was made from 35mm interpositive and digitally restored to return it to a near pristine state. Previously unavailable on DVD or Blu-Ray in Region 1, the film looks amazingly good via the Criterion treatment, with a clean, smooth image that retains a slight veneer of grain but maintains excellent detail despite the sometimes soft photography. The overall color palette in the film hews heavily toward grays, browns, and earthy greens, although Celliers’ flashback sequences have the kind of bright, saturated primary colors we might associate with a Technicolor musical. The digitally restored soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD in its original stereo mix from the 35mm Dolby LT/RT magnetic audio tracks. The track is clean and free of any ambient hiss or pops, and although limited to only two channels, Ryûichi Sakamoto’s heavily synthesized score maintains excellent depth and scope.
    While there is no audio commentary on the disc, there are quite a few new video interviews with the men involved in the film’s production. “On the Screenplay” is a 28-minute interview with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg; the 40-minute “On Location” combines interview with actors Tom Conti and Ryûichi Sakamoto and producer Jeremy Thomas; and, finally, “On the Music” features an additional 18-minute interview with Sakamoto. There are also two older documentaries--“The Oshima Gang,” a half-hour making-of featurette from 1983, and Hasten Slowly, a 55-minute documentary from 1996 about author Laurens van der Post--and the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet features an essay by film critic Chuck Stephens and a pair of illuminating reprinted interviews with director Nagisa Oshima and actor Takeshi Kitano.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3)

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