Is it possible to be endeared by a movie because it is flawed and frustrating? I’ve grappled with that question before, and now with Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence I’m forced to deal with it all over again. Here is a film that should not work at all, since its flaws are numerous and discouraging. It’s distracting when you’re watching it, but it lingers in the mind long after it’s over, and in the end it goes straight from being inexplicable to a near-masterpiece without touching any steps between.
The film works, I think, because of some strange alchemy between all the elements that went into it. The director was Nagisa Oshima, he of In the Realm of the Senses but also many other films that do not bring to mind the sense they were helmed by the same man. Here, he adapted a novel about the British in Japanese captivity in WWII, Laurens van der Post’s The Seed and the Sower. The novelty of a Japanese director tackling this material is one thing, but Oshima is more interested in the emotional struggles between the characters than he is in making statements about Japan’s collective behavior during the war. There is both individual and collective guilt here, but the movie is focused firmly on the people.
The people in question are a cadre of British POWs being held in a Japanese camp somewhere on Java. The officer’s liaison, Lawrence (Tom Conti), spent a fair number of years in Japan before the war started, and believes this pre-existing understanding of “the Japanese mind” will help him protect his fellow POWs. Another British serviceman, Celliers (David Bowie), has no such delusions, but his problems are far more immediate: the Japanese have captured him and are preparing to execute him for allegedly engaging in guerilla warfare.
The Japanese commandants are also poles apart in their own way. Yonoi (Ryūichi Sakamoto, who provided the movie’s memorable score) is proud and fierce, only too happy to be a living example of what the ideal Japanese soldier should be. (Oshima had Yukio Mishima in mind when he wrote and directed the role, and it shows.) Hara (Takeshi Kitano) is more of an opportunist, a smirking and sadistic martinet whose closest friend, oddly enough, is Lawrence. His only other friend after that is alcohol, and like most drunks he drinks because the prospect of being sober is horrifying to him. He and Lawrence share more than a few curious, elliptical conversations about their respective viewpoints: Hara claims to have much of the same idealism as Yonoi, but Lawrence is more unashamedly pragmatic, and we suspect Hara finds that sort of bluntness refreshing even if he can’t admit to it.
Yonoi finds Lawrence irritating, not compelling. He wants Celliers to break—possibly because of a homosexual attraction to the man; it’s left deliberately understated—and wants Lawrence to get his men to admit that some of them have knowledge of war materiel that may be useful to the Japanese. One of the other British men, Hicksley-Ellis (Jack Thompson), is far too proud and stubborn to give up that kind of information, even if Lawrence thinks it’ll give them that much more of a lease on life. He understands the Japanese, he tells them, and we see enough of both sides of the conflict to realize he may be deluding himself far worse than he thinks. His empathy for men as a whole—Japanese or British—has the unintended side effect of undermining his empathy for the very specific men who need it the most: his own fellow soldiers.
The things about Lawrence that bothered me most while watching it have, paradoxically, become what’s most memorable about it. At one point there is a fairly major flashback / digression, where Celliers describes a childhood pain that shaped his present behavior. It’s awkward and painful to watch, but maybe only because to Celliers himself it was awkward and painful. The director’s own relative clumsiness with the material ended up being transposed into the story and giving it an unexpected additional layer of emotion. Lawrence’s own past is described in monologue—we only hear his story, not see it—but the words of his speech are vivid enough that we feel like we’ve watched it. It also makes some thematic sense that the whole thing is verbal, not visual: this is a man who has spent his entire life, it seems, justifying and explaining and rationalizing.
A large part of why the movie is difficult to watch is the stark contrasts between the actors and their performances. Sakamoto acts as if he’s in a Kabuki play—but then again, maybe that’s because Yonoi might be exactly that self-important. Roger Ebert had mixed feelings about the film—“What this movie needed was a diplomatic acting coach,” he wrote—and felt the clashing acting styles were difficult to explain away as something part of the movie’s design. But on watching the movie a second time, the British characters seem very nearly as histrionic or mannered as the Japanese. Look at Cellier’s little ritual of shave-and-breakfast before being led off to be shot, or the way Conti’s character vents his rage by destroying a Shinto altar and insulting the Japanese guardian deities. (Is he deliberately inviting death, maybe testing the patience of his captors?)
As crazy-quilt as the performances are, they’re all good on their own terms. Sakamoto was not Oshima’s original choice (he first considered then-pop-star Kenji Sawada), and is appropriately stiff and self-absorbed: he’s disgusted that mere human feeling is beginning to dictate his actions towards someone else, let alone a POW. Kitano is—well, Kitano. Like John C. McGinley or Vincent Schiavelli, he works best when embodying a type, and Hara is not far removed from the cruel gangsters or hitmen Kitano’s played in many of his own films. I did worry that David Bowie’s mere presence would be so distracting that the mere fact of him in the role would override everything else, but his performance is assured and fluid: he’s acting, not simply posturing. Conti’s most interesting acting comes when he smiles, since it’s only his mouth that’s smiling. His eyes have the same gloomy, haunted weight as Harry Dean Stanton, and to the same effect; his character has seen too many of the wrong things for one lifetime.
The weakest part of the movie is the ending, where Conti and Kitano share one final scene and go off to their respective fates. The idea embodied in the scene is even more uncomfortable, where Oshima (or maybe van der Post, it’s hard to tell) seems to imply some degree of moral equivocation between both sides, that they were both right and wrong at the same time and that in the sordidness of war everyone’s humanity is debased, and so on. It’s a frustrating ending, because these are issues that deserve to be dealt with seriously and the movie inadvertently trivializes them.
It’s strange. I set out to write a review that dissected the movie’s shortcomings, and instead I’ve rediscovered everything about it that haunted me and stayed with me. Flawed as Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is, it finds a way to transcend all of those flaws and become one of Oshima’s best films. It’s just that those qualities might not come through the first time you see it.
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