Nagisa Oshima has never been a filmmaker to conform to typical standards — whether cinematic or cultural — and his rabblerousing and electric features of the 1960s and 1970s stand in direct opposition to mainstream Japanese filmmaking of the same period.
By the time Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence rolled around in 1983, Oshima was coming off his pair of erotic art house hits In the Realm of the Senses and Empire of Passion, and Mr. Lawrence was a hotly anticipated project.
What’s remarkable about the film is perhaps how conventional it can appear on the surface. The plot is linear and straightforward, with only simple flashbacks interrupting, and the film’s issues are well-defined. Add to that the fact that two of the film’s leads are rock stars, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence would appear to be a fairly mainstream-oriented project for Oshima. Still, the film could hardly be considered ordinary, and though Oshima and star David Bowie both appear to be toning down some of their idiosyncrasies here, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence remains a rich and unusual work.
The film is based on a pair of semi-autobiographical novels by WWII POW Laurens van der Post, and tells the story of a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the island of Java in 1942. British officer John Lawrence (Tom Conti) speaks Japanese and is an expert on Japanese culture, but despite his ability to communicate with his captors, including the hardheaded Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano), a vast cultural divide remains. Early in the film, a Korean soldier is forced to ceremonially execute himself because of his relationship with a prisoner, and Lawrence is unable to prevent the brutal consequences that result.
The careful balance of the camp begins to be upended with the arrival of a new British prisoner, Jack Celliers (Bowie). Almost immediately, the camp commandant, Capt. Yonoi (rock star Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also composed the synth-heavy score), becomes fixated on Celliers. As the film progresses, dueling senses of honor and attraction battle it out within Yonoi, culminating in the film’s most memorable scene where Celliers finally breaks the spell with a kiss.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence certainly has overt violent and erotic elements that are characteristic of Oshima’s work, but mostly they simmer below the surface of what could appear to be just another WWII film. The structure and pacing of the film assure it’s an accessible entry into Oshima’s body of work, and the skewed elements around its edges will likely prod some to seek out the director’s earlier films.
The Blu-ray Disc
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The presentation has a very fresh, film-like appearance that is clean and free from any major damage. The color palette isn’t very diverse, but the greens of grass and other plant life are often stunning in their saturation and crispness. Most other tones are earthy and dull, but retain nice color consistency. Grain appears heavier in some moments than others, but for the most part remains subtle and film-like. The film isn’t a visual knockout, but this presentation is quite appealing.
The audio is presented in a 2.0 DTS-HD track that doesn’t offer a lot of surprises, but is very clean and consistent, with Sakamoto’s score serving as the aural focal point often.
Criterion includes an excellent set of supplements here in this interview-heavy package. Older footage from the film’s premiere at Cannes features interviews with Bowie, Conti and producer Jeremy Thomas, while new interviews have been recorded with screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, Sakamoto and Thomas, with a separate extra dedicated to Sakamoto’s score.
An hour-long documentary on van der Post also features a lot of interview footage from the man, as well as others who experienced being a prisoner of war. The theatrical trailer is also included, as well as a booklet with an essay by Chuck Stephens and reprints of interviews with Oshima and Kitano.
There’s a lot of great material to dig through here, and though it’s too bad there’s not more from Oshima himself, the rest of the subjects have a lot to offer.
The Bottom Line
While it’s not the most radical or noteworthy Oshima film, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is both fascinating and engaging, and the Criterion package gives it a wonderful treatment.