“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is one of those films that stays with you. You don’t remember it so much as a war film, but a film about the relationship of man and their differences.
During my trips to Japan during the Winter, you can hear the theme song to this film still being played on the loudspeaker and for nearly three decades, there are many times where I would be asked by Japanese friends if I have ever watched the film. There is always an allure towards this film by Japanese and also to those who have had the opportunity to watch it and for me, each time I have watched this film, I have come away watching it and discovering something new each time. And with this latest experience, because of the awesome special features that come with this Criterion Collection release, not only does it answer some questions I have had of this film but it also enhanced my appreciation of this Oshima classic.
For those who are used to Oshima’s Brechtian style of filmmaking, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” was a film that proved to be baffling to those who viewed it. Afterall, one can’t expect another “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and although based on a book, for those who are familiar with Oshima’s work will know that he’s not going to follow things as exactly what was on the pages of Laurens Van der Post’s “The Seed and The Sower”. We expect some sort of rebelliousness from Oshima and if anything, for him to take on a POW film is quite interesting.
I definitely admire director Nagisa Oshima for not following the path of other filmmakers when it comes to prisoner of war films. Not to say that these films are cliche but when you have Oshima working on the film, you’re expecting some type of rebelliousness on his part, and also expecting him not to follow the traditional route of filmmaking and storytelling.
As we have learned from Nagisa Oshima from films such as “In the Realm of Senses”, “Empire of Passion” and even his sixties films, one expects some type of rebellious trait that somehow exposes Japanese culture in a non-traditional way and in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, the subject matter is not as simplistic of two different cultures that see their own life in a different manner, nor is it about one side being ominous or correct. It’s about understanding one’s own value of life and in that rare moment, having that ability to see things on the other side.
There are people who tend to focus on the homoerotic attraction of Captain Yonoi towards Cellier but for me, I saw this as part of Oshima’s rebelliousness. Simply because most filmmakers who have created films on the samurai have always focused on man. May it be the corruption, the power, the protectiveness or the honor of men but I saw Yonoi’s Bushido-believing character as a man that was no different as samurai in the early ages who partook in nanshoku (male love) as these were depicted even in “Genji Monogatari” (Tale of Genji). I started to learn more about this three years ago because it was rather interesting that this was a side of “samurai” culture that is known but never shown on film. But when you think about the situation of the samurai’s of being around men, rarely around women, can this be the case with Captain Yonoi in “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”? Was this that rebellious side of Oshima by cleverly including that homoerotic tension in the film? Because even for the soldiers, even honor amongst men, especially warriors, if it happened then, Japanese filmmakers never touched upon that subject. Samurai films or even wartime films of Japanese were always depicted showing strong men who had honor. So, this was the latest that I’ve got out of the film, watching it once again. Another layer peeled, and once again, something new to discover. Or perhaps, I am over-analyzing.
But this was how I looked at Yonoi’s fascination of Cellier. Like many samurai’s who were in areas where there weren’t many women at all and only men, I saw Yonoi as a man who saw something within Cellier’s. Some writers say it was a “kindred spirit” but I looked at it as more as a man who was touched by another’ man’s sincerity, his honor of wanting to help people, his honor of submitting himself to become a prisoner of war but not afraid to die. Call Yonoi fascinated, maybe he was gay but “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” doesn’t need to get into the details of that. But it makes you wonder how Captain Yonoi was the only soldier who had makeup around his face. His eyes with the eyeliner, blush on the cheeks. Why would Oshima want that with only Yonoi and not the other Japanese soldiers? To make him stand out? To make him appear more feminine?
It’s important for me to say that by mentioning all this, for the first-time viewer, by no means is this a gay film. “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is pretty much a film about the relationship of man and the varying perspectives, especially as we see how the Japanese and British soldiers really have a difficult time understanding each other. But for Yonoi, he is a man of guilt and somehow he felt that same guilt within Cellier’s.
There is also another theme that people who are familiar with Japanese culture (or cinema) will pick up on and that is the feeling of honor. Dying with honor, serving your country with honor and I felt that Oshima said it best when describing Yonoi’s position of heading a prison camp. Oshima said (in the interview included inside the Criterion booklet), “heading a prison camp was a humiliating assignment to a Japanese officer’s way of thinking.” Yonoi’s guilt of not dying alongside his comrades has affected him and having him watch over P.O.W.’s was not making him feel any better as well. Yonoi is a man of honor and perhaps that is what he saw inside Cellier’s and by then, he would eventually be consumed by his charm.
This is a film that may seem simplistic on the outside but can we classify different human perspectives as simplistic when it is rather complex? The British soldiers view the Japanese as inhumane and lack honor for how they treat the soldiers but at the same time, the Japanese are in awe of how men can submit themselves to becoming an enemy’s prisoner of war. The Japanese way is dying with honor. Lawrence tells Sgt. Hara that for him and his men, it’s about living and being given another chance to fight again. Who is right? Who is wrong?
So, I really appreciate how Oshima crafted this film because I enjoyed it…but do I call it a masterpiece?
Roger Ebert wrote in his review at the Chicago Sun-Times:
It’s awkward, not because of the subject matter, but because of the contrasting acting styles. Here are two men trying to communicate in a touchy area and they behave as if they’re from different planets. The overstatement in the Japanese acting ruins the scene.
When I first watched “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” many years ago, I felt the same way. We know that there are differences in acting style and especially when you try to bring in both worlds together, sometimes they don’t mesh as well. And I have to admit that when I see Asian talent having to speak (or sing) a song that is not of their native tongue, the results are rather subjective and for me, it works or it doesn’t. I felt that Takeshi Kitano did a magnificent job especially with the final scene and him delivering the film’s title in his final words but things were good but not great when it came to Yonoi and Bowie.
I know.for some, what kind of movie would “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” have been if it was in the hands of another filmmaker? Or what was the true experience that the real Lawrence, or in this case Laurens had when he was in the POW camp? What we do know from Laurens Van der Post’s novel “The Seed and The Sower”, Post was a man who embraced the Japanese language and the people when he stayed in Japan. He was amazed of how in tune the Japanese were to their own environment and at the time, seeing Japanese who have not been in contact with people not of their own culture.
But during war time, he saw how these Japanese that he adored, became different and he saw the hostilities that transpired at the prison camp to the last moment when the Japanese soldiers just switched, as if someone turned the power off and the Japanese accepted their defeat. There is more to this story which is further explained in the “Hasten Slowly” documentary but I felt that it was simply fantastic that the Criterion Collection added this feature.
I’ve been asked if this film is a masterpiece of Nagisa Oshima and although I do feel the word “masterpiece” is starting to become overused when describe a famous filmmaker’s oeuvre and in Oshima’s case, there are far too many films that I did enjoy but I do feel that this film was much more accessible to the viewer. For me, each time I view this film, I come away with some different as time goes by and I start to see things in a much more different light and I suppose that is why I enjoy this film so much is because it’s simple but yet has a complexity that one can easily interpret this film in a variety of ways. And you’ll either love it or you don’t.
I felt that “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” was a much more entertaining experience this time around and it is because The Criterion Collection had included special features in which we can hear the writer Paul Mayersberg give his own interpretation about the film and working with Oshima, we also get to hear about Bowie, Conti, Sakamoto and Kitano’s impression of the film and get their interpretation of the film as well. And to finally hear from Laurens Van der Post and his fellow soldiers describe their experiences at the POW camp was impressive and heartbreaking as well.
Overall, “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is one of those films that people will find something deep and complex within its layers or come away feeling like it’s a film that missed its true potential of not following Van der Post’s book and showing a more dramatic approach of the life of the POW. So, I have no doubt that this film will be subjective towards the viewer.