Saturday, 19 November 2011


Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is often misremembered, perhaps even dismissed, as being simply a straightforward, commercially driven vehicle intent on putting its renowned director and co-screenwriter Nagisa Oshima -- the Japanese auteurist and former provocateur extraordinaire -- under the bright spotlight of mainstream Western media recognition for the first time after he'd originally found a degree of prominence internationally in the 1970s, for his radical gesture in yoking a stylised form of cinematic beauty to the less than reputable ‘genre’ of hard-core pornography, with the French produced In the Realm of the Senses. In 1983, this Jeremy Thomas production reached much further beyond the confines of the arthouse ghetto to embrace an audience who knew nothing of its director’s radical past but were impressed by the casting of David Bowie (the tousle-haired, ‘80s-era blonde Bowie of the critically reviled ‘Let’s Dance’ period) and enamoured of Yellow Magic Orchestra frontman Ryuichi Sakamoto’s swooningly catchy chart synth anthem, Forbidden Colours.

The casting of Bowie alongside a mix & match cast of upcoming British thesps like Tom Conti and mainstream Japanese personalities such as “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (then known mainly as a comedian in his native country) inevitably brought this peculiar film to the attention of a much wider audience
than it would otherwise have been expected to command both in Japan and abroad – indeed, it probably found a bigger audience than any other film Oshima had made before; but the seemingly skewed populists casting decisions are completely in line with its ultimate raison d'être -- for its many seeming inconsistencies and clashes in formal style (which range from the varied approaches in acting culture of the mixed British/Japanese cast, to the mismatch between Sakamoto’s state-of-the-art synth score and the film’s 1940s period setting) are a big part of its point -- foreshadowing its core theme of cultural dissonance and examining how in closed quarters it permeates and affects the assumptions behind the thoughts and actions and desires of the story’s four main protagonists in unpredictable, fragmenting and frequently violent ways.

Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) reports for court duty
It’s also completely an extension of Oshima’s previous work, despite a much higher public profile and the unaccustomed mainstream acceptance the film garnered: the opening scenes of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence couldn’t make this any more clear to the Oshima enthusiast, setting up once more, themes that have been a constant in Oshima’s cinema since early ‘60s radical works such as Death by Hanging (1968) and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), which take the form of an obsession with society’s outsiders (whether they be its sexual taboo busters or the racially marginalised) and the challenge such individuals pose to political, religious and social orthodoxies. It is also, like many of Oshima’s films, particularly In the Realm of the Senses and Death by Hanging, based on true events, though in this case distorted through the prism of being an joint adaptation by Oshima and The Man Who Fell to Earth screenwriter, Paul Mayersberg, of a novel, “The Seed and the Sower”, which was based on the true life experiences of aristocratic Englishman and former prisoner of war in Indonesia, Laurens van der Post.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence takes place in a wartime Japanese prisoner of war camp situated in Java, soon after the Japanese invasion of South East Asia, in early 1942, and sees Tom Conti cast as van der Post’s alter ego, Colonel John Lawrence. A Japanese-speaking British officer with an affinity for Japanese culture, who had once lived in the country before the war, Lawrence finds himself in the uncomfortable position of attempting to liaise, on behalf of the British prisoners, between their austere, frequently violent Japanese captors and the prisoners’ uncomprehending official British spokesman, the blustering Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson). Neither side fully understands the other and routinely misinterpret each other’s behaviour because of their unfamiliarity with their respective cultural backgrounds. The traditional Japanese honour code that informs the attitudes of the alternatingly amiable-then-brutal Sgt Gengo Hara (Battle Royale’s Takeshi Katino, in his first major screen role) has the effect of his seeing the prisoners as merely being cowards for their not being prepared to commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by their foes; meanwhile Hicksley interprets the violent methods of punishment routinely meted out by Hara and his men as evidence of nothing but uncivilised brutality in their Japanese captors. The irony is, of course, that both men, from the perspective of their own respective cultures, are equally hot-headed patriotic conservatives, obsessed with tradition and the right way of doing things.
Jack Celliers (David Bowie) awaits execution
Into this fraught situation comes a new and inspiring face: Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) -- a man already well known to Lawrence and many of the other prisoners as “Strafer” Jack – because of his reputation for being a soldier’s soldier. Caught trying to organise a guerrilla fighting group in the jungle after the Japanese invasion of Java, Celliers is at first condemned to execution by the Japanese high command. But Commandant, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) is clearly struck by the fearless Major, seeing in him an example of the military virtue and perfection he himself aspires to. The aristocratic Yonoi was once sympathetic to the cause of the “Shining Young Officers” a group of lower ranking officers in the Japanese Imperial army who attempted a coup d'état in Japan in the year 1936. Yonoi was unable to take part in the infamous February 26th incident in which the rebels managed briefly to occupy the capital before control was re-established by the Imperial Army, since he had been posted to Manchuria just beforehand. While his comrades were executed, Yonoi found himself placed in charge of the prison camp instead of being awarded a more prestigious command post, because of his suspected sympathies with the rebellion.
Yonoi’s guilt at not sharing the self -sacrifice of his comrades, and his recognition of Celliers’ own sacrifice in staying behind to organise a futile guerrilla campaign while the British forces evacuated the region, leads the Captain to intervene in his sentencing and recommend that Celliers be imprisoned rather than executed, although an idiosyncratic sense of propriety demands that a cruel mock execution be staged in any case -- with Celliers bound before a line of rifle -bearing marksmen, who all point their arms at him but then unexpectedly discharge their weapons to either side of his body at the last second after hearing the command to fire!
John Lawrence (Tom Conti) attempts to reason with Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson)

But Celliers’ arrival at the camp coincides with the discovery of a homosexual liaison between one of the Japanese guards and a Dutch prisoner. Sergeant Hara at first tries to get the ‘disgraced’ guard to commit Seppuku, and even brings Colonel Lawrence along to watch the event. Despite his strange friendship with Hara and his unique respect for and knowledge of Japanese culture, Lawrence is appalled by Hara’s rigid traditionalism and manages to get Captain Yonoi to intervene; but although he punishes Hara for taking matters into his own hands, the Captain then organises an even more traditional, ceremonial form of ritual suicide for the disgraced guard, and forces the camp’s foreign prisoners to become unwilling spectators to the gruesome act. Their equally appalled reaction is interpreted as spiritual impoverishment and cowardice by Yonoi who promptly enforces a fast as an atonement ritual, a further burden on already undernourished men.

Celliers’ arrival at this time results in the refined but (to the other prisoners) heroic Major taking his own stand against the regime by blithely disobeying the fasting rule and all it stands for, feeding the camp with hand-picked fruit and outraging Yonoi and Hara by then defiantly eating the funerary ‘Manju’ flowers he uses to conceal this illicit food in the bottom of his straw basket. Yonoi is torn between an obvious affinity for the Major because of his recognition of the man’s heroic qualities as a soldier (to which he aspires), and fulfilling the omen such an act would seem to court: the Manju flower is associated both with love and with death in Japanese superstition and legends, and Celliers’ intransigence would seem to demand his destruction -- especially after the challenge the interloper has put to the Captain’s unyielding belief in the rigid samurai bushido code.

The strange dance of provocation between Sakamoto’s Yonoi and Bowie’s effete, blonde-highlighted soldier Celliers, drives much of the incident of the film and seems deliberately positioned in such a way as to encourage the idea that there may be suppressed homoerotic undertones in Yonoi’s near-worship of the increasingly Christ-like British Major. The casting of two non-professional actors in such demanding and unusual roles can be seen as a daring decision on Oshima’s part, designed to befuddle those who would try to pin the film down as a traditional realist wartime nostalgia piece. Conti and Thompson may give refined, graceful, subtle RADA-toned performances of a type audiences may be familiar with from such films, but Sakamoto and Bowie’s untutored and intuitive approach to their acting often seems to locate them as part of an entirely different kind of work. Certainly Sakamoto’s stilted, accented English delivery and Bowie’s dazzling (and visually signposted) off-world rock star persona both seem to place unbroachable barriers between an audience’s full acceptance and understanding of each of their characters, but Oshima seems little interested in illuminating the inner conflicts of Celliers and Yonoi so much as dramatizing the texture of the incommensurable attraction between them, and to this end his indulgence of Bowie’s mime skills and of Sakamoto’s inherent awkwardness before the camera help him achieve his aim. Both characters are caught in a self-sacrificial web of magnetic attraction like moths bent on extinguishing themselves in each other’s flame.
The brothers set off for boarding school
Toichiro Narushima’s cinematography reproduces the steamy muted palettes of Rarotonga and echoes many a familiar wartime jungle movie in doing so, but also explodes into a riot of colour for a key sequence which occurs once Celliers and Lawrence are imprisoned together awaiting execution after they are singled out for punishment when a radio is discovered in camp (Yonoi knows Lawrence isn’t responsible, but as the person who provides the bridge across the cultural gap that exists between prisoner and captor, he must accept the blame and die for Yonoi according to the Captain’s deranged sense of propriety). The scene takes the form of a flashback to Celliers’ childhood and reveals a guilty secret he harbours over the treatment of his younger brother.

This is where Oshima makes the film’s fundamentally offbeat nature most lucidly perceptible: Celliers’ English rural upbringing is transmogrified by the clearly quite incongruous New Zealand shooting locations, into an airily garlanded dreamscape in which the younger blonde brother (James Malcolm) is bullied for his beatific soprano singing voice, and the slightly older twelve-year-old Celliers (Chris Broun) takes it upon himself to be his little brother’s protector. This all changes when the two arrive at a rigidly stratified boarding school, and Celliers’ commitment to blending in with and becoming a part of the ‘establishment’ leads him to sacrifice his brother to the harsh humiliations of the school’s initiation rituals, which results in the boy never singing again.

Oshima turns this whole sequence into something that might've looked more in place as part of a Ken Russell production of Mary Poppins (specifically echoing the heightened, brightly coloured melodrama of the The Lair of the White Worm) and magnifies the surrealism of it by transplanting Bowie’s older Celliers into the scenes which take place in the public school, while Celliers’ younger brother stays the same age as he was in the previous scenes from their childhood, when Bowie’s character was played by child actor Chris Broun. This strange convergence emphasises the grown-up Celliers’ guilt and provides a motivation for his later self-sacrificial action, but it also makes clear the director’s commitment to challenging the viewer’s sense of appropriateness for dealing with the material, as the film feels more dreamlike and mannered that one normally finds in movies set during this period.

Sakamoto’s incidental music continues in this mission, consisting as it does of a series of recurring leitmotifs, each associated with each of the main characters. These heavily synthesised passages stand out a mile in contrast to the wartime 1940s setting, and, if anything, are even more noticeably incongruous now that they’ve acquired the nostalgic connotations associated with 1980s synth electronica.
A final fairwell between unlikely friends
One of the most laudable aspects of the production is its determination to deal with the main characters on both sides -- British prisoners and their Japanese captors alike -- in an even handed way throughout. Takeshi’s mercurial Sergeant Hara arguably goes through the most unexpected transformation, starting the film by portraying the ugliest, nationalistic side of his character -- the side that most aligns with a western audience’s preconceptions about the brutality of the Japanese during the Second World War -- and ending it as a dignified and stoic prisoner himself, awaiting British justice at the end of the war when the roles of prisoner and captive have been reversed. The friendship between Lawrence and Hara is the one constant that endures to the end while the initially likable and honourable Captain Yonoi eventually becomes deranged by his unyielding adherence to tradition and his rigid sense of honour, which have been slowly warped by his personification of them in the unlikely form of Major Celliers, who himse;f ends up demonstrating his own form of Seppuku in the course of attempting to assuage the pain of his guilty past. Left to perish in the scorching sun after having been buried up to his neck in the earth, Celliers’ becomes almost a fetishized god to the repressed Yonoi, who removes a lock of the dying soldier’s blonde hair, as though it were both a relic of a deification or a memento of a lover, or something existing ambiguously in the gap between the two.
Ambiguity in relationships, cultural incommensurability and the hidden wellsprings of psychology that form individual personalities are the main themes of this offbeat, uncategorisable arthouse picture posing as a mainstream hit; Oshima’s penultimate film is awkward and weird but mesmerising nonetheless.

This double play release includes a Blu-ray copy and a DVD copy of the movie, both featuring the same set of extras on each, which consist of a 25 minute making of documentary called Oshima’s Gang, featuring contributions from Tom Conti, David Bowie, producer Jeremy Thomas and the author of the novel on which the film was based, Laurens van der Post. The author comes across as a benign, sweet-natured member of the upper crust who confesses at one point to feeling terribly guilty for never having heard of David Bowie before he saw the film! Bowie meanwhile (interviewed during a press conference for the film attended by Nagisa Oshima himself) comes across as quite humble about his acting abilities and reveals that the director worked incredibly quickly, usually shooting no more than two takes per scene. Conti reveals that he turned down the film at first because of the amount of violence in the script and that the many scenes in which he speaks fluent Japanese were all learned phonetically without his having any idea what he was actually saying.

The disc also includes a 17 minute interview with Jeremy Thomas, filmed more recently, in which he reveals that Oshima’s 2:1 shooting ratio left him with a load of unusable film stock on his hands, since the director never shot any more footage than he needed for his conception of each scene. An 11 minute interview with actor and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto reveals a man who isn’t at all comfortable in front of the camera when it comes to acting, and indeed, has never acted again since seeing himself in this film and being appalled by his performance! Sakamoto also talks about his conception of the music as ‘being from nowhere’ but incorporating elements of exotic, traditional Japanese and contemporary western music, mixed with a nostalgia for an unobtainable past.

This reviewer only had access to the DVD copy that comes with the set, but the transfer looked fine, if a little muddy during the opening sequence. The extras also feature a short trailer (in poor condition) and a three minute excerpt from the documentary biography Scenes by the Sea --- the Life and cinema of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano.

TITLE: Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 1983/DVD RELEASE DATE: 17 October 2011/GENRE: Arthouse/LABEL: Studio Canal UK/REGION: B/2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 1.85:1/DIRECTOR: Nagisa Oshima/CAST: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thomson.

Read a review of Empire of Passion at
Read a review of In the Realm of the Senses at



  1. I watched this as a kid on cable and was actually pretty impressed with Bowie's chops as an actor. I'd seen The Man Who Fell to Earth and prior to this, but, at the time, I was much too young to appreciate it, and, for the most part, Bowie just alternated between expressions of confusion and borderline comatose. I think my favorite performance from him is his bit part in Into the Night. He's only onscreen for maybe 7 minutes in total, but in the small span of time he exudes a full feature's worth of sleaze. :P

  2. Thanks Jim. Bowie was good in this but "The Man Who Fell to Earth" is still the definitive Bowie performance for me. I've not seen "into the Night" though. You make it sound interesting.

  3. Into the Night is John Landis' very dark, funny, and exhilarating "little film" that stars Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer (as well as pretty much EVERY director in Hollywood at the time in bit roles). Goldblum is a man whose wife has cheated on him and, suffering from a case of insomnia, ventures out into L.A. where he meets a gorgeous girl being chased by Arabs, assassins, and all manner of lowlifes. Bowie plays one of the aforementioned assassins and he's hilarious and quite convincing! :P