Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Directed by Nagisa Oshima
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 123 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround English/Japanese
MSRP: $ 29.99
Release Date: September 28, 2010
Review Date: September 22, 2010
In so many of his films, master Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima explored in depth the various social and political structures of established Japanese values. In Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, he not only puts Japanese values under the microscope but he contrasts them with Western values in a setting where they are constantly at odds. In fashioning this sociological psychodrama of East versus West, he must deal with a story of such complex psychosexual depth that the cinema of the time simply wouldn’t have allowed its exploration, that is, if one was hoping for a box-office success. Seen today, the film raises interesting issues and offers some wonderful performances, but it seems incomplete, inevitably unrealized and unfocused in its way and ultimately a bit unsatisfying.
In the middle of World War II, a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia contains a large squadron of Allied forces who have Hicksley (Jack Thompson) as their officer in charge and Lawrence (Tom Conti) as a kind of liaison officer to the Japanese since he speaks the language. Into the camp comes the captured Major Celliers (David Bowie) whose presence has the camp commandant Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) bewitched, almost to the point of inaction since he seems mesmerized by the striking looking British officer. Camp sergeant Hara (Takeshi) has no such problems dishing out punishment and relishing the daily beatings he gets to administer, but Yonoi’s fascination with Celliers tests his effectiveness as the man in charge of the camp.
With the homoeroticism implicit between the two soldiers, both of whom are struggling with the differences in their cultures between guilt (which Celliers feels revealed in a couple of lengthy flashback episodes) and shame (which Yonoi feels in not carrying out fully the demands of his rank, which would generally lead to ritual seppuku), Oshima and his co-scenarist Paul Mayersberg simply don’t give any time to examining Yonoi’s fatal attraction, as it were. In fact, it’s quite possible the implication might have even flown over the heads of audiences at the time viewing the movie because the filmmakers tippy-toe around the issue instead of meeting it head-on. There’s certainly plenty of talk about the "queers" in the Allied army by Hara in the opening scenes as a Dutch prisoner who was raped by a Japanese officer denies any interest in same sex encounters (and the officer, of course, attempts hara-kiri after being caught). The debate of the Eastern and Western mentalities over being caught and locked in POW camps gets a firmer and more thorough discussion which gives the film its most interesting points to ponder. Less interesting, certainly, are the flashback interludes with Celliers and his humpbacked younger brother (James Malcolm) which, while fascinatingly filmed, seem less dramatic and meaningful than they needed to be for the magnitude of substance they’re supposed to represent. Oshima films them with nostalgic gentility at first and then with a rather raw distance thus lessening the impact of the scenes considerably.
With two rock stars (David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto) carrying the central dramatic weight of the film, it’s no wonder that it also seems a bit of a dramatic lightweight when they are doing the heavy lifting. Both men make striking visual impressions, but their inexperience of acting before the camera makes their roles less significant than those played by Tom Conti (who’s simply superb in the movie) and Takeshi, a Japanese comedian who brings real weight and power to his moments in the spotlight. Their coda sequence is especially emotional and memorable. Jack Thompson also adds flavor and heft to his role as company leader though his part might have been expanded with some benefit to the film.
The film has been framed at 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Image quality is very erratic in the movie with some sequences quite striking with excellent sharpness and vivid color and other scenes (especially those in lower light) looking murky and a bit digital and unappealing. Black levels are all right but nothing special. The subtitles, which are usually white but sometimes yellow, are easy to read. The film has been divided into 18 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround track is very loud, so a volume adjustment seems advisable. Ryuichi Sakamoto, who plays Yonoi in the film, also wrote the score, his first for a movie, and his haunting title theme gets prominent placement through the soundstage at several points during the movie. Dialogue is well recorded and placed in the center channel, but the track does occasionally display some low level hum and thumps during some quiet scenes.
The theatrical trailer is on disc one and is presented in 4:3 running 3 ¼ minutes.
The remainder of the bonus features are contained on the second disc in the set.
“The Oshima Gang” is a 1983 behind-the-scenes documentary shot at the time of the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Featuring interviews with David Bowie, Tom Conti, and director Nagisa Oshima, the 4:3 feature runs 29 ½ minutes.
“On the Screenplay” is a 2010 interview with co-screenwriter Paul Mayersberg discussing how he got the job and how the script veered away from the original novel by Laurens van der Post. The 28-minute featurette is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
“On Location” features interviews conducted in 2010 with co-stars Tom Conti and Ryuichi Sakamoto and producer Jeremy Thomas about their experiences working on the movie. The anamorphic widescreen feature runs 40 minutes.
“On the Music” is another interview with Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, this time talking about how he approached working on his first movie score. It runs 18 ¼ minutes in anamorphic widescreen.
Hasten Slowly is a fascinating 1996 documentary on original author Laurens van der Post as he discusses his life and career including some detailed information about his lengthy period in the prisoner of war camp and his later career as a journalist and social activist. It runs 55 ½ minutes in 4:3.
The enclosed 29-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, some excellent color stills from the film, an analytical piece on the movie by educator Chuck Stephens, an interview with Oshima conducted in 1983 by film scholar Tadao Sato, and a 2010 interview with Takeshi Kitano about working with the legendary director.
3.5/5 (not an average)
An interesting if flawed sociological drama on the culture clashes between the East and West during wartime, Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is still worth seeing, and the generous selection of fascinating bonus interviews and documentaries give this package special added value.