REVIEW: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence - Nagisa Oshima (1983)
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
There have been so many films about Japanese P.O.W. camps during WW2: David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai", Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" Bryan Forbes' "King Rat" to name but a few. None of those films had a statement that cut to the bone quite like the one uttered by Tom Conti in 1983's "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" though. Refering to his Japanese captors he says, "They are a nation of anxious people who could do nothing on their own, so they went mad enmasse." Tough stuff, but what makes it even more tough and unique amongst this Japanese P.O.W. camp genre is that "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" was directed by a Japanese filmmaker, and not just any Japanese filmmaker at that. This adaptation of the 1963 semi-autobiographical novel "The Seed and the Sower" by Laurens van der Post was directed by intellectual, iconoclast and founding father of the Japanese New Wave, Nagisa Oshima.
Only one other Japanese film captures that mass hysteria and madness that Tom Conti's character Col. John Lawrence describes to his fellow prisoner Major Jack Celliers (played famously by rock icon David Bowie) and that was Kon Ichikawa's 1959 anti-war drama "Fires on the Plain". There the insanity that gripped the Imperial Army during WW2 was viewed from the inside by Pvt. Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi), a consumptive foot soldier trying to survive in The Philippines during the last days of the war, but in Oshima's film the madness is viewed from the outside, through the eyes of British and Dutch soldiers held captive in a P.O.W. camp in 1942 Java.
Under the authority of the outwardly valourous but inwardly volatile Cpt. Yonoi, played by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who is also responsible for the beautiful soundtrack, and the drunken Sgt. Hara, played by Takeshi Kitano in his first dramatic role in a feature film, the prisoners are forced to endure starvation, beatings and repeated orders to commit seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide. The appearance of a contraband radio in the barracks results in John Lawrence being scheduled for execution, not because he is guilty of smuggling it in, but just because Cpt. Yonoi needs someone to punish.
One of the most troubling aspects of being incarcerated in the camp, though, is the constant accusations by Sgt. Hara and Cpt. Yonoi of sexual relations between the prisoners. Some of these accusations are founded in truth, but the majority are dreamt up especially by Hara's overactive adolescent imagination. As he punishes a Korean worker and Dutch soldier for buggerey at the beginning of the film Hara goes from being a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army to a cruel boy who likes to pull the wings off flies. It's this and many other scenes involving Kitano that cements my opinion that he can be a truly brilliant actor when he appears in a film that he doesn't direct. This closed society based on cruelty and an overweening interest in homosexual activities is thrown into chaos when Major Jack Celliers is brought into camp. This androgynous male beauty ignites the same kind of passions in Cpt. Yonoi as he is trying to beat out of his prisoners and he is forced to reconcile his feelings of attraction for this other man at the same time as performing his duty as the head of the camp. It's this theme of homosexual obession that Oshima would explore further in his 1999 film "Gohatto".
While "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" is definitely not as formally radical as Oshima's "Diary of a Shinjuku Thief", "The Man Who Left His Will on Film"and other experimental works of the 1960s it definitely delivers on Oshima's political and social combativeness. It's important to remember that this very pointed critique of the hive mentality of the Japanese military during the early 1940s came over 20 years before the Koizumi administration issued its carefully worded apologies for Japan's wartime aggression. "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" isn't only an indictment of the Japanese military though. The ending of the film turns the tables and focuses on the greater insanity of war when in a heartbreaking scene Lawrence comes to visit Sgt. Hara on the eve of his execution for war crimes. "I do not understand," Hara tells Lawrence in halting English, "My crimes are no different than any other soldier." Here we are asked to question what the real difference is between Hara being executed for the crimes of his nation and Col. Lawrence being sentenced to death because someone smuggled a radio into the barracks.