50/50: Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Greetings, and welcome to the newest segment on my site called 50/50. This is a special undertaking for the year 2020, where I pick apart fifty films that I consider engaging, intriguing, and fun to discuss. All in the span of fifty weeks.
This is not a countdown where one film on the list is pitted against the other in hopes of seeing which film is the best. No, these are just insights into movies that act as food for thought. So cutting back on the chit-chat, I hope that you will enjoy this cinematic buffet with me!
#3. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) Or, I Apologize for the Culture Shock...
Most of what we hear about World War Two involves Nazi madmen, rubbing hands, and scheming on how they can build the ultimate Aryan utopia. Hitler and his armies ravaged through Europe, establishing their warped ethnic hegemony—but what of their ally, Japan? Outside of Asian cinema, the west knows little-to-nothing about Imperial Japanese exploits during the second world war. Let it be clear that this is not an indictment of any Japanese person or their country as a whole, but Japan committed some of the most atrocious war crimes that the annals of world history have ever recorded. They certainly gave Germany a run for their money! And the focal point of the film, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, is the nearly unbearable living conditions of British prisoners of war on the Indonesian island of Java.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence starts off with a group of British POWs sleeping in the humid huts of a Japanese military camp. The viewer is introduced to Sgt. Hara, who wakes up Col. John Lawrence (played by Tom Conti) to translate an impromptu trail. Col. Lawrence is the only British soldier who can speak Japanese. The first scene of brutality that is displayed is when one of the British soldiers asks a question, and Sgt. Hara, just because he could, beats him across the face with a bamboo rod. Expect to see such brutality often, since this film holds no punches. To put such inhumane conditions into more gruesome context, allied POW forces in German captivity died 1-to-11; under the care of the Japanese, it was 1-to-4.
With such knowledge, it is of no surprise that most of the Japanese in this film are showcased—except for one—in a very negative light. It is not uncommon in a lot of western media to portray the Japanese as shifty monsters, but what truly sets apart this film is that the director is not a westerner at all—but Japanese. Nagisa Oshima is known for his auteur style and outlandish cinema, regularly giving acerbic opinions on dubious aspects of Japanese culture. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is an exploration of how the madness of extreme nationalism and racism can turn people into nefarious monsters. Oshima presents the idea that Japan, in particular, is driven to such extremes due to its insistence on quashing individualism. This is not just a pre-war Japan mindset but still holds sway over the minds of many Japanese today. A quote by Lawrence, while talking with Jack Celliers—played by David Bowie—in a prison cell, sums up the Japanese obsession with conformity.
“They're a nation of anxious people. They could do nothing individually, so they went mad—en masse...”
Oh yeah, David Bowie is in this! He plays Major Jack Celliers, and I would first like to extend an olive branch to all of the fangirls of Labyrinth. In spite of the glorious Bowie bulge, the creepy muppets, and Magic Dance—This is David Bowie's best work in a film. He is the ultimate representation of a defiant non-conformist going against that which would chain him down. When Bowie makes the scene, everyone around him takes heed. Especially that of Capt. Yanoi, played by Ryuichi Sakamoto, an actor who put on different hats for this production, including composing the score.
Captain Yanoi is a conflicted character. In his heart, he is an honorable man, following his version of the Samurai code with an obsession to detail; he even cares for the wellbeing of the POW's under his care, asking Lawrence if his Iaido practice is bothering the sleep of the prisoners. Whenever he has a discussion with Lawrence or any of the other British soldiers, it is respectfully, lacking the boorish crassness of the other Japanese officers and soldiers. He even goes so far as to punish a soldier for committing rape against one of the POWs. His conflict comes from how he feels about Jack Celliers. Celliers is introduced at a military tribunal where Yanoi—along with some other high ranking Japanese officers—are passing judgment on the captured British soldier. When Yanoi meets Jack for the first time, all he can do is repeat to himself “no homo.” Because if there is anything all peoples around the world have in stock, it is a sexual thirst for David Bowie. I think we can all join hands in that. Yanoi is obsessed with Celliers, prim-and-proper samurai etiquette be damned!
Speaking of interracial-wartime-man-love, homosexuality is a prominent theme in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Whether or not the homoerotic fixation of Yanoi was accurate, the film was based upon a semi-autobiographical book called The Seed and The Sower by Laurens van der Post after all; it does make for some interesting internal struggles and cultural discussion. No, clothes do not fly off, but the debate about homosexuality is openly discussed, notably by Sgt. Hara, who openly mocks the fear that westerners have about it stating that “A samurai is not afraid of homosexuality!” A manly phrase if I have ever heard one. Homophobia was not as prevalent in the Japanese ranks as it was by American or British forces.
In regards to Hara, his relationship with Lawrence is one of the most intriguing cases of culture shock put to film. A genuinely engaging scene where the two men are having a discussion during nightfall has some of the best dialogue in the movie. Hara cannot fathom why Lawrence would want to stay imprisoned, why does he not just kill himself? “How can you live with the shame? I would have so much more respect for you if you just killed yourself!” Lawrence responds with the idea that dying in such a way would be cowardly and that the British want to fight the Japanese “We want to fight you, and win.” Both sides have their say, but it would be safe to say that the director feels a closer alignment with the Western view of life than the Japanese one. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a hodgepodge of different cultural perspectives rolled into one beautiful package.
On the topic of beauty, the soundtrack is an eargasmic blend of contrasting styles. Ryuichi Sakamoto, threw together traditional Japanese sounds with 80's synthesizer tunes to craft something sincerely captivating. While I am throwing these words together, I am listening to the soundtrack. The music feels otherworldly, haunting, and has an ambiance that many war movies do not have. The eponymous theme for has become a small icon in its own right, being remixed by pop artists, orchestral composers, and even used as music for ice skaters—Kana Muramoto and Chris Reed—during the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Since Christmas is in the title, where does the merry holiday fall in a tale of hardship and wartime pain? One scene exemplifies that even the most hardened of war officers can have a soft side. Sgt. Hara, on Christmas night, becomes as pissed as a newt (paraphrasing one character) and declares himself Santa Claus—giggling and smiling like a buffoon. So does that mean that Takeshi Kitano sees me when I am sleeping? Perish the thought. This Christmas spirit is driven home one more time during the conclusion.
It is no spoiler that Japan lost the war, and it is of my opinion that the ending scene epitomizes what Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is all about. When the allies win the war, Sgt. Lawrence visits Hara in prison, one final time before his execution. Hara, a broken man—who resembles a kitten more than the raging tiger he was during the war—now speaks English and, with a joyful look on his face, talks about that Christmas night they shared together years ago. Not wholly understanding why his execution, when his crimes were "not worse than anyone else's during the war." With a heavy heart, Lawrence states that he was only following the ideas of "men who thought what they were doing was right." Nobody in war views themselves as the villain. The elegance of this scene is that Lawrence clearly cares for Hara. He then says his tearful, final goodbye. But as he is leaving, Hara yells out:
“Lawrence! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence!”
This film is an absolute treasure that quickly became a favorite of mine. It's a movie about how ugly humans can be, but how also the good things in life can bring us together and make us realize that maybe we're not so different after all. And in the joy of joys, the Criterion Collection picked up the movie for re-release on BluRay! I could delve deeper into its themes, more key moments, and some of the haunting cinematography—but I do not wish to deprive the readers at home the present that is Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. It has to be seen to be felt, words cannot do it justice.
(Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and all subsequent music and images are owned by the Criterion Collection)