Exoticism and Eroticism in ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’

Forgive me for briefly imagining a spiritual connection between John Lawrence, the titular protagonist of Nagisa Oshima’s chilly Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and T.E. Lawrence, memorably embodied by Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s Cinemascope epic, but I had mixed up my characters. You see, the flaxen-haired, angular-faced O’Toole doesn’t look radically dissimilar to his younger countryman, the protean David Bowie, and the parallels don’t stop there. Both men are cultural interlopers, thousands of miles from Mother Britannia, unsure of their footing in a strange land.

Ah, memory. I first saw Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – or portions of it – in my teens, more years ago than I care to say, on cable, possibly Bravo, and I’d forgotten that the Lawrence of the title is actually played by British stage stalwart Tom Conti, and that David Bowie portrays Major Jack Celliers, a character crucial to the story, but with considerably less screen time. I was fascinated by the explosive opening scene, but the film was far too cerebral for my fresh-out-of-high school mindset, weaned as I was on Entertainment Tonight and Aaron Spelling fluff. It was an intellectual puzzle I couldn’t be bothered to solve.

Fast forward to 2010. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, out on DVD in a pristine, super-luxe Criterion edition — remains a sometimes oblique, though haunting, experience. Set on Java during the Second World War, it’s the English-language debut of Oshima, an enfant terrible of the Japanese New Wave, who has continually explored issues that polite Japanese society would rather ignore. To that end, Oshima assembled an intriguing cast: Conti, Bowie, composer/pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto, the driving force behind Yellow Magic Orchestra, Japan’s answer to England’s countless postpunk electronic bands, and Takeshi Kitano, now renowned as an action director, but at the time a successful comedian in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The film is heavily based on author/activist Laurens Van der Post’s novel The Seed and the Sower, an erstwhile memoir of his days as a POW under Japanese heels in Southeast Asia. Van Der Post had visited Japan years before the war, and spoke the language, quickly gaining the respect of his captors and thus a window into their cultural practices. Van der Post developed some understanding of the Japanese mindset, while remembering that they were aggressors in this cataclysmic conflict. In that sense, he was never an apologist for the Japanese cause, nor did he seek to aid and abet the enemy, as the Arabist T.E. Lawrence did, blowing up rail tracks in an effort to halt his nation’s imperialism. Rather, Van der Post’s cinematic stand-in, Lieutenant Colonel John Lawrence, is a cautious pragmatist realizes he is a prisoner, albeit one enjoying a position of some privilege based on his linguistic skills and his status as an officer, so important to the rigidly hierarchical Japanese.

Conti essays Lawrence as a patient though world-weary, determined to predict what his captors will do, yet also dismayed by their ritualistic displays of violence. In fact, he develops a peculiar friendship with Sergeant Hara(Kitano), a frequently brutal martinet who nonetheless seems more and more to crave introspective conversation as the story unwinds, especially with his philosophical antithesis, Lieutenant Lawrence.

However, Lawrece and hara are only two members of a quartet of opposing forces, it’s Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) and Major Celliers (Bowie) who spark much of the drama, here.

Cellier is a just-captured POW who is quickly brought to the attention of Capt. Yonoi, the commandant of this camp. And, oh, what attention he receives! Yonoi is immediately transfixed by Bowie, almost alien in his alabaster, golden-haired visage. This isn’t, however, the outlandish, otherwordly Bowie fans had come to expect, but rather, an elegantly-coiffed Etonian, as if the Thin White Duke had been cast in “Brideshead Revisited” or joined Spandau Ballet. This is the suit-clad Bowie of the big-band-funk “Let’s Dance”, suddenly a rock icon even Ron and Nancy could admire. If Yonoi, hadn’t wanted his MTV before, he sure hunkered for it now!

There are numerous interpretations for Yonoi’s intense fixation with Celliers, but homoerotic desire seems to be at the core. The film’s Wikipedia entry suggest that Yonoi is not necessarily gay, but instead sense a kindred spirit in Celliers, as both men are struggling internally with a shameful episode in their pasts. That may be true, but Yonnoi’s interest carries an intensity equivalent perhaps to contemporary Japan’s hunger for Western pop culture, and I couldn’t help thinking of the blond-tressed white women who flock to Japan to cadge generous tips serving inebriated businessmen at hostess bars.

Sakamoto himself is a curious physical presence, all hooded eyes, severe cheekbones, and pouty lips, giving him the appearance of a petulant schoolboy, but for his conspicuous makeup, which, as told in the extras package, wasn’t uncommon for Japanese soldiers of that era to daub on; they wanted to appear immaculate at all times, particularly around the ‘barbarian’ Westerners they were guarding. Yonoi’s mush-mouthed English is dramatically appropriate here, as it conveys his emotional deterioration against the increasingly manipulative Celliers, fighting to maintain his haughty composure as his lovetsruck inner child – a female one? – takes control.

This isn’t new territory for Oshima, as anyone who has seen his 1999 Gohatto will know. In that picture, set in feudal Japan, a soft-featured, impossibly pretty young man, with a notably fey demeanor, joins a group of samurai warriors, and chaos quickly ensues. Indeed, erotic obsession, and the arrival of an interloper who causes a sexual disturbance, a twist in the sobriety of an insular clique, are familiar themes in his oeuvre. As such, he might be an excellent choice to helm a story – coming very soon, I expect – about the first openly gay soldier serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Sadly, Oshima’s health has been ravaged by a series of strokes, and future projects are unlikely.

As Jack Celliers, Bowie is reasonably effective in a modest, though crucial role, as a canny prisoner who sizes up his situation, then manipulates it to his advantage. He’s always been a modestly capable actor, who, in the ’80s, was able to leverage his ascending pop stardom to score a few significant parts, but his thespian career never caught fire, and I wonder if his slightly off-kilter looks may have hampered his efforts. Eyes of disparate color and curvaceous English dentifrice are not the makings of a matinee idol. Of course, it may just be that he’s never sought the Hollywood limelight, preferring to concentrate on his often adventurous music. He famously rejected an offer to play Max Zorin, the murderous tycoon in A View To A Kill, and parts became smaller and smaller after that. I suspect that roles in challenging indie fare are more to his taste. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Paul Mayersberg, who wrote The Man Who Fell To Earth, also penned Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

Also cast is Jack Thompson, as the officiously patriotic Major Hicksley. In an argumentative moment, he barks at Conti’s Lawrence, “What school did you go to?”, and it’s just the sort of annoyingly class-conscious bureaucratic question he would utter. Thonpson is the unheralded workhorse of Australian cinema, and works frequently nowadays in America, and can you really name a bad performance he’s delivered?

As with any Criterion release, the extras collectively run far longer than the film, a situation which has its yin and yang, if you’re compelled to watch them. My rule of thumb is: what am I learning form all these gewgaws? In the case of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, quite a bit.

Including interviews, five featurettes are clustered here, the longest being a 55-minute documentary bio of Van der Post, who was both an anti-apartheid Afrikaner and a godfather to one of Queen Elizabeth’s grandchildren, eventually becoming a Commander of The British Empire. Who would have guessed that Robert Redford(!) was considered for Lawrence, that the original screenplay ran nearly 200 pages, or that Oshima rarely shot more than a single take? We also get a deluxe 28-page booklet of print interviews and the de riguer theatrical trailer, apparently a necessary curio for obsessed fans. Whew!

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s primary renown is as a musician, principally the leader of Yellow Magic Orchestra, and his soundtrack for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is rightfully seen as a high point of the production. From lilting elliptical chimes to staccato burst fraught with tension, Sakamoto’s rich palette is an integral component of the action, and not surprisingly, the score is a highly sought-after item.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a certain brand of self-consciously weighty, tragic-romantic drama that once filled American movie screens during Hollywood’s four-month Oscar season, but can now be found only in the Best Foreign Film category. Speaking of which, the movie has been touted as Oshima’s only English-language flick, but it’s actually a bilingual effort, wavering seamlessly between English and Japanese, as does the dramatic exposition.

Yes, it may whet shallow appetites for mystical ‘Far East’ intrigue, as covert libidinous desires encouraged the tiki bar craze of the postwar era, but its story is more substantive than that. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence tackles thorny questions about national loyalty, military duty, male camaraderie, and sacrifice. It demands rapt attention, lest one get lost in the murk – Oshima has stated that he’s disinterested in making a film that can be comprehended in the beginning 15-minutes – but gathers emotional steam as it nears the climax. It’ not a “guy” movie, as defined in Michael Kimmel’s non-fiction tome Guyland, but it offers a devastating dissection of the masculine psyche that watchers of Jackass could never face.

RATING 7 / 10