Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence: The Sexual or the Spiritual?

Released to Blu-ray by Arrow Academy this last week, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is the renowned Japanese new wave filmmaker Nagisa Ōshima’s 1983 adaptation of  Sir Laurens van der Post’s semi-autobiographical works, The Seed and the Sower from 1963 and The Night of the New Moon from 1970, each inspired by his own experience as a Japanese prisoner of war in World War II. With a screenplay from Ōshima himself and The Man Who Fell to Earth‘s screenwriter Paul Mayersberg, the film tells the story of Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) who is captured behind enemy lines waging guerrilla warfare against the Japanese troops in the foothills of South East Asia. Sentenced to internment at a POW camp, his arrival, and indeed character sparks a peculiarly intense fascination in the commandant, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) which threatens to upset the balance of how the camp operates. This palpable fixation is especially witnessed by Celliers’ fellow POW, Lt. Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti) who, as a Japanese speaker, has attained a position of some privilege within the camp, and Sergeant Hara (Takeshi), Yonoi’s right-hand man and camp enforcer. Matters come to a head when Yonoi plans to usurp Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson) from his role as senior Allied officer and replace him with Celliers, who Lawrence has revealed to be a ‘Strafer’, or ‘a soldier’s soldier’. Appalled at the hold that Celliers seems to have on their own superior officer, the Japanese guards begin to think that Celliers must be killed before he gets a chance to destroy Yonoi, either physically or spiritually.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a film I have had a tremendous amount of time for and have for many years now, though I must admit that its meaning still feels pretty elusive to me. Back in the early ’00s, when I worked in the civil service, there existed a sort of unofficial film club between a group of us and a VHS tape of this, recorded off the telly, would often change hands. Whenever the subject was raised, it was clear that we all had our own interpretations of just what it all actually meant. For many, the fixation that exists in Yonoi for Celliers is a homoerotic one, and the opening scene – which depicts Takeshi’s Hara forcibly instructing a Korean guard to commit seppuku (commonly known as harakiri) after having been caught sodomising a Dutch prisoner; an act which may or may not have been consensual – is pointed as foreshadowing this reading. For many others, however, the fixation is more to do with a sense that, despite the cultural barriers that lie between them, Yonoi and Celliers are kindred spirits, each struggling with a sense of guilt or shame that they possess in their past. On the surface, Yonoi is the perfect Japanese warrior in the tradition of the samurai; youthful, strong and strict in both mind and body, yet he is not fighting at the front. He is instead the commanding officer in charge of POW’s; Westernisers who were captured or surrendered, which are acts that explicitly go against the very code of the Japanese soldier. With their very presence an anathema to him and his men, this duty seems to bring a level of shame upon him that is amplified by the fact that he is not fighting or performing a patriotic sacrifice with his comrades. Likewise, Celliers carries his own burden of guilt, based upon a betrayal he made against his otherwise beloved younger brother when they were at boarding school. Yonoi recognises this flaw, but he also recognises an indomitable strength of character that he feels makes Celliers unique amongst the other POW’s. Ultimately, the reasons why Yonoi becomes so transfixed by the startlingly blonde, alabaster-skinned and off-kilter looking Celliers are open to any interpretation you choose. Even Bowie, in a contemporary making of feature entitled The Ōshima Gang that is included as an extra in this package, seems to struggle with the notion of whether it is an obsession based upon sexuality or spirituality; an alliterative conundrum that recalls Sir Laurens van der Post’s original source, The Seed and the Sower.

For me personally, it doesn’t really matter what the origins of Yonoi’s obsession really are. To label it as purely homosexual would, I feel, ignore the bigger message at the heart of this distinctly anti-war narrative, and that is the importance of love in all its guises. When Celliers breaks ranks to approach Yonoi as he is about to execute Hicksley and kisses the Japanese man on each cheek, thereby causing him to literally collapse under both the weight of his feelings for him and the loss of face he feels from this offence which has been perpetrated by the prisoner before his men, it is not just about Celliers explicitly acknowledging Yonoi’s homoerotic interest in him, nor is it just about his refusal to conform to the violence that is steeped in both men, and Yonoi especially given the Japanese cultural expectation of it. It is a crucial scene; a plea for love and tolerance, of respect and understanding of your fellow man. The fact that it is effectively the ultimate in self-sacrifice also highlights producer Jeremy Thomas’ own reading of the meaning – as he explains in an interview in the Blu-ray extras, it is perhaps no coincidence that Jack Celliers shares the same initials as Jesus Christ.

Of course, if you’re going to cast a metaphor for Jesus Christ in army fatigues, you really want a rock star and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence scores beautifully with David Bowie giving, to my eyes at least, his finest ever performance committed to celluloid. It is said that Ōshima cast the Thin White Duke after seeing him perform in The Elephant Man on Broadway, spotting an inner, indestructible spirit that was required for the part. I’d go one further and suggest that Bowie, who is possibly no one’s go-to idea of a tough and efficient soldier, delivers a purity both in his looks and in his nature that belies the skills and strengths Celliers clearly possesses. In contrast to Yonoi, here is a soldier created in the maelstrom of war, a recruit who perhaps surprises even himself with how quickly he takes to fighting, which could be an outlet for the shame that is eating him up inside over his actions towards his brother. In many respects then, this is a tribute to that great generation who answered the call. For his part, Bowie was a huge fan of the work of Ōshima and pretty much accepted the role before even seeing the script. Believing the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema to be a creative kindred spirit in terms of preferring expression over impression, as a novice, natural actor Bowie thrived on Ōshima’s approach to movie-making – loose, little rehearsed, often using no more than two takes and without viewing the rushes – and believed he delivered a performance that was the least stylised of his acting work as a result.

For the part of Captain Yonoi, Ōshima cast another rock god, in the shape of Japan’s Ryuichi Sakamoto. This decision to focus on ‘non-actors’ from the music world in the leading roles of a war movie could easily have sunk the film and been labelled as purely stunt-casting, but it actually works really well and places an interesting extra layer on the culture-clash proceedings as we witness the older, mercurial Western rock star enchant the younger electropop star from the East. With his prominent, shaded cheekbones and temples and hooded eyes, Sakamoto is a stark and streamlined physical contrast to the pure Bowie with his disparately coloured eyes and uneven teeth. The conspicuous make-up Yonoi wears may seem like a surreal affectation of the ’80s at first, but I believe that it is factually correct that some Japanese soldiers would touch themselves up with paint to appear intimidating, imposing and immaculate at all times. Really, the only surreal affectation on display here is Ōshima’s decision to cast the then thirty-six-year-old Bowie as the teenage Celliers in the film’s flashback to his sixth form private school years, suggesting a curious mix of Brideshead Revisited and Blue Remembered Hills. Interestingly, whilst it was always intended for Sakamoto to compose the film’s score (with Ōshima suggesting he should do so from the point of view of Yonoi), Bowie passed on providing vocals to the commercially released version of the signature theme, Forbidden Colours, stating that he wanted to concentrate specifically on the performance. Sakamoto instead asked another David, David Sylvian, the frontman of the new romantic band Japan, to sing on it instead and the track reached number 16 in the UK singles charts. If you’re unfamiliar with Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence as a film, I guarantee that you will probably at least know Sakamoto’s BAFTA award-winning score. It’s a thing of fragile, blissed-out beauty, built on elliptical chimes that intrinsically recall the allure and traditions of the East.

But what of the titular Mr. Lawrence himself? Well again, for my money the film is blessed with another career-high performance. Tom Conti, effectively essaying Sir Laurens van der Post himself,  is the film’s middle man. Not only is he the observer whose survival will come to give meaning to the events witnessed and ensure that the remarkable spirits of Celliers and Yonoi will live on, but he is also – by virtue of his linguistic skills (and Conti’s incredible gift for mimicry ensured that he got through the necessary swathes of Japanese dialogue his character speaks without truly learning a single word of the language!) – the go-between in the camp, relaying communication between the Japanese and his fellow POW’s and attempting to understand a situation which, van der Post himself once famously said existed “in a twilight of reason and humanity”. Lawrence prides himself on understanding not only the Japanese language but also its culture, which repeatedly antagonizes his superior, Hicksley who views their ritualistic brutality as simply nothing more than intolerable and barbaric cruelty. There’s a beautiful weariness to Conti’s performance, tired of the class system that his fellow POW’s represent, but equally exhausted by his appreciation for and the second-guessing of his captors. In many ways, the relationship between Lawrence and Takeshi’s Sergeant Hara is just as intriguing, though far more low-key, than the central one between Celliers and Yonoi. On the surface at least, Hara too is a traditional Japanese warrior; a martinet who cannot understand why the prisoners debase and humiliate themselves by going on living as captives. Why do they not take the honourable way out and commit seppuku? He is drawn to Lawrence, his philosophical opposite, to try to understand this and, although, he states his belief that they are simply afraid of death, it becomes clear that he craves the chance for introspection and an appreciation of another world that these conversations afford him.

It’s this fine line, this respect or at least understanding of both cultures, that marks Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence out as an Anglo-Japanese film, rather than a retread of other Japanese POW films like The Bridge on the River Kwai, King Rat or The Camp on Blood Island which were exclusively from a Western perspective. Simply put, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence would be a significantly different film in the hands of a British, American or Australian director. It needed a Japanese filmmaker to get the sympathy required of both sides of the conflict, to explore the innate appetite for violence or charismatic machismo within Japanese culture and to deliver on the pacifist, anti-war statement.

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Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is out on Arrow Academy Blu-Ray

Mark Cunliffe

Mark's first experience at the cinema was watching the 1982 Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys In Blue. Despite this ignoble start, he has nurtured a love of film and television ever since. He is a critical essayist for Arrow Films and his work appears in the DVD/Blu-ray releases of Stormy Monday, Day of the Jackal, Jake Speed, Children of Men and the Alec Guinness movie The Prisoner. He has also appeared on the Talking Pictures podcast and is currently contributing to a book about 1980s TV, film and pop culture.

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