Culture clashes are nothing new to the world as even in the technological times we live in; when maintaining friendships across oceans and national borders seems as easy as clicking a button on one’s mouse or keyboard… literally. Few films depicting the strained relations between two vastly different ways of life and thinking ever present an accurate or multifaceted picture that truly captures the breadth of such divides. Additionally, few ever really address the similarities in a manner that doesn’t seem contrived or one-sided toward some convoluted morality central to the writer or director. Some would point to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation as an example, although that film’s central theme had more to do with two people of a similar culture connecting amid the overarching confusion and ultimate fascination of a culture foreign to them. This is where you, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, come in to offer audiences a tensely somber view of the diverging East/West mentalities during World War II.
Based on Sir Laurens Jan van der Post’s books “The Seed and the Sower” and “The Night of the New Moon,” both detailing his experiences as a prisoner in Japan, one could easily peg you as categorically biased, especially in light of a diary attributed to Post which states, “It is one of the hardest things in this prison life: the strain caused by being continually in the power of people who are only half-sane and live in a twilight of reason and humanity.”
This statement perhaps best sums up the interchanges between your titular character of Colonel John Lawrence and the prison Sergeant Gengo Hara, two characters of such cultural and ideological resilience that neither seem to waver in their devotion to their ways of life, yet by the end perhaps understand each other as well as any two people can. Consider the opening sequences in which Hara humiliates a guard who was seemingly caught in a homosexual relationship with a Dutch prisoner, offering him an opportunity to commit Seppuku (also known as Hara-Kiri or ritual suicide) and insisting to Lawrence that he does “not know the Japanese until you have seen Seppuku,” to which Lawrence responds, “Do you want me to hate the Japanese?”
With so intense an introduction, you immediately set the tone for not only these two characters, but for the whole film. Typical of your director, Nagisa Oshima, you exude a sexual undercurrent throughout, particularly in the unquantifiable fixation that Captain Yonoi places on new prisoner Major Jack Celliers. However, unlike much of Oshima’s oeuvre, little of this sexual tension is expressed beyond mere dialogue, such as in a scene in which Hara taunts Lawrence that all white soldiers are queer, to which he responds that “War strengthens bonds of friendship between men, but that doesn’t mean all soldiers turn queer.”
Indeed, one of your greatest assets overall is your dialogue, portraying a very classical sensibility, so that one could imagine your entire narrative taking place on a stage as much as in the reality of the Javanese location. Despite the language barrier, as Lawrence’s grasp of Japanese is primarily basic, his conversations with Yonoi and Hara are as complex as the most verbose philosophical debates in their examinations of the cultural divides between the East and West.
As well, Lawrence acts as a buffer for this divide, often speaking on behalf of the Japanese mentality to fellow prisoner Captain Hicksley, whose persistent refusal to heed any viewpoint outside of his own nationalism (stating insolently, “I know these people too; they’re the enemy”) is as infuriating as it is relatable to most Westerners of the time. But great dialogue is best executed in the hands of great performers, and with as well-assembled a cast as yours, your themes simply resonate all the stronger. The manner in which Tom Conti rolls his eyes and grins through his teeth to portray the embarrassment and exasperation of Col. Lawrence is as delightfully humorous as it is palpable, and Takeshi Kitano puts his usual intensity on fine display with well timed shifts from subdued ice to incendiary fire, making Sgt. Hara as despicable as he is sympathetic. Even secondary performances such as Jack Thompson’s stern-faced and seemingly one-dimensional portrayal of Capt. Hicksley and Alistair Browning’s low-key and nervous depiction of the Dutch prisoner De Jong are worthy of mention.
However, it is in the performances of your two principal actors that you shine as an enigmatic and stunning piece of cinema. Renowned musician Ryuichi Sakamoto makes his debut as an actor and as a score composer, both roles adding to your power and depth. His broken English is not nearly as distracting (to me, anyway) as many critics have expressed; on the contrary, his relative unfamiliarity with the language in conjunction with his stature evoking the sullenness and introversion of a Bushido samurai only serves to enhance his character’s dilemma. His moments of fiery rage offset by the subtly yearning gazes in his eyes are simply a joy to watch, especially for a first-time actor.
And then, there is your star, the incomparable David Bowie as Major Jack Celliers. Having already established himself with such films as The Man Who Fell to Earth and Just a Gigolo, Bowie’s androgyny has served him well as an actor and musician, but here, he presents what is still perhaps his most masculine role, living up to his character’s nickname of “Strafer Jack,” a “soldier’s soldier.” Not that this masculinity is necessarily apparent in any physical sense (the man is as gaunt as ever), but it is his strength of will and constant defiance in the face of what for any other man would be certain death – refusing a blindfold to face a firing squad who should not have to look into a dying man’s eyes, dropping his sword and laughing at Sakamoto in a failed escape attempt – that he exudes a soldier’s fortitude.
Even as he plays the subject of Sakamoto’s character’s attentions, Bowie breaks the mold wonderfully by playing it totally straight. And yet, both characters have their (brief) moment of breakdown, with Bowie’s appearing early in a beautiful and humorous scene as he mimes getting a morning shave, tea, and cigarette before being led off to his sentence, pausing momentarily as if to hold back tears and not allow fear to overtake him. Sakamoto’s breakdown appears near the end in a scene too emotionally intense and satisfying to give away here, except to say that everything about it – from Sakamoto’s expression of simultaneous shock, sorrow, and awe to the stuttering camera motion somewhat akin to stop-motion to the fantastic score – is perhaps one of the most fascinating sequences ever put to film.
Quite simply, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, you are perhaps the best example in my mind of the culture clash work, created by a cooperation that may in fact be the very result of the understanding and mutual respect earned by your characters’ interactions. After all, you were produced in 1983, 40 years after your setting, by which time relations between the East and West have been considerably less volatile, and the combination of Japanese and English production makes for what many critics have considered a bold if somewhat disjointed and inconsistent work.
But that is, in my opinion, what makes you so lovely a film. Everything about you is a model of excellence, from the effectively moody lighting to the theatrical power of the performances to the fabulous music score, which easily ranks among my top film scores of all time. It’s no wonder the Criterion Collection added you to its ranks as you truly live up to the company’s charter being an “important classic.”