Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

Japan / United Kingdom

4*
Director: 
Nagisa Ôshima
Screenwriters: 
Nagisa Ôshima, Paul Mayersberg
Director of Photography:
Toichiro Narushima

Running time: 118 minutes

Original title:
戦場のメリークリスマス
Transliterated title:
Senjō no merīkurisumasu

War makes friendship among men stronger,” says Lt. Colonel Lawrence to Sergeant Hara of the Imperial Japanese Army. Of course it does. But Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence examines the consequences of such intimacy between soldiers a bit more closely than most other films, with the exception of Robert Altman’s masterful Streamers, which was released the same year. This “intimacy between soldiers” obviously implies some level of attraction, and the film’s very first scene makes it clear what the two camps, namely the British and the Japanese, make of such behaviour.

This film, by the Japanese director Nagisa Ôshima, is set during the Second World War on the island of Java, while it was under Japanese control. Allied troops, mostly British soldiers, are held captive by the Japanese forces, and while the scenes under the hot sun, among the palm trees, showing British soldiers listening to a Japanese captain who follows orders rather than reason, might look familiar, any comparison with Bridge on the River Kwai would be very superficial indeed. Ôshima’s film starts with a scene that immediately puts the Japanese and British views on homosexual attraction front and centre. When it is discovered that Kanemoto, a Korean soldier. has been committing “improper” acts with a Dutch soldier, the Japanese Sergeant Hara at first decides to execute Kanemoto, lest his shameful acts be made public. But moments before the sword falls, the commanding officer, Captain Yonoi, arrives on the scene to stop the overzealous Sergeant.

Yonoi seems to be a rather complicated individual. The filmmaker introduces him as a slightly effeminate character, approaching the would-be execution in a white robe and sandals; he also seems to be wearing eyeliner, but his fellow soldiers seem not to take any notice. He delays the execution and is called up to Batavia where he participates in a military trial for a captured British soldier called Celliers, played by David Bowie. At this point, during Celliers’s appearance in court, we get the most visible indication that Yonoi is fascinated – perhaps even enchanted – by the blond Brit: he can’t take his eyes off him.

While the charges against Celliers are read out loud, the viewer’s attention is rapt by the very slow zoom in, across the courtroom, on Yonoi’s face, staring at Celliers. When he is finally given the opportunity to speak, he comes to Celliers’s defence and proposes that the Brit be taken as a prisoner of war, rather than executed.

After Celliers arrives at the camp and Yonoi discovers that he used to serve with Lawrence, he questions the latter about him in a very innocent way that nonetheless reveals his interest to us and to Lawrence, who is very bemused by the captain’s almost childlike fascination and the fact that he doesn’t know how to interpret his own feelings. While Celliers notices Yonoi’s eyes on him and takes advantage of the special treatment he consequently receives from the Japanese commander, he is not interested in Yonoi, except as a means of redeeming himself. The viewer is made aware of the need for redemption during two significant incidents that occur as flashbacks – the first takes place years earlier when Celliers protects his younger brother by being beaten up in his place, and the second occurs years later when Celliers does not protect his brother when he is bullied at school.

Celliers’s eventual attempt at redemption demonstrates great cunning on the parts of both Celliers and the director, for it clearly links a number of different events into a solid final moment of courage. Celliers realises that, if violence is not an effective tactic of resistance, the opposite might just be worth trying out, and in the process he not only stands up against his oppressors, but he frees himself from the shackles of the past. The scene is short, simple, and stripped to its bare essentials, yet surprisingly complex, given the resolution of two issues effected in a single leap.

Yonoi shows great promise for dramatic intrigue in the first half, which moves along rapidly once the captain lays his eyes on Celliers in court, and it is very interesting to read the looks of the other Japanese soldiers, who fear that their captain has been bewitched by an evil spirit – the only explanation for the sudden change in his behaviour. However, the second half does not deliver on the promise of the first half, but rather shifts the focus to the title character, John Lawrence, who serves as mediator between the Japanese and British language and culture, and Sergeant Hara, whose initial eagerness to kill changes over time and reveals a more human character than we might have expected.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence takes on an interesting subject, but while David Bowie’s character, Jack Celliers, is carefully drawn, I did not find the same kind of depth in either John Lawrence or Hara, though this does not mute their likeability in any way. Nagisa Ôshima focuses on the human dramas of four men, and while the two groupings do not provoke the same level of emotion, the characters are all very firmly established and carry the film squarely (and firmly) on their shoulders.

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