At the time of writing this, the death of music legend (and occasional actor) David Bowie at age 69 is dominating headlines globally, and with good reason. Writers far better acquainted with his life and work should be left to write their obituaries and overview features, but this editor would like to contribute a tiny piece of writing into the conversation about Bowie’s film work: a reposted review (originally written for Eyeforfilm in 2011) of the bluray re-release of Japanese director Nagisa Oshima’s WWII drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.
RIP David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016).
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is available on bluray from amazon.co.uk.
The original review can be read here.
Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, back out on a new Studiocanal double-play Blu-ray/DVD some 28 years after its cinematic release, is a strange film indeed. It was the first English-language project of Japanese In The Realm Of The Senses director Nagisa Ôshima. He takes the unusual setup of having two internationally renowned pop stars – Ryûichi Sakamoto and David Bowie – rather than professional actors taking top billing.
It is set in the Second World War and is told largely from the Allied perspective but a significant chunk of its dialogue is in Japanese with subtitles only rarely used, highlighting the language and cultural barriers faced by the both sides in the film. It is underwritten by a very strange, synth-infused score – which was itself written and performed by Sakamoto. The cast is further fleshed out with the teaming of Tom Conti with legendary Japanese director/actor Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano. Few war films can boast that they were drawn on such an interesting canvas and put together with such interesting pieces.
A study of brutality, authority, guilt and the intensity of the relations between men at war confined together, Merry Christmas’s story is almost entirely set in the boiling kettle of tension that is an isolated Java-based Japanese POW camp in 1942.
The young, fragile-looking and anxious camp commander Captain Yonoi (Sakamoto) and occasionally brutal yet strangely humane Sergeant Hara (Kitano) keep the order, aided by their liaison with British PoW Colonel Lawrence (Conti). Lawrence is a gentle but compromised, and very lonely man. His ability to speak Japanese fluently, presumably gained whilst being posted to Japan, offers him insights into Japanese culture and helps with getting the British PoWS what they need. But it makes him a suspected collaborator in the eyes of the PoW’s commanding officer Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson).
Lawrence enjoys cordial relations with Sergeant Hara, but is frustrated by the British obstinacy when it comes to understanding Japanese customs and culture. Ultimately though, even Lawrence is not spared the brutality that flows from the Japanese warped bushido culture when it is combined with the anxieties of war, propaganda and xenophobia.
The order is upset when war of wills, charged with homoerotic tensions, erupts between rebellious newcomer PoW Major Jack Celliers (Bowie) and camp commandant Yonoi. Yonoi seems obsessed with Celliers, having encountered him earlier at a show trial. It is uncertain whether Yonoi finds Celliers sexually attractive or is more drawn to his sense of Celliers’ aura of guilt and shame at a youthful betrayal, a burden which Yonoi also suffers, having failed to die honourably in battle earlier with his comrades.
Celliers defies Yonoi’s command and assumes a position of authority among the POWs, many of whom view him with awe, and to the horror of his subordinates Yonoi shields Celliers from reprisals and moves to have him take over as the PoWs commander. The scene is set for a brutal denouement which is only avoided through a defiant, strange and yet tender act from Celliers, which leaves no man untouched by its consequences.
Given Bowie’s filmography and his shock-haired, wastrel-like appearance in this decade, some did dub this film “The Man Who Fell to Java”. But Oshima’s film is more than a pop idol vehicle. Bowie and Sakamoto acquit themselves well, their otherworldly appearance and rougher edges in acting ability feel quite appropriate for the characters they are playing – outsiders. But Kitano and the understated Conti make for an engaging duo too, their complex relationship a cry for cross-cultural understanding – no matter how imperfect and tainted.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is a bizarre film that throws together different actors, acting styles and nationalities, and it does feel a little awkward and jumbled in places. It’s microcosm message of hope for future relations between West and East is a little thickly laid on. But it is also undeniably a unique piece that deserves to be seen and – given Sakamoto’s memorable soundtrack – heard again.