A prisoner-of-war drama as fever dream, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence fascinates mostly for the hit-and-miss alchemy of its discordant elements: in performance, pop-star charisma versus British actorliness; in narrative style, genre expectations coming up against modernist psychosexual undercurrents. The first film by Japan’s great auteur Nagisa Oshima to feature mostly English dialogue, and his most widely seen in the West thanks to a co-starring role for David Bowie, its framing and editing is more superficially “conventional” than Oshima’s ‘60s and ‘70s masterworks, but its themes of crippling nationalism, thwarted passion, and societal derangement are of a piece with them. Adapted by Oshima and Paul Mayersberg from a novel by Afrikaner author Laurens Van der Post, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence feels like a somewhat muffled, secondhand expression of Oshima’s radical sensibilities, but its stilted, misjudged strategems never raise doubts that it is the creation of a significant, challenging artist, albeit a minor work.
Set in a Japanese POW facility in Java in 1942, the plot is spun off the power dynamics among the camp commander, the fastidiously severe Captain Yonoi (the model-beautiful musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the haunting score); the prisoners’ liaison officer, Colonel Lawrence (a solid, gallows-humored Tom Conti); a cruelly stupid, playfully sadistic enforcer, Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano, revelatory in a career-changing switch from comedy); and a newly captured guerilla fighter, Major Jack Celliers (Bowie, blond and inevitably well-groomed). The characters’ charged, often violent clashes translate as a metaphor for two empires on the brink of twilight, and Oshima’s crisp spatial schemes, emphasizing the linear geometry of scenes like courtrooms, prisoner assemblies, and the Japanese officers’ living and worship spaces, are disrupted by bursts of chaos: a botched rite of seppuku, interrupted or faux executions, Lawrence’s enraged assault on an altar as he curses Yonoi’s gods.
The director often tracks in slowly for emphasis on the protagonists’ obsessions and quandaries, most memorably in Celliers’s introductory judicial hearing, where the camera’s approach shows that Yonoi is thoroughly discomfited by and drawn to the fair captive. A homoerotic reading of this relationship is the easiest, from not only Sakamoto’s performance and the dialogue (“I believe he’s taken a shine to you old man,” Lawrence leers at Celliers), but given the pansexual weight of Bowie’s persona; however, Yonoi’s climactic gesture is more fetishistic than queer, which both fits best with Oshima’s oeuvre and the story’s emphasis on individual fervor rumbling beneath military orthodoxy. (A humorless British captain with no quirks, played by Jack Thompson, is seen purely as a fool.)
Bowie, the film’s box office calling card outside of Japan, is not a disaster, but his confrontational scenes with Yonoi and other officers never quite shake the scent of speechifying, and Conti has the upper hand in their talky, reflective scenes together. (A headstrong English major is not a glove-fit part for a relatively callow actor, as The Man Who Fell to Earth was for Ziggy Stardust.) Though he theatrically performs a mimed shaving sequence and munches on flower petals, in a would-be sobering flashback to Celliers’s betrayal of his golden-voiced, vulnerable younger brother, Bowie’s appearance in a public school jacket is theoretically defensible as a guilt-wracked personal reverie of the doomed soldier, but borderline risible onscreen. The most human connection in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, aside from Sakamoto’s swooning fixation on Bowie, is between Conti’s practical humanist Lawrence and Kitano’s loutish but gregarious drunk Hara, which makes the epilogue they share a touching summation of the tragedy Oshima sees in the habit of war: “The truth is that nobody’s right.”
The South Pacific island location is handsomely rendered in this transfer without ever looking lush or pretty, as was likely the intent of Nagisa Oshima and cinematographer Toichiro Narushima; the eye-popping sequence of Jack Celliers's vision of his English country home, while of debatable dramatic merit, reflects a different but similarly accomplished aim. The stereo mix is laudably striking whether registering the blows and screams of the film's lurid but artful violence, or in doing justice to Ryuichi Sakamoto's intricate score.
A thorough portrait of the creative team on this British-Japanese co-production by Criterion includes a contemporaneous making-of that features a paparazzi frenzy at its Cannes Film Festival showing, featuring David Bowie's most extensive remarks (he rightfully considered himself a "novice" operating on instinct in cinema), and producer Jeremy Thomas describing the star's appropriateness for the large personality needed to fill Celliers's role. Newly recorded recollections of the shooting include Tom Conti's learning of his Japanese dialogue in one week of cramming, and Ryuichi Sakamoto's astonishment at learning Oshima—whose films he'd absorbed since his teens—had cast him on the basis of a photo in a book, and his inability to find the principal location, a small isle off the New Zealand coast, on a map.
Sakamoto also discusses his virgin experience in scoring a film, with regrets that he didn't master the art until his later work for Bertolucci: "I was crudely pasting music over the images." Oshima's co-writer Paul Mayersberg describes his contribution of structure to the screenplay, and how he labored to supply "mirrored" pairs of characters. As for a gay interpretation of Yonoi's love for Celliers, he quotes the director as saying, "No…it's the way men are in war." Perhaps the only superfluous supplement is an hour-long U.K. profile of Laurens van der Post, author of the source novel The Seed and the Sower, as Mayersberg declares that the script is much more Japanese-centric than the book. The disc's booklet features a 1983 interview with Oshima, another with actor Takeshi Kitano, and an essay by Chuck Stephens which places Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence in the context of the director's career: "One of the few Oshima works to wear its heart so clearly on its sleeve."
An exhaustive double-disc that suggests the unique circumstances of a production can make for a more compelling tale than the resulting film.