Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, 1983.
Directed by Nagisa Ōshima.
Starring David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, and Jack Thompson.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, starring the sadly departed David Bowie, arrives on a Region B Blu-ray from Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment. The disc includes a small batch of bonus features and is locked to Region B, so it will need the appropriate player.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a minor film in the pantheon of World War II movies, but it’s worth seeking out whether you’re a fan of the genre, a lover of good movies, or simply a David Bowie aficionado (or all three). I hadn’t seen it before receiving this review copy from Umbrella Entertainment in Australia, and I found it to be a solid story that explores the clash between eastern and western philosophies during the war with a more neutral eye than many other films.
Loosely based on novels written by a soldier who spent time in a Japanese POW camp, the film stars Tom Conti as the titular character, Lt. Colonel John Lawrence, and David Bowie as Major Jack “Strafer” Celliers, a newcomer who pushes against the rigid rules imposed by camp commander Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto). Lawrence speaks fluent Japanese and serves as the only link between his fellow POWs and Yonoi’s staff, which includes the sadistic sergeant Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano).
The primary thrust of the narrative involves Yonoi and Hara’s adherence to a traditional Bushido code of honor, which includes the commission of ritual seppuku (suicide) by any of their men who commit shameful acts. Lawrence, forced to witness such an event at the beginning of the film, finds the practice barbaric and tries to understand why his captors would do such a thing, while Hara believes that he can get Lawrence to come around to his viewpoint and thus pass it on to the other POWs.
Celliers, however, upsets the camp’s tenuous dynamic, bringing the rage of Hara upon him and causing Yonoi to regard him with cool calculation, as if Bowie’s character is a puzzle to be solved. Unlike a more famous World War II POW movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai, the captives’ goal isn’t to achieve a military objective, it’s to simply survive and perhaps connect with the humanity of their captors. A flashback sequence set before the war enables Celliers to express his own shame, in parallel with Yonoi’s shameful episode, and thus highlight the differences between eastern and western cultures.
In the end, like any good movie, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence eschews a point-of-view on this clash, choosing instead to present the opposing viewpoints and let the viewer make up their mind. Part of that approach is likely due to the film’s Japanese director, Nagisa Ōshima, whose frequent choices of long and medium shots implies a desire to remain more distant from the characters, as if the viewer is a neutral participant, as opposed to identifying strongly with one group of characters as “good” or “bad.”
Before getting to the bonus features, I should note that this is Blu-ray is locked to Region B and will thus need the appropriate player, unlike some of Umbrella’s other releases that have been region-free.
Here are the extras you’ll find on the disc:
- The Oshima Gang (30 minutes): This is an archival making-of that’s more in-depth than your typical EPK from the old days. It uses a mix of on-set footage, clips from the film (they go on longer than they should, but I assume that was for the benefit of movie theater owners), moments from the Cannes Film Festival, and interviews with the cast and crew to paint a well-rounded picture of the movie. Of particular interest are the stories told by veteran Laurens van der Post, who knew Japanese and used it to save his life during the war.
- Interview with Ryuichi Sakamoto (11 minutes): This is a more contemporary interview with the actor who played Captain Yonoi. He’s a well-known musician in his own right who composed a song for the film and talks about that contribution to the project as well as his experiences making the movie.
- Interview with Jeremy Thomas (18 minutes): Another newer interview with the film’s producer, who talks about the many logistical challenges involved in making it, among other things.
- Excerpt from documentary on the film career of Takeshi Kitano (3 minutes): This brief clip covers the comic TV actor’s career during the time when he made Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which was a stretch for him then. In fact, it went so far against type for him that when the movie played in Japan, some audience-goers laughed when he showed up onscreen, despite the seriousness of what was happening.
The theatrical trailer rounds out the platter.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★