Internationally acclaimed for their formal style and power, Nagisa Oshima’s films have always dealt with controversial issues which Japan’s Establishment would rather see swept under the carpet. Based upon a famous Laurens van der Post novel (The Seed and the Sower), Oshima’s “Senjo no Meri Kurisumasu (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence)” once more breaks taboos and takes skeletons out of the closet, airing a subject that not even a fairly long history of Japanese anti-war films has dared to touch upon: the treatment of the inmates of wartime prison-camps by their Japanese captors.

Just as many of Oshima’s films have presented the criminal as a product of a social environment, but not by way of an excuse, ?”Mr. Lawrence” shows how Japanese wartime excesses were spawned by a political climate which not only made them possible, but actually encouraged them. More subtly, we are shown how war and cultural conflicts force men who might well be friends into relationships of power and subjugation, contempt and cruelty.

But the most remarkable thing about all this is the strikingly original methods used to get the various points across. Rejecting conventional realism, Oshima sets his harsh prison camp on the idyllic tropical island of Raratonga and casts contemporary idols as the institutional ones of 40 years ago. Oshima’s options were risky to say the least: one hardly imagines inmates and wardens of a Japanese POW camp looking like rock stars.

Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto, however, is not there to depict an ordinary man but, the statuesque Capt. Yonoi, a rigid machine fashioned from Japanese fascism. Rock super-star David Bowie portrays god-like Jack Celliers, the captured war-hero taken to the prison camp, for whom Yonoi displays heroworship bordering on the sexually ambiguous. Confronted with Celliers’ individualism and brazen fearlessness, the machine Yonoi will react violently as it comes to be faced with its intolerable human shortcoming. Meanwhile, the brutal actions of the uneducated Sgt. Hara (TV comedian Beat Takeshi) personify man’s baser instincts. Caught like a cork on the tides of militarism, he indulges in the brutalities encouraged by a regime he has neither the intellect nor the inclination to contest.

Prisoners are headed by the Japanese-hating, gung-ho British commander Hicksley (Jack Thompson), who comes to be counterbalanced by Mr. Lawrence (Tom Conti), a former Tokyo diplomat and speaker of Japanese, who is alternately admired and mistrusted by both sides as he seeks compromises. Lawrence is the voice of reason striving to transcend the irrational madness of war and, as the English title implies, the central pivot for the action of the film.

The underlying cultural conflict is subtly expressed in visual terms, with sequences involving the Japanese side given a treatment bordering on the ceremonial, while the Western side is depicted with a greater degree of realism. Apart from one rather unfortunate lapse into sentimentalism, which sees Celliers reminiscing about his childhood and the betrayal of a younger brother, Oshima’s deliberate options for an off-beat treatment pay off superbly. Like all Oshima’s films, ?”Mr. Lawrence” is free from unnecessary embellishments. Displaying calculated restraint, the skilled shot composition and concise editing have cut it all down to its barest essentials for greater impact. According to David Bowie, Oshima’s film “has such cleanliness of line, the shots are uncluttered. It’s like looking through a lens into a beautiful Japanese house.”

Bowie,?like Sakamoto, proves that Oshima’s outwardly eccentric casting is incontestably the right one and Takeshi, the third non-professional actor, brings the whole to its devastatingly simple conclusion. Despite being a truly internationally-minded Japanese film, with foreigners for once depicted as something more than cardboard stereotypes, “Mr. Lawrence” didn’t quite fare as well as expected in Cannes. The burning issues of Japan’s excesses during the last war, which came to a head in Asia during the bowdlerized Japanese history text-book furor last year, seems less topical in a Europe which still tends to like its Japan exotic. While Hitler’s Germany persists as evil incarnate in the collective memory of the West, Oshima uses two of today’s rock idols to make his film uncomfortably contemporary and prevent us from taking refuge in the relative safety of history.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” reminds us and the Japanese that the deeds of militaristic Japan were of the same ilk as Hitler’s and that, given the right political background, a brutal, sadistic prison camp is still a possibility — anywhere.

This review as originally published on Saturday, May 28, 1983.

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