Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a truly unique film by several definitions. Japanese master filmmaker Nagisa Oshima’s first English-language film (and it is worth noting here that much of it is in Japanese) embodies some dense discourses about Japanese identity, yet in many respects this is a film without a nation.
But that’s exactly the point, for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence embodies a host of contradictions in terms of how we’re used to experiencing films of its relative ilk: it is a film about war, yet it is never about patriotism or combat; it is a film about an intersection of cultures, yet it never seeks to deliver a message of sameness of common ground; and it is a film about sexual tensions between males, yet homosexuality is never explicitly addressed in a way that would place it fittingly in the canon of “queer cinema.”
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a film that addresses many subjects, but none of them with a clear sense of resolution. It is thus what I would call an “uneasy” film upon initial viewing because it never allows itself to fit quite comfortably into any of the categories we would ascribe onto it. It constantly eludes true understanding of its trajectory and genre while its underlying themes remain ever-elusive. One thing is for sure, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a beautiful accomplishment by an incredible and unpredictable filmmaker. As a film that in some ways stands alone in time, I’m not quite sure what it has accomplished, but that is for me exactly why the film is so fascinating and worth pondering over in a forum like this. In an effort to better make sense of the film, I’ve divided my response into an analysis of key players both in front of and behind the camera:
One thing I repeatedly forget about watching Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is that it’s not a British film. The film localizes its perspective so densely with the British prisoners at the POW camp that one forgets that it wasn’t directed by somebody who really understands the British experience from an interior locale. While Oshima certainly doesn’t demonize either side (both the British and the Japanese casts consist of characters whose empathy we as audiences don’t identify with strictly across national lines), a Japanese character (Yonoi) is the closest thing the film has to a conventional villain (though his villainly is revealed to be a result, in part, of sexual repression).
Oshima’s obliteration of nationally distinct identities in a film whose war-based plot is predicated upon such identities is nothing short of an incredible – and, I think, unmatched – accomplishment (eat your heart out, Clint Eastwood). It’s simply one of the strangest and most unique war films I’ve ever seen, reacting against the traditional narrative of the “just war” by ignoring questions of which side is right or wrong and localizing all conflict within the everyday of the camp with hardly a nod to the world beyond it.
However, when we do get a glimpse of what is beyond (or rather what was left beyond), it is in the Celliers character’s flashback to his British boyhood. This vision of Britain’s recent past seems so beautifully absurd, so fantastical, and so tainted by nostalgia that it comes across as having – as well as possessing little interest in having – much at all to do with a “realist” lived British existence.
While I admit to be continually fascinated by David Bowie’s career as an actor, I will also admit that he doesn’t have the greatest degree of range. But this hardly matters as he seems to only choose roles that fit in some interesting way to his existing persona. Bowie the musician, with his constant shifts in the “characters” he played both onstage and in his albums, was ubiquitous yet unknowable: fans were never easily certain whether they were seeing the genuine “Bowie” or an intricate performance, or even if there was any distinction to even be made between the two. This, combined with his two previous major movie roles (as an alien in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and as a dying millennia-old vampire in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (also ’83)) added to Bowie the musician’s existing mystery and otherworldly feel, which in turn informed the never-explained auaratic power surrounding Bowie’s Officer Celliers in this film.
In further emphasizing the transnational/anti-national thematics at play in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Bowie’s performance is paralleled with the presence of the villainous Yonoi, portrayed by Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto (doing double-duty as the film’s composer). In casting two pop stars from two disparate parts of the globe, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence set itself up to be read completely differently by Eastern and Western audiences, each watching the film with the contextual knowledge of the corresponding pop star from their respective corners of the world.
But even though Western viewers like myself may have little understanding of Sakamoto’s music career, the personae of each musician/actor interact in a fascinating way. Just as the mystery of Bowie’s Celliers is predicated on his indefinable music persona, Sakamoto’s character is painted (quite literally) as otherwordly as well because of his expressive Japanese theater-style makeup. I have no idea whether or not Sakamoto’s pop persona contained with it the androgyny of Bowie’s, but when Celliers finally kisses the arguably feminized Yonoi on the cheek, it’s a moment of realization that their androgyny is shared, as if Bowie’s intrinsic homoeroticism is somehow transferred on to Sakamoto with a precarious kiss.
Jeremy Thomas is one of the most impressive and underrated producers of our time. Throughout his career, he’s only produced films that are daring and challenging in both their subject matter and their artistry. Thomas produced some of the most controversial films by Nicholas Roeg, David Cronenberg, Harmony Korine, Terry Gilliam, Takeshi Miike, and Bernardo Bertolucci. He would go on to win an Academy Award for producing Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987, and in an interesting parallel a film that also featured Sakamoto acting and composing). So often we look at producers as simply the source of the money but not the vision, but Thomas is that rare producer whose career has been dedicated to making sure the vision comes to fruition against all obstacles.
Thomas has made a career of working with brilliant idiosyncratic directors on difficult films, which establishes him in my eyes as a true, undervalued artist in his own right. I believe that although a director like Oshima can be an auteur, and a personality like Bowie can bring gravitas, a great producer can also be the nurturing creative force so that such films can see the light of day in the first place. Thomas’ career today is nowhere near over, but if I were in charge of curating retrospectives at some cool movie theater, a Jeremy Thomas tribute would be my first choice, and one of the essential screenings would be Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.