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Spirit Made Flesh: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, An Appreciation

“You’re the victim of men who think they are right,” reasons Tom Conti’s Col. John Lawrence to Takeshi Kitano’s Sgt. Genko Hara, “just as one day you and Captain Yonoi believed absolutely that you were right. And the truth is, of course, that nobody’s right.”


Dec2010Jan2011_pg42Western guilt faces off against eastern shame in the Nagisa Ôshima art-house cinema classic from 1983, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, the long-unavailable war melodrama lovingly remastered and re-released on DVD by The Criterion Collection.

Loosely based on Laurens van der Post‘s memoir The Seed and the Sower, screenwriter Paul Mayersberg adapts and transforms the tale into a story about spiritual connection and undeniable homoerotic sexual repression that, because of the time and environment in which it is set, only explodes through violence.

Set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia in 1942, rock legend David Bowie plays Maj. Jack ‘Strafer”’ Celliers, a well-to-do New Zealand POW and troop morale booster, squaring off against the statuesque, porcelain-faced Ryûichi Sakamoto as Capt. Yonoi, the stiff commander of the camp who, from the moment he sets eyes on Bowie, obsesses about him.

Tom Conti, as Lawrence, is the western moral compass and bilingual bridge between the two cultures, mirrored by the Japanese soldier, Sgt. Gengo Hara. Takeshi Kitano plays Hara, who also utters the title of the film twice, the second time being one of the more iconic moments of melodrama in Japanese cinematic history.

Stand-up comedian “Beat” Kitano as he is also known, of course went on after this film to become a successful actor/director himself, generating global Festival hits like Sonatine (1993), Kids Return (1996), Brother (2000), and Zatoichi (2003), not to mention playing memorable roles in films like Battle Royale (2000) and Ôshima’s most recent film, Gohatto (1999).

Conti spent weeks with a linguist from New York, learning how to speak his Japanese lines. In one of the bonus feature documentaries, Bowie says that he was impressed with Conti’s analytical approach to acting, as it contrasted with his self-described ‘behavioural approach.’

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence was an early business model in the multi-regionally financed, co-production style of filmmaking; a model developed and perfected by English producer, Jeremy Thomas.

When the film was made, there was a lingering question by those involved over whether or not it was explicitly or implicitly a gay movie, at least as screenwriter Mayersberg recalls in the DVD extras. He acknowledges the gay subtext, even though the director Ôshima maintained at the time that it was more about the two soldiers’ fascination with each other’s spirits than anything else. That is not to say that Ôshima was denying the homoerotic undertones. He was by then the foremost Japanese filmmaker of his generation, and not one to shy away from sexual themes in his films, like Cruel Story Of Youth (1960) or In the Realm of the Senses (1976).

In a 1983 interview included in the set, Bowie has a somewhat opaque, yet diplomatic opinion on the themes presented in the film’s particular depiction of human para-military behaviour. Bowie’s hedging could have been as a result of having to describe a then-touchy subject of repressed homo-erotic sexual tension to the press in 1983, although he may have just been coy on purpose, to heighten interest in the film. As Bowie describes it, sexuality is alluded to, specifically with the two main characters Celliers and Yonoi. However, Bowie is not certain if it is the sexuality that is suggested, or the spiritual insight and recognition of the two main character’s strengths—even amidst an almost incomprehension of each other’s code of honour and/or ethics—that is what draws Bowie’s and Sakamoto’s characters together. Bowie wryly acknowledges in the interview that it is probably a mixture of both.

The film originally premiered and was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1983, before enjoying a very successful international run. The French newspaper Liberation called it “Rivieres Kwai, Version Gay,” so the themes expressed – however subtley – are inescapable.

Ryûichi Sakamoto was a rock star himself in his native Japan in the late 1970s with the Yellow Magic Orchestra. In the second extra features disc, in an interview conducted by Linda Hoaglund, Sakamoto, who also composed the hypnotic, deceptively simple yet instantly memorable film score, discusses how, as a rock and pop performer, he had to adjust to composing movie scores; where filmic time and musical time must co-exist harmoniously for a score to work. Sakamoto doesn’t believe he was entirely successful at the process until he scored Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Sheltering Sky (1990), even though he won an Oscar for his work scoring half of The Last Emperor (1987). However, it was the internationally successful soundtrack recording for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence that allowed his career as a film score composer to flourish.

The transfer to DVD is marvelously executed. This is a film that stays with you. If you ha’ve never heard the main theme music, once you do, you may have trouble getting it out of your mind for days afterward, with the masterfully composed images from the film haunting your dreams.

This is an expanded version, originally published in edited form in IN Toronto Magazine, December 2010 issue.