By Peggy Nelson
Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – dir. Nagisa Oshima – 1983
Prisoner of war films offer an eye-of-the-storm perspective from which to contemplate the chaos of war. In the tradition of Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1937), and David Lean’s Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957), Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence investigates the psyches of men from very different cultures in this tale of British captives in a Japanese POW camp. Co-written by Oshima and Paul Mayersberg from an Afrikaner’s published memoirs, Oshima uses the perspective of the non-Japanese to turn his lens on WWII Japan.
The POW camp acts as a cauldron for both the constructive and destructive power of reaching across borders: borders of nationality, of principle, and of taboo. The momentum of the film involves two main relationships: one between the eponymous Lt. Colonel Lawrence (Tom Conti) and Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), and the other between the Afrikaner Jack Celliers (David Bowie) and the head of the POW camp, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto).
Lt. Col. Lawrence, or just “Lawrence” as he is known through most of the film, is a large, shambling humanist. He alone of the prisoners speaks Japanese, and is called upon not only to translate, but to explain the point of view of the English and other prisoners. In the opening scene, Lawrence is commanded by Hara to come out and witness an altercation – two men have transgressed the “don’t ask/don’t tell/just don’t” policy of the time, and the penalty is death. The Japanese of the pair is condemned to commit seppuku, the first of several in the film; when the Dutch prisoner is made to watch, he bites his own tongue and suffocates. Despite Kitano’s fame in Japan as a TV personality and comedian, Hara here is no comic relief. He is a tough, violent character, not a samurai himself but fully committed to his culture’s warrior ethos.
Different conceptions of honor figure prominently in the characters’ conflicts. For the Japanese, it is dishonorable to be taken prisoner; it is preferable to commit suicide before being captured. For the English, it is dishonorable to torture prisoners; the Geneva Convention is mentioned several times. But for both, the reality of a POW camp means living side-by-side with the enemy. And with living side-by-side, for Lawrence and Hara, comes familiarity, and communication, and attempts at understanding, and a tentative friendship, in spite of the power imbalance.
This certainly isn’t ok with everyone; in fact, Lawrence’s commanding officer accuses him of spending more time with the Japanese than with his own men; and more seriously, of possibly collaborating with the enemy.
The initial seppuku incident anticipates the much more problematic relationship between Captain Yonoi and Jack Celliers, both men with less-than-honorable pasts. From the minute he lays eyes upon Celliers in a military tribunal, Yonoi is caught in an undertow of fascination that he is unable to control or hide. Interpreting Celliers’ stoicism in the face of death as similar to his own samurai code, Yonoi commutes Celliers’ sentence and gets him transferred to his camp, a move that will have severe consequences for both.
The casting here is no coincidence. Bowie and Sakamoto, both pop music icons, were huge at the time (1983). Their real-world celebrity was crucial to their onscreen characters: celebrity generates fascination, but must preserve distance to do so. The fan is drawn to the icon and projects the fulfillment of all sorts of inchoate desires upon him or her; but the distance between the fan and the icon allows these fantasies “to be,” as Yonoi significantly quotes from Hamlet. Similarly to how the lens in a film projector is required to be a certain distance from the screen for the movie to be seen, so the icon is required to be a certain distance from the fan for the fantasy to be imagined. But distance prevents a personal relationship. Any attempt to bridge the distance will collapse the fantasy, and the icon will cease “to be,” as such.
Oshima uses the distance between celebrity and fan to inform the taboo of homosexuality in the military. When Bowie-as-Celliers strides across the parade grounds in a time-is-suspended-type long shot, he collapses this distance, culturally, erotically, and conceptually. His gesture can be interpreted as a Western type of seppuku, performed to save another officer. By collapsing the bubble of celebrity, he destroys Yonoi’s fantasy relationship with him, and in consequence destroys himself. The icon is brought down to earth in a particularly gruesome way, as illustrated by Celliers’ subsequent punishment.
The film is almost perfectly balanced, with dialogue in both English and Japanese, and with incidents of eroticism and death neatly bracketing the story, now aimed one way, now the other. With the assistance of a brilliant score also by Sakamoto, the camerawork is calm and lacking in the disorienting jump cuts of Oshima’s middle period. Prisoners and captors reverse their roles as the tides of the war turn, the losers become the winners, and vice versa. His commander worried that Lawrence was collaborating with the enemy, and in a way, he was right; the formal structure of the film echoes Lawrence’s relativism, and Oshima’s own political critique: “The truth is . . . that nobody is right.”
And yet the truth is, of course, that somebody is right: Lawrence is right as far as he goes, with his attempts at understanding despite resistance from both sides. But relativism is not the final answer for Oshima. It is left to Sergeant Hara, formally defeated, to perform one last gesture; to step outside the opposition of winners and losers, enemies and friends, and embrace a larger victory, for all.