Arrow Academy’s latest release gives Nagisa Ōshima’s classic POW film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence the remaster treatment, bringing Ōshima’s strange meditation on men of war to new vivid life. His first film not entirely in Japanese, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence boasts a cast containing musicians David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also composed the film’s score), Tom Conti and Takeshi Kitano, all of whom are on fine form in this disarmingly moving wartime drama.
Taking place in a prisoner of war camp in Java, Indonesia during 1942, the film primarily focuses on the relationship between four men in the camp. There is the fragile balance of understanding between Sargeant Hana (Takeshi Kitano) and Japanese-fleunt British Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Tom Conti), and the new arrival of British Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) stirs curiosity in the more traditional camp commander Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto).
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is unlike any other POW movie. Based on Sir Laurens van der Post’s autobiographical short stories based on his time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, this is not a film about British soldiers planning an escape, or one that offers much in the way of a grand overcoming of the odds; it is not a tale of victory. Instead, it is a glacially paced, yet soothingly engrossing depiction of men of war thrust together as captor and captive. Yes, there are moments of disturbing torture, but this is more about the weird tensions that forge when men from both sides begin to try to understand each other.
Most of that tension and attempt for understanding comes more from the relationship between Lawrence and Sargeant Hara. Through spending time together and conversing, Lawrence and Hara build something that comes close to friendship, despite having a foundation built on intimidation. Conti and Takeshi are both wonderful in the film, with Conti building an empathetic figure in Mr. Lawrence, one who wants best for his fellow prisoners, but sees no harm in trying to better understand their captors. He is excellent at demonstrating the frustrations of attempting to convey the different ways of life to both the British prisoners and the Japanese soldiers at the camp, but his responsibility as the middle man is not one he takes lightly, a role he sees as providing a chance for growth and a more easy going existence for everyone in the camp.
More conflict does arrive due to the presence of the head strong Celliers, whose arrival seems to startle Captain Yonoi. This is not a relationship that’s played out as clearly as the one between Lawrence and Hana, but it is the one that intrigues more, if only because it feels more out of reach. There’s certainly a queer subtext at play, but the film never quite pulls the relationship between Celliers and Yonoi into as much focus. Instead, most of Celliers time at the camp becomes involved with his past regret over his treatment of his brother, leading to a bizarre tangent that flashbacks to Bowie as Celliers at school. The performances of Bowie and Sakamoto don’t register with quite the same warmth and charm as Conti and Takeshi’s dynamic, but it does offer a more complex layer to the wartime drama.
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a beguiling experience. It can often feel slow, a little navel gazing and occasionally distracted. But it is constantly beautiful. Ōshima frames the camp in a manner which feels both claustrophobic and striking, with many framings often enforcing the divide between the British prisoners and the Japanese soldiers. Every scene shot at night has a magical blue glow that makes everything appear not quite as it seems. That paired with Sakamoto’s iconic score gives the film a weird dreamlike feeling that can be a little off-putting in the moment, but means that the film marinates quite pontently on the brain after viewing it.
In the pantheon of POW films, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is quite unique in its more enclosed drama about men struggling to survive amongst each other. It is both very emotional and quite obscure, sometimes a little hard to warm to, but provides plenty of food for thought. An affecting, strange, often beautiful experience about finding common ground in the most unlikely of places.
Dir: Nagisa Ōshima
Scr: Nagisa Ōshima, Paul Mayersberg, based on The Seed of the Sower by Sir Laurens van der Post
Cast: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson
Prd: Jeremy Thomas
DOP: Toichiro Narushima
Music: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Country: United Kingdom/Japan/New Zealand
Run time: 123 minutes
The Arrow Academy Blu-Ray of Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is out on June 15th 2020.