Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence: One of the best war films ever made.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is Nagisa Oshima’s 26th film and the third last one made.  He has had three strokes in his old age and it is unlikely there will ever be another one. It is based on a book called The Seed and the Sower written by Laurens Van Der Post.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is not his biggest critical success. It’s not a film generally loved by the critics at all. For my money, it is a success more because of its ambition than what it genuinely achieves.

The setting is a Japanese prisoner of war camp in World War two and the conflicting feelings of honour and self-respect represented by the two different cultures at war with one another. Four main characters battle it out psychologically pitting their wills against each other and themselves. The film deals with the relationships among the four men  — Major Jack Celliers (Bowie), a rebellious prisoner with a guilty secret from his youth; Captain Yonoi (Sakamoto), the young camp commandant; Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence (Conti), a British officer who has lived in Japan and speaks Japanese fluently; and Sergeant Hara (Kitano) who is seemingly brutal and yet humane in some ways and with whom Lawrence develops a peculiar friendship.

The film opens with a scene that is not in the book. A Korean soldier has been caught in sexual relations with a Dutch prisoner. The soldier is being encouraged to commit Huri Kuri. Lawrence has been called to witness the scene, along with the  Dutch prisoner that was attacked. Lawrence tries to prevent the event from happening and this sets up a dialogue that continues through the film between Lawrence and Hara over the question of honor and self-mastery. This conversation is played out  in the relationship between Yoni and Celliers, who both live the very real manifestation of their own responses to honor and a possible lack thereof.  Because of the intense sexual nature of Oshima’s films, the opening scene is often interpreted as setting up a subtext of repressed homosexuality. This theme is possibly implied throughout the film, although using it as the primary theme would detract from the powerful messages implicit in the importance of the inner response to our own powerful beliefs. While the film does include homosexual ideas, to imagine this is the primary message is to miss out on the essential ideas discussed in the film.

Within language, the symbolic action view which can be called dramatism, comes alive when it is combined with framing. Framing allows dramatic metaphor to come to life.  The three dimensional equivalent of a frame is a stage. Just like a frame, a stage is an imposition formed more by the mind than by the physical qualities of the stage. Therefore framing and staging are ways of re-contextualizing language, or the delivery of a metaphor. Experience is sectioned off for observation. Drama as the blend of word and deed, of literature and performance, is a perfect metaphor for conveying the unity of language, action, and motive. The audience is given the opportunity to understand behaviour just as we would try to understAnd a word. Life can be seen as drama and drama can be seen as life, as through the observational ‘stage’ each is informing the other. In this way, conflicts in life that generally go unnoticed can be brough to the fore. There are several films that use the ‘staging’ technique. Three of my favourites, Death and the Maiden, Six Degrees of Separation and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence use precisely this technique to highlight the smaller moments when crucial decisions are made, but swept by in the daily rush and tumble of life. Interestingly, of these three films, two are plays (originally meant to be viewed from a stage and the directors have retained that feel for the film) and onely one is from a novel – Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. 

The ‘stage’ in this film is the prisoner of war camp. War is the most destructive form of human behaviour, but this takes place slightly off to the side of the war – war is a backdrop here. Overt violence is sublimated for the surfacing of the undercurrents that flow beneath the ideologies of war. Questions of ‘right’ and ‘truth’  and ‘honour’ are seen as absolutes – even when the opinion is that ‘everyone’s truth MUST be respected.’ This in itself is another absolute. When the new prisoner, Jack Celliers (David Bowie) enters the camp, the undercurrents between the prisoners and the Japanese rise to a crescendo. Celliers is attractive to the camp’s commander – Yoni – who finds the qualities of composure and charisma analogous to those Hara sees in Lawrence. Celliers experiences leniency under Japanese militancy because of his charisma and leadership qualities.

But war is not the place to admire people who display behaviours contrary to your own doctrines. Both Yoni and Hara find they unravel themselves in trying to understand the power displayed by Celliers and Lawrence. Both Yoni and Hara in their own ways, struggle with their doubt about their own motives and actions that would be created if they stepped outside of their militaristic, basic patriotic point of view.  In a parallel struggle, Lawrence and Celliers struggle to see past themselves to prevent the retreat into entirely personal perspectives – dominated by pain and abuse – that will lead eventually to profound hatred for the Japanese. At a crucial point in the film on which everything will later tilt, Celleris and Lawrence with a wall between them, confess the secrets of self-loathing that they carry within. In his excellent essay on the film, Gregory Desilet had this to say about that crucial moment:

“Both stories vividly describe the experience of being drawn out of oneself to the extent of fully seeing another’s point-of-view—and what it must be like to live from that point-of-view. In both cases this experience of getting outside the self is triggered by someone loved. In each case a natural bond—attraction on the one hand and blood ties on the other—pulls the self outside itself to see beyond the limits of current personal motivation, to stretch and broaden personal perspective. These flashbacks provide the key for understanding the two men and their exceptional ability for getting outside themselves.”

Another powerful conflict in the film exists between Celleirs and Lawrence against their commander, Hicksley-Ellis (Jack Thompson) who uses his intense hatred of the Japanese to retain military focus and the dehumanization of the enemy to keep the war alive inside the camp. Lawrence sees this as giving in to hatred too easily, but for Hara when he questions how prisoners can endure the humility of being captured, Lawrence explains that their culture sees suicide as the easy way out, because even in prison they want to keep on fighting the Japanese. In this way, the two cultures clash against each other, revealing ultimately, exactly the same motivations.

There is so much more to be said about this rich and complex film (I haven’t even mentioned Ryuichi Sakamoto’s music) but I will end with a quote from The Seed and the Sower, the novel the film is based on. This is a Jack Celliers quote , as he describes a crucial moment in his upbringing when he betrayed a brother that need his protection.

“I had not been obedient to my own awareness of life”…. Many of his generation, as he, had been condemned by what he called the “betrayal of the natural brother in their lives,” and could see little in the world around them beyond the hatred caused by their own rejections.

Feeling like a victim narrows perspective on life. The broader a persons vision of the world, the less chance there is for the small-minded focus that refuses to see all people as essentially the same.